Shorthand, A New Legal Tool in the mid-1800s

Shorthand was first used in the civil courts of Montreal  by Mr. M. Hutchinson of the law firm Macmaster, Hutchinson & Weir, according to an 1883 letter in the archives of the Atwater Library and Computer Centre.

The letter, from James Henry Browning of Carter & Carter, Advocates, 131 St. James Street, is dated 9 June 1883 and is addressed to John Harper, Esq., Chairman of Lecture and Class Committee, Mechanics Hall.  Mr. Browning, who had taught a course in shorthand at the Mechanics’ Institute, suggests that Mr. Hutchinson be one of the course examiners because he was “the first to ply the vocation of Shorthand Writing in the Civil Courts of this district.”

Shorthand, or phonography as it was called in earlier years, was first taught at the Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal in 1846, using the system developed by Isaac Pitman in England in 1837.

Pitman’s system had quickly become the most popular of those developed during the first part of the 18th century in England from much earlier systems, all of which had recorded sounds rather than letters.  The use of phonography was accelerated in the early 19th century when it became legal to report House of Commons proceedings, an advance that happened at about the same time as improved printing presses allowed for the rapid circulation of newspapers.

Among those who had mastered a form of phonography was Charles Dickens who, prior to becoming an idolized writer had, at the age of 18, followed in his father’s footsteps and become highly skilled in the art.  This allowed him, like his father before him, to gain admittance as a reporter to the gallery of the House of Commons in 1831.  Dickens visited Montreal in 1842 while on a North American speaking tour, and just four years later those first phonography courses were offered in the city.

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