Henry Dickens

Listen to Dominic Gerrard read Henry's reminiscences of shorthand lessons with his father.

An oval black and white photograph on a plain background of the head and shoulders of a young man. He gazes straight at the camera. His wavy hair is neatly brushed up and away from his face. He is dressed in a white shirt, dark tie and dark blazer with a floral decoration in his left lapel.

Carte-de-visite of Henry Fielding Dickens (1849-1933), the eighth of Charles Dickens's ten children. Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum, London.

Dickens’s last known pupil was his son, Henry Fielding Dickens (1849-1933), whom he taught in the mid-1860s, around the time when Henry went up to Cambridge to study Law. Henry remembers his father’s lessons as very entertaining:

These lessons were great fun, though I found it was by no means an easy science to learn […] To take down a speech quickly and correctly you must have all your faculties in perfect order, and that is where I experienced a special difficulty in my own case. This arose from the kind of speeches which my father delivered for me to practise on, speeches which shortly reduced my mind to a state of wild confusion. They were of the character you would expect from a street tub orator or from a speaker on the hustings or a parody of orations in the House of Commons. These soon reduced me almost to a state of collapse in consequence of the laughter which followed on them; and when I say laughter, I mean laughter on the part of both of us. For he himself, tickled by the ridiculous nature of his own fancies, gave way to fits of laughter only equalled by wild bursts on my part. This part of my training was most amusing, but was not productive of much progress […].[1]

Henry kept an important notebook record of his father’s lessons: 6 pages of transcribed shorthand characters in Dickens's hand. After his father’s death, Henry had the pages mounted separately and enclosed in sealed frames. In 1924, they were considered too valuable to be shipped to a shorthand conference as an exhibit, so a typescript copy of the originals was made up and sent in their place. This copy is currently among the Carlton papers at the Charles Dickens Museum.

A framed page. Handwritten in ink a narrow column of twenty Brachygraphy shorthand characters to the left. The meanings of the characters are written in English to the right. Brachygraphy characters in pencil appear faintly after some of the English words.

A page of transcribed shorthand characters in Dickens's hand, which belonged to Henry Fielding Dickens. © Sophie Dickens.

What happened to the original manuscript pages of shorthand is another stenographic mystery. They were acquired by Comte Alain de Suzannet (1882-1950), a French scholar and bibliophile, who compiled a great Dickens Collection from 1912 until his death in 1950. Two of the leaves were bought at auction in 1971 by Dickens’s great grandson and bequeathed to his daughters, Lucy and Sophie. However, the remaining four leaves are missing. It is likely that they were removed from their glass cases in order to be sold as separate items at the 1971 auction, where they were acquired by unknown buyers. Lucy and Sophie Dickens’s two pages of shorthand are the last surviving fragments of Dickens’s stenographic output and it seems particularly apt that evidence of a skill that he wished to pass on to his children has remained in his family.

The fact that Henry was the last of Dickens’s shorthand pupils helps us to reconstruct the chronology of Dickens’s shorthand notebooks and to trace the development of his stenographic thinking – from the early Manchester notebook to Arthur Stone’s notes in 1859-1860 to Henry’s notebook from the mid-1860s. Like the Manchester notebook, Henry’s six pages confirm that Dickens was not teaching the whole Brachygraphy manual, but picking out the symbols that he wanted his students to learn, inventing new ones or altering them in novel ways to make the learning process easier.

Overall, the evidence from Dickens’s correspondence and shorthand notebooks suggests that as a shorthand teacher he was more Mell than M’Choakumchild: someone who ‘took […] pains’[2] with his pupils, correcting them where necessary and encouraging their progress, despite his own substantial workload. Dickens also sought to inject imagination and fun into his teaching practice, and, as Henry’s recollection suggests, enjoyed the theatrical opportunities that the role offered. Among the examples in the Manchester notebook is a telling shorthand sentence that demonstrates the use of spelt and arbitrary words: ‘Thr ws ons a boy and he said to his master, shall I have a good character from you’.[3] The wryness of this particular example is both playful and encouraging.

A page from Dickens's shorthand notebook, featuring phrases written in Brachygraphy shorthand. The examples demonstrate the use of spelt and arbitrary characters, with the latter underlined in the accompanying English transcriptions. Courtesy of the John Rylands Research Institute and Library, University of Manchester.


[1] Henry Dickens, The Recollections of Sir Henry Dickens, K.C. (London: Heinemann, 1934), 42-43.

[2] Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, edited by Jeremy Tambling (London: Penguin, 2004), 113.

[3] ‘Part 6. Examples’, Manuscript Shorthand Book (English MS 725), John Rylands Library, 11r. <https://www.digitalcollections.manchester.ac.uk/view/MS-ENGLISH-00725/21>.