Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Thomas Gurney (1705-1770) 1760c.

 English School 

Portrait of Thomas Gurney (1705-1770),  English School
Oil on canvas
30 x 25 inches 76.3 x 63.5 cm
Thomas Gurney was born into a large family at Woburn, Bedfordshire. Working variously as a farmer, teacher and clock-maker (the latter of which provided a steady income throughout his life), he had come across an edition of William Mason's ''Shorthand'' in his early teens and began to develop his own system of ''brachygraphy'' thereafter. Gurney moved to London in 1737 and was appointed short-hand writer at the Old Bailey by 1748, having worked there for some years in an unofficial capacity - this was the first known appointment of a shorthand writer in England or in any other country. The first edition of his Brachygraphy, or Swift Writing made Easy to the Meanest Capacity was published on October 16th 1750, after which numerous improvements were made, with seven editions being printed over the following twelve years and each book numbered and signed to prevent piracy.

A passage from the postscript to Gurney's fourth edition justifies his authority in the medium and provides important biographical information:

''I might here urge my long practice in the Art from the year 1721, and my attending, by permission, the Honourable Court at the Old Bailey, from the year 1748: Also, all the Courts of Justice in the cities of London and Westminster; Admiralty Courts, Courts-Marshal and Trials in Divers Parts of the kingdom. I might add my Attendance in the Honourable House of Commons. Surely it connot be denied, but, that in the Course of my Practice in such a variety of cases, I have had an opportunity to prepare this my method for publick usefulness'' (1).

One can thus ascertain that he was the first short-hand practitioner in Parliament, to be followed both by his eldest son, Joseph (whose reading in the Commons from notes on the Warren Hastings trial of 1789 was the first incident to test shorthand's verbal accuracy) and grandson William. Gurney had shaped his style for political and legal legislature to the extent that ''nearly all the evidence printed in the Blue-books has been reported by its aid'' (2), and in 1833 Thomas Parker published ''The Parliamentary System of Shorthand'' from Gurney''s ''original plans''. William Gurney was employed in an official capacity both to the Commons and the Lords in 1813, and the family legacy continued there until at least the late 19th Century, by which time the system was fully established as a government and parliamentary standard.

Gurney's system gave shorthand its important role (before the introduction of sound recording equipment) as a trustworthy means of recording public proceedings. Both he and his son Joseph sold large quantities of uncondensed pamphlets recording trials that were inadequately reported in the press - the first instance came on his publishing Eliazabeth Canning''s murder trial in 1754, and in 1776 he was commissioned by the House of Lords to report on the trials of the Duchess of Kingston. The model was employed during his lifetime by colonial government at Melbourne, Sydney and the Cape, and Sir Henry Cavendish further used it to record forty eight quarto volumes on the debates of the ''Unreported Parliament'' of 1768-74.

1)''Brachygraphy'', 4th ed. (published 1760) pg.50
2)''Gurney''s Shorthand'' 18th ed. (published 1884) pg.6
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