Feature of the Month: Byrom's Shorthand

The Universal English Short-Hand, or, The Way of Writing English, in the Most Easy, Concise, Regular, and Beautiful Manner
John Byrom
Manchester: J. Harrop, 1767
[C.S.C.] 1767 [Byrom] SR (Box 3)


A shorthand manual might not seem an obvious landmark publication. Yet at a time when shorthand was appreciated as a means both of speedy note-taking and of secret writing, that is precisely what John Byrom’s Universal English Short-Hand, published 300 years ago this year, was.

Shorthand had originated with the ancient Greeks and Romans, and various systems of English shorthand had been devised before Byrom’s, beginning with Timothie Bright’s Characterie (1588) and (for a system including an alphabet) John Willis’s The Art of Stenographie (1602). As Byrom’s anonymous editor explains in his preface, John Sharp, Archbishop of York, had advised his son Thomas to learn shorthand as a student at Trinity College Cambridge. A friend of Thomas, Byrom examined all existing methods with him and found them defective, with the problems being, in Byrom’s words:

First, that they are ugly; Secondly, that they are arbitrary—Qualities so directly opposite to the main Things required, viz. Beauty, Brevity, and Method, that we must by all means endeavour to avoid both. (p. 4).

Byrom therefore devised his own system, based, as his editor says, ‘upon a more natural, rational, and philosophical plan’ (p. ii). After his marriage in 1721, Byrom needed to earn a living, and did so by teaching shorthand in Oxford, Cambridge and London until in 1741 the death of his older brother provided him with an income and relieved his pecuniary need; this did not, however, extinguish his interest. He patented his system. In 1749 he printed fifty copies for the use of private friends and favourite pupils, but the entire system did not appear in print until four years after his death because earlier promulgation would have deprived him of financial support gained from public tuition. After Byrom had died, friends feared that the lack of publication would lead to the loss or garbling of the system.

Byrom’s method was extremely successful. Adherents included clergy, Heads of Cambridge Colleges, Members of Parliament, and aristocrats: among others, Horace Walpole, Charles and John Wesley, and Martin Folkes and the Scottish astronomer James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton, both Presidents of the Royal Society. ‘The superiority of Mr. Byrom’s Method over every other that has been laid before the Public is very apparent’, wrote Thomas Molineaux in his introduction to the system, while an entry in Abraham Rees’s Cyclopedia reads: ‘Mr. Byrom has completely succeeded in the invention and establishment of his System … For beauty, legibility, and the greatest possible uniformity in writing, it stands unrivalled’. Most poetic is William Gawtress’s encomium in A Practical Introduction to the Science of Short Hand (Leeds, 1819):

The publication of Dr. Byrom’s work, in 1767 … forms a new era in the history of Short Hand. The art now assumed a totally different appearance. He had given symmetry and beauty to the hitherto shapeless mass, and it sprang forth, at the touch of his genius, like a beautiful figure from a block of marble, under the hands of a skilful statuary. “It was not”, says Mr. Lewis, “till the circulation of this book had improved the national taste, and corrected the erroneous ideas which had been generally formed respecting it, that Short Hand assumed the precision, the elegance, and the systematic construction of which it is capable.”

This copy was a gift from Byrom’s widow Elizabeth to Ralph Leycester, a member of one of the oldest gentry families in north Cheshire. It was given to Senate House Library by the shorthand bibliographer William J. Carlton as part of the Carlton Shorthand Collection, one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive shorthand collections.

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