Charles Dickens: Profile of a Court Reporter

Did you know renowned author Charles Dickens was a parliamentary court reporter? He mentions the profession in David Copperfield, where he states that learning the “noble art and mystery of stenography” plunged him “into a sea of perplexity.”

Charles Dickens’ mother, Elizabeth, initially arranged for him to work as an office boy at the Ellis & Blackmore law firm located in Gray’s Inn, London. In 1828 he went to work for another solicitor, Charles Molloy, in Chancery Lane. Dickens notoriously disliked legal work, however, and soon purchased a copy of “Gurney’s Brachgraphy” to teach himself shorthand. Later he worked for his brother-in-law John Barrow’s newspaper, The Mirror of Parliament. Barrow’s intention was to offer a complete record of what went on at the House of Commons. Dickens spent days at the British Museum reading history books, and afternoons and evenings reporting on the events in Parliament, including recording debates on issues such as parliamentary reform, abolition of the slave trade, and legislation to protect factory workers. These experiences obviously informed his writing. Dickens considered most politicians to be “pompous” and remarked they seemed to spend most of their time speaking “sentences with no meaning in them.”

Reporters were consigned to the back bench of the Strangers’ Gallery, where it was hard to hear what was taking place on the floor of the chamber. A fellow reporter claimed: “It was dark: always so insufficiently lit that on the back benches no one could read a paper, so ill-ventilated that few constitutions could bear the unwholesome atmosphere.” Dickens wrote about his experiences: “I have had to charge for the damage of a great-coat from the drippings of a blazing wax-candle, in writing through the smallest hours of the night in a swift-flying carriage… for all sorts of breakages… I have charged for broken hats, broken luggage, broken chaises, broken harness- everything but a broken head, which is the only thing they would have grumbled to pay for.”

In August 1834, Dickens was offered a permanent job by The Morning Chronicle on a salary of five guineas a week. Dickens was one of twelve parliamentary shorthand reporters employed by the paper. He later wrote about reporting on speeches made by politicians outside of London: “I have often transcribed for the printer from my shorthand reporters, important public speeches in which the strictest accuracy was required… writing on the palm of my hand, by the light of a dark lantern, in a post chaise and four, galloping through a wild country, all though the dead of night.” Dickens had a reputation for speed and accuracy in recording debates, a well-paid but exhausting job. Charles Mackay, a colleague at The Morning Chronicle, wrote that Dickens “had the reputation of being the most rapid, the most accurate, and the most trustworthy reporter then engaged on the London press.”

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