Can you read this World War I-era shorthand?

Curators at the York Castle Museum were cleaning out the stores to make room for an upcoming exhibition when they stumbled on boxes of previously unknown archival material from the First World War. Two diaries written entirely in shorthand caught their eye. A card found with them identified the diaries as records of the Palestine Campaign in 1917-1918, written by Wass Reader of the 1st East Riding Yeomanry C Squadron.

Nobody at the museum is able to read this particular shorthand and they’re appealing to the public for any insight.

“We don’t know what kind of shorthand it uses – it could be a military style – so we would love to hear from people with expertise in military shorthand. The name Wass Reader is very unusual, so if anyone recognises that name we would like to hear from them as well,” [assistant curator of history] Katie [Brown] added.

Like so many other museums in the UK, the York Castle Museum will be marking the centenary of the beginning of World War I with an exhibition dedicated to the conflict. 1914: When the world changed forever opens on June 28th, the hundredth anniversary of the day Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir presumptive to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo. The exhibition won’t focus solely on the war, but on its societal context, on the rapidly changing world of the turn of the century.

Curators are keen to include the newly discovered diaries, but they know nothing about them beyond what was written on that card.

Katie added: “It’s frustrating because we don’t know even really know when we acquired the diaries. We want to know whether this is a record of someone’s personal opinions on the war, or the mundane details of his day-to-day life.

“We want to know more about York’s links in the war as well, and these come from a local regiment.”

The diaries are even more intriguing because they come from the Palestine campaign, a part of the war that is not as well known as the European campaigns, she added.

Contact Katie Brown by phone at 01904 650363 or email if you have any information about the regiment, Wass Reader or the shorthand in the diaries.

On a tangentially related note, I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of The Great War, Joe Sacco’s 24-foot cartoon of the first day of the Somme, for Christmas and it is truly an astounding piece of work. To give you a sense of its breathtaking breadth, here is a video of the whole book unfurled:

It comes with a second book that is all annotations so you can follow along and make sense of the incredible density of visual information from Lord Kitchener doing the recruitment point before the title page to the massive explosions in the trenches at the end of the day.

35 thoughts on “Can you read this World War I-era shorthand?

  1. …looks as if somebody from York scribbled down, what he found on some sort of assyrian pottery. Alternatively, like notes from an ‘Assyrian’ that had been recruited to fight in the trenches. Finally, I read ‘Palestine Campaign’ and bring to memory that apparently folk from the entire empire was recruited back then. After all, the whole thing reminds a bit of a former superior getting rightly mad at a colleague from China, when a floppy disk labelled in Mandarin was discovered 😀 … Aleph, Bet … was it written from right to left ?

    P.S.: “I heard that the war started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich ’cause he was hungry”.

  2. Isn’t it Pitman? I was interested in shorthand as a child in the 1960s, and the two systems I was able to learn about were Gregg (the more ubiquitous) and Pitman, each of which has a distinctive appearance. I see from an Internet search that Pitman is a native English shorthand, and that (as the photos above show) it was written with a mix of light and heavy strokes.

  3. The notes are written in Pitman’s Shorthand, and there are plenty of secretaries and shorthand typists who can read it, my missus among them.
    One passage reads: “There is a steam roller opening the way from Kantara and it looks most weird ……”
    Another page mentions that the writer has completely run out of fags and tobacco and doesn’t know how he will carry on.
    He mentions that everybody is trying to get out of the infantry, and that he’s glad that he’s a cavalryman.

    1. “And it looks most weird” is an excellent phrase. I’ve read that there were some alterations to Pitman after World War I which might make the earlier style harder to read, at least in parts. Has your wife found that to be the case in this small sample?

  4. My wife is in contact with the museum and has received an email with attached images of 3 more pages, which she is working on to help with the project.

  5. Thank you so much for putting your wife in touch with the museum. They must be thrilled, and I’m guessing I’m not the only person who would love an update as the work progresses.

  6. In response to livius drusus, my wife has indeed noticed a small number of symbols which she does not recognise, whose meaning has to be guessed from the context, also that the writer had a number of probably personal shorthand style features. She too believes that the Pitman notation conventions were adjusted after this was written, and before she learned shorthand at Pitman’s College. For example, his character for “war” resembles an elongated tick, whereas she would write a quite different “curly” character.
    She has started to work on a page which mentions a “sightseeing tour” in August 1918, including (long-hand) mentions of the Garden of Gethsemane, the Upper Room of the Last Supper, Mount Zion and Jaffa, which implies that by this stage in the war, the troops had time for matters other than their military duties.

  7. Thanks Rebecca,
    the museum curator has asked 3 or 4 more shorthand readers to come to the museum to work from the original diaries. I think it would be useful for them to work in pairs on each page, because my wife said it would help if she could have a second opinion on some of the scripts.
    I learned for example that thick and thin lines have different sounds, and it would be easier to read the originals to see these fine details rather than guessing from a scanned image as she sometimes has done.
    We both know a bit more about the geography of the area and the military campaign as a result of reading these diaries, and have barely scratched the surface up to now.

  8. This is so cool.

    I have some diaries my great uncle wrote from 1915-1923 in Los Angeles (Inglewood), and at the bottom of many of the pages all written in English is a form of shorthand in short paragraphs.

