Court reporter

In the first phase of law reporting, Dickens worked on commission and mostly at the London ecclesiastical courts known as ‘Doctors’ Commons’, an eccentric establishment which Dickens would later memorably describe in David Copperfield as a ‘cosey, dosey, old-fashioned, time-forgotten, sleepy-headed little family-party’ which had ‘an ancient monopoly in suits about people’s wills and people’s marriages, and disputes among ships and boats’.[1]

In the 1831 Law List, Dickens is listed as a ‘Short-hand Writer’ working from ‘5 Bell Yard’, whose main tenant was the proctor Charles Fenton. In 1830, Fenton commissioned Dickens to report a case of ‘brawling in church’ (Jarman v. Bagster), which Dickens would famously satirise in his sketch ‘Doctors’ Commons’ from Sketches by Boz (1833-36). Dickens was also seen reporting at the Lord Chancellor’s Court (Chancery) and the Old Bailey Criminal Court, both of which would feature prominently in his novels.

Dickens's sensitivity to the key role of the shorthand writer in the reporting of legal cases is also shown in the Tavistock letter, which was transcribed from Dickens's shorthand by the Dickens Decoders. While praising a High Court decision in his favour, Dickens writes 'As to its fairness, it is signed by Romilly in open court and is taken from the short hand writer's notes of a judgement of his.' It was a wonderful surprise for the decoders to find the word 'shorthand' written in shorthand!

Dickens's Gurney symbols for the word 'shorthand', from Dickens's Tavistock letter. © The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 107.43. Hover over the image to see what each shape stands for.


[1] Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, edited by Jeremy Tambling (London: Penguin, 2004), 361, 352.