Parliamentary reporter

'I went into the gallery of the House of Commons as a Parliamentary reporter when I was a boy not eighteen...'[1]

In 1831, Dickens left the law courts, joined the staff of The Mirror of Parliament, and began his reporting career in the press gallery of Parliament at 15 guineas a week. Only a third of the gallery reporters knew shorthand, so Dickens’s stenographic skills, which were admired by many of his contemporaries, would have made him part of a select minority and were responsible for the ‘splash’ that his biographer John Forster (1812-1876) claims that he made there.[2] The gallery was a very different working environment from the law courts. House of Commons sittings usually began at 5 pm, and could go on until the early hours, so Dickens would have done one or two intense 45-minute shifts of shorthand note-taking every evening and then taken the long walk home to transcribe into longhand, which would have taken a further 6 hours or so.

Shorthand reporting from the gallery was not just a strenuous sequence of long hours and late nights. It was also uncomfortable:

Listen to Dominic Gerrard read the passage in which Dickens recalls his time as a parliamentary reporter.

I have worn my knees by writing on them on the old back row of the old gallery of the old House of Commons; and I have worn my feet by standing to write in a preposterous pen in the old House of Lords, where we used to be huddled together like so many sheep [...] kept in waiting, say, until the woolsack might want re-stuffing.[3]

It was a fascinating time to be reporting from Parliament. The key political issues of the early 1830s included parliamentary reform, Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery in the colonies, and the Poor Law – all subjects which provided material for his novels and shaped Dickens’s scepticism about Parliament.[4] As David Copperfield puts it:

Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify. I wallow in words.[5]


[1] Charles Dickens, ‘Speech to the Newspaper Press Fund, 20 May 1865’ in The Speeches of Charles Dickens, edited by K. J. Fielding (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), 346-47.

[2] John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, edited by J. W. T. Ley (London: Cecil Palmer, 1928), 60.

[3] Dickens, ‘Speech to the Newspaper Press Fund, 20 May 1865’, 347.

[4] See chapter five of Nikki Hessell, Literary Authors, Parliamentary Reporters: Johnson, Coleridge, Hazlitt, Dickens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) for a fuller account of Dickens’s parliamentary reporting.

[5] Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, edited by Jeremy Tambling (London: Penguin, 2004), 632.

Section Two: Professional Shorthand
Parliamentary reporter