    I’ve always wondered if he was keeping secrets from my aunt, or if it was some personal financial information, as I recall there being some numbers as well.

    Now I’m all fired up to find someone who can still understand and translate it.

  9. Derek X:
    depending on where your great uncle learned shorthand, it probably isn’t Pitman’s shorthand. You might make a start by showing it to a shorthand teacher at a secretarial school. Shorthand writing is very economical on space, so your great uncle may just have been trying to squeeze more onto the pages than they would accommodate in longhand. Good luck with your investigation.

  10. You know, this is so cool from top to bottom. The best aspects of the Internet get revealed like this sometimes and makes my heart cockles warm. I recently read where “Internet people” helped someone crack her grandmothers secret code, deciphering her deathbed writings as prayers.

  11. Hi, yes it is definitely Pitmans Shorthand and the outlines are very well written with it’s thick and thin outlines and vowel placements. I myself am a shorthand writer of many years (Secretarially trained); and can read some of it but would be better to see it up close to get a real feel for it.

  12. This is wonderfully exciting! I just came across this post buried in my backlog of winter posts. Glad I did. Livius, I hope you do a followup of the results when there is enough to grasp what it is about. No matter whether military observations, personal matters, sightseeing notes, or archaeological observations– or all of the above– it looks like a treasure of immediacy during a very interesting time at an interesting place.

  13. Hi,
    My Grandmother passed away in 1973, She was 73. Since then my mother and two siblings have been try into figure out what she wrote in her diary. Much of it is before she married in 1925. (My Grandfather died in 1928.) For the most part everyone I have given up hope of learning about our Grandmother. If I scanned the pages into an email, do you think you could read them or translate them for me. I would not mind if it was done on a DVD, CD or tape. Just because you can type doesn’t mean you need to!. How much would you charge? Thanks for you time.

  14. “Nanettebergman”:
    I assume that the diary you refer to is written in some form of shorthand.
    I’m guessing that you live in the USA?
    Most shorthand taught in the USA was Gregg’s, which contains loops of various shapes and sizes. At first glance, it looks a bit like handwriting. Pitman’s shorthand, mainly taught in the UK and former British Empire, uses mostly short lines at various angles, lengths and thicknesses. Of course, there are a number of other shorthand methods, including some which are entirely individual. You need to show a page to a shorthand writer for an opinion. If you send me a sample by e-mail, I can only tell you whether or not it’s Pitman’s (-no charge!).
    The Castle Museum in York had an overwhelming response from volunteers for shorthand transcription of the WW1 diary. On July 16, we were invited to see the splendid new 1914 exhibition at an evening event,and met other shorthand readers who had helped to complete the diaries, which were exhibited alongside the photographs that the diarist took during his service in Egypt and Palestine.
    First I suggest you look on Google at “Pitman’s shorthand images” and “Gregg’s shorthand images” which will give you lots of examples to compare with your Grandmother’s diary. If you then decide to send me a short sample, I will let you know whatever my wife can decipher.

  15. Hello!

    I have my grandfather’s diary, written in what I believe to be Pitman’s shorthand, from WWI when he was stationed in France as an Army Field Clerk in the adjutant general’s department.

    I have longed for many years to have it interpreted. It has an occasional word written in longhand interspersed throughout the shorthand.

    I have many letters that he wrote home to his family, written in English longhand, and he was an amazing and interesting writer.

    Is there a chance that your wife might try to interpret a page of his diary for me?..and, then, we can “go from there” as to perhaps getting more of it interpreted by her, if she is interested and able to do so?
    I hope to hear back from you, soon. 🙂 I see that these posts were made in January and, now, this is August.

    I live in California in the USA.

    1. Hi ma’am I’ve read your comment.
      I’m pittman shorthand expert. I’ve also translated many diaries. Text me on WhatsApp and share pages.

  16. Hi, I have an original ( The Anzac book) and inside the front cover a soldier has wrote a message and it’s the same short hand as this?
    I have seen many books the same none with this short in side, it’s dated 1920.
    I have not yet been able to find some one who can read it

  17. Kathleen-
    look for someone who knows Pitman’s shorthand. Ask your local library or museum or a secretarial school first.

  18. Hello C. Allen,
    I suggest you send a scanned page to Philip Newton at the York Castle Museum, where a team of shorthand readers is compiling the transcription of Wass Reader’s diary. They may be able to help.
    January 2015.

  19. Hello C. Allen,
    (Further to my comment earlier today). My wife is prepared to look at a page for you, if you care to get in touch.

  20. Hello,
    This is Pitman’s Shorthand. I don’t know if you still need help with transcribing, but would be pleased to assist.

  21. All the transcribing has been done, and we await publication of the resulting documents on the museum’s website. No date has been announced for this yet, and I understand from the curators that checking is still on-going.

  22. Hello there ive recently come to own a letter that belonged to a WW2 German soldier in a tank division! However… its written in what appears to be some kind of German shorthand? I was wondering if anyone could please help me translate it as im VERY interested to see what it says and i cant find help anywhere. Many thanks

  23. Hello: I am writing froom New Orleans, Louisiana. I am a retired university professor who taught 17th Century literature and International Relations at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I am going to publish some of the WWI correspondence of my young father with his mother while he was in the trenches in Flanders in WWI as a young infantry officer. