One Man’s Trash...

Wednesday, 20 July 1881 - Birmingham, England

Birmingham and Midlands Institute on Paradise Street
Today I visited the Birmingham and Midlands Institute on Paradise Street next to the Town Hall. Founded in 1854 by an Act of Parliament “for the Diffusion and Advancement of Science, Literature and Art amongst all Classes of Persons resident in Birmingham and the Midland Counties.” The Institute is a pioneer in adult scientific and technical education, offering classes from industry to music. They also give free lectures to the public.

Issac Pitman
This evening I attended a lecture on Phonography, both what it is and the career opportunities available. Phonography is a shorthand system invented by Isaac Pitman, improving on Samuel Taylor’s shorthand. Pitman wrote several books on the subject, starting with Stenographic Soundhand (1837) and Phonography (1840.) It was quickly adopted by newspaper reporters. In the days before microphones and cameras, this was the only way to record a speech. Pitman was finally knighted in 1894 for his important innovation.

Our speaker was one of the foremost authorities on the subject of Phonography, Marie Bethell Beauclerc. She told the audience her story, not to brag, but to point out that anyone can learn this system. Born 1845, Miss Beaucler had to quit school at nine due to family finances (her father had died a few years before.) Despite her scant formal education, she had already gotten proficient enough in reading and writing to continue her studies on her own.

Pitman's Phonography
At the age of twelve, she discovered a copy of one of Pitman’s books Phonographic Teacher in the trash. It was a treasure that would change her life. She studied it as best she could. Some things needed more explanation, though. She got that two of years later while visiting relatives in Bath for a couple of weeks. Her older cousin was training to be a Phonographer, and helped her. On her return home she poured herself into her studies, with no one available to aid her but a member of the Phonetic Society who corrected her exercises through the mail.

When Beauclerc was eighteen she got her first job. She was hired by a Mr A. H. Hagarty, to record his lectures on phrenology while in Birmingham. Soon she received other offers from ministers and lecturers to record their presentations. Victorians love reading lectures and sermons, but many public speakers are more articulate when talking and horrid when trying to write it down. Word got around about this young woman’s talents. In 1871 the Birmingham Morning News hired her as a shorthand reporter, making Beauclerc England’s first woman reporter. (Yes, I know Jessie White Mario beat her, but she was a freelance journalist.)

Marie Bethell Beauclerc
Beauclerc also began teaching Phonography and later typewriting classes, first out of her home and at her church. Partly it was for income, but mostly to share her passion with others. In 1874 when the suburb of Perry Barr opened an institute, they appointed her teacher of Phonography for the eighteen years the Perry Barr Institute lasted. So many other local schools and colleges asked her to teach that she was unable to take all the job offers, but took what she could manage. However in 1876 when the prestigious Birmingham and Midlands Institute invited her to teach, how could she say no? However this is not her only current teaching job. She also works in what dictation jobs she can. The woman is a ball of energy.

The majority of the audience tonight were men. Most stenographers and typists are currently male. However I noticed the young women in the audience were all sitting on the edge of their seats. If Birmingham’s leading phonographer was a woman, why couldn’t they learn it and get a better job than domestic service? Indeed by the twentieth century most stenographers and typists will be women, and historians credit Miss Beauclerc as being instrumental in that.

Seven years from now, Miss Beauclerc will be appointed teacher of shorthand at the prestigious Rugby School. Not only will she be the first shorthand teacher in an English public school, she will be the first female instructor in an English boys' public school! Sadly in 1892 she will be forced into retirement due to illness. She will pass away in 1897 at the tender age of fifty-two. Still that’s sixteen years in the future. Right now she was very much alive as she spoke to us of her chosen occupation.

The Victorian Age was the time when women started making strides in equality. Most of these pioneers are being met with hostility and have to fight their way into their chosen profession. And a lucky few are just so amazingly proficient at what they do that only a fool would ignore them. Marie Bethell Beauclerc is one of these masters--or should I say--mistresses of their art.

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