Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gurney, Thomas
GURNEY, THOMAS (1705–1770), shorthand-writer, was born at Woburn, Bedfordshire, on 7 March 1705. His father, John, though of an ancient family (his descent is traced in the ‘Record of the House of Gournay’), belonged to the yeoman class, and was a substantial miller with a large family. Thomas was intended for a farmer, but his inclination for books and mechanics was so decided, that when put to farming the lad twice ran away. He then learned clockmaking, and soon afterwards became a schoolmaster at Newport Pagnell and Luton. His connection with shorthand was brought about accidentally. In order to obtain a work on astrology, about which he had a boyish curiosity, he purchased at a sale a lot containing an edition of William Mason's ‘Shorthand,’ which he studied to such purpose that at the age of sixteen he began to take down sermons. His notebook of 1722–3 is still preserved, and shows that at that time he used Mason's system with very little alteration. In 1737 he came to London, and was soon afterwards appointed shorthand-writer at the Old Bailey. The date of the appointment, according to his grandson, William Brodie Gurney, and most shorthand historians, was 1737, and this date corresponds with the length of time during which he is said to have practised at the Old Bailey. Gurney himself, however, in the postscript to the fourth edition of ‘Brachygraphy,’ gives the date 1748. He may have originally practised without an appointment, or may have held a subordinate post for the first ten years. Whichever date be correct, it was undoubtedly the first official appointment of a shorthand-writer known in this or any other country, although there had been isolated instances of the use of shorthand for official purposes. Gurney also practised in ‘all the Courts of Justice in the Cities of London and Westminster, Admiralty Courts, Courts-Martial, and trials in divers parts of the Kingdom’ and ‘in the Honorable House of Commons’ (postscript to 4th edit. of Brachygraphy).
In 1749 Gurney was carrying on business as a clockmaker in Bennett Street, near Christ Church, Blackfriars Road, London, at the same time as he was teaching shorthand at the Last and Sugar-loaf, Water Lane, Blackfriars. On 16 Oct. 1750 he published his system under the title of ‘Brachygraphy, or Swift Writing made Easy to the Meanest Capacity. The whole is founded on so just a plan, that it is wrote with greater expedition than any yet invented, and likewise may be read with the greatest ease. Improv'd after upwards of thirty years' practice and experience,’ London, 12mo, thirty-four engraved pages. The price of subscription was 2s. 6d. on application, and 5s. on delivery. One of the early learners of the system was Erasmus Darwin [q. v.], who contributed some commendatory verses to the second edition, published in 1752. The profession of shorthand-writer or teacher yielded at that time a slender income, and Gurney was glad to continue his business as a clockmaker, and to supplement his income by designing patterns for calico-printing for one of his friends who was a manufacturer. He held his appointment at the Old Bailey till his death on 22 June 1770. He is said to have been a shrewd, humorous, well-informed man, who could do many things well, and a good oil-painting of him, which still exists, confirms this tradition. He married in 1730 Martha, daughter of Thomas Marsom of Luton, Bedfordshire, who was often imprisoned (once with John Bunyan whose friend he was) for attending ‘unlawful assemblies or conventicles.’
Gurney's son, Joseph Gurney (1744–1815), was his assistant and successor as a shorthand-writer both in courts of law and parliament. He edited the ninth edition of Thomas Gurney's ‘Brachygraphy’ in 1778, and printed numerous reports of great contemporary trials from his official shorthand notes. He was employed officially after 1790 to report civil cases in courts of law. In 1786 he attended as a reporter some slave-trade inquiries in the House of Lords. In May 1789 the House of Commons called upon him to read from his notes of the Warren Hastings trial Burke's words accusing Sir Elijah Impey of murder, whereupon a vote of censure on Burke was passed. This incident is the first public acknowledgment of the verbal accuracy of shorthand. In 1791 the House of Commons first availed itself of shorthand for reporting the proceedings of one of its committees on the Eau-Brink Drainage Bill. In the same year Joseph Gurney took notes of six election petition committees. In 1802 an act was passed, upon information furnished by Joseph Gurney's younger son, William Brodie Gurney [q. v.], authorising the regular use of shorthand in election committees; and in the following year, a select committee of the House of Commons having reported that great public convenience and economy had resulted from the use of shorthand, it was generally applied to other committees. Gurney married a daughter of William Brodie of Mansfield. Two of his sons, Sir John Gurney, baron of the exchequer, and William Brodie Gurney, appointed in 1813 shorthand writer to the houses of parliament, are separately noticed.
Thomas Gurney's improvements on Mason's stenography, which fitted shorthand for practical purposes, not only consisted, as Gurney's rival, Weston, said, ‘in the alteration of the characters for some of the letters, prepositions, and terminations,’ but also in the general expression of initial vowels, and in the omission of nearly the whole of Mason's unwieldy mass of arbitrary characters, ‘symbolism,’ and shortening rules. Gurney's ‘Brachygraphy’ immediately came into practical use, and, with subsequent modifications, has remained one of the chief systems employed by professional shorthand-writers. Seven editions of ‘Brachygraphy’ appeared in Thomas Gurney's lifetime, and in all of these the indebtedness to Mason is distinctly acknowledged. In the ninth edition (1778) Joseph Gurney claimed to have brought the system ‘still nearer to perfection,’ and he dedicated the work, by permission, to the king. In 1777 a dictionary of the system was published in London, and ‘Brachygraphy’ itself was reprinted at Philadelphia in 1789. After 1778 successive editions of ‘Brachygraphy’ appeared in London, with no alterations. In the seventeenth edition (1869) the plates were still the same as in the ninth, and the same engraved portrait of Thomas Gurney was reproduced on the title-page. The work has lately been completely remodelled by Mr. W. H. Gurney Salter, shorthand-writer to both houses of parliament, and published under the title of ‘A Text-book of the Gurney System of Shorthand,’ 18th edit., London, 1884, 8vo. The system is also accurately presented in all its essential features in Charles John Green's ‘Brachygraphy,’ 1824, and in Thompson Cooper's ‘Parliamentary Shorthand,’ 1858. In this country the Gurney system has been the means of doing the greater part of the official reporting for parliament and the government, most of the evidence in the blue-books having been taken down in it by the Gurneys and their staff. It has also held a high position both in the reporters' gallery and in the courts of law, while in the colonies it has for many years been the system used by the government shorthand writers at Melbourne, and formerly also at Sydney, and occasionally at the Cape. By means of this system Sir Henry Cavendish [q. v.] recorded the debates of the so-called ‘Unreported Parliament’ of 1768–74.
By publishing their reports of state trials and other causes célèbres in the latter part of the last century Thomas and Joseph Gurney helped to give shorthand its existing importance as a trustworthy means of recording public proceedings. In the absence of any adequate notice of trials in the newspapers, the pamphlets and volumes brought out by the Gurneys sold largely. These reports were uncondensed, the evidence being given in the form of question and answer, and the speeches verbatim. The first was the trial of Elizabeth Canning for murder in 1754, reported and published by Thomas Gurney. Between 1775 and 1796 Joseph Gurney brought out thirteen like publications in folio, eight in quarto and seven in octavo, some being in two and others in four volumes. Among these reports were those of the trials of the Duchess of Kingston, ‘imprinted under an Order of the House of Lords’ in 1776, of Lord George Gordon in 1781 and 1787, of Tom Paine in 1792, of Thomas Hardy in 1794, and of Horne Tooke in 1795. Joseph Gurney likewise reported the whole of the proceedings against Warren Hastings from 1787 to 1794 on behalf of the managers of the House of Commons (Speeches in the Trial of Warren Hastings, 1860). The reporting of state trials was continued by William Brodie Gurney and his successors [see under Gurney, William Brodie and Joseph, (1804–1879)]. Howell's ‘State Trials,’ the reports of the proceedings under the Libel Acts, and the published speeches of Erskine and Brougham, are largely founded upon the notes of the Gurneys.[Private information; Anderson's Catechism of Shorthand; Bromley's Engraved Portraits, 404; Evans's Engraved Portraits, No. 16669; Gent. Mag. xl. 280; Dr. J. Westby-Gibson's Bibliography of Shorthand; Gurney's Record of the House of Gournay, p. 533; Levy's Hist. of Shorthand; Lewis's Hist. of Shorthand; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. viii. 589, 2nd ser. iii. 254, 6th ser. ii. 81, iv. 212; Rockwell's Literature of Shorthand; Shorthand (magazine), ii. 11; Transactions of the International Shorthand Congress, 1887; Zeibig's Geschichte der Geschwindschreibkunst.]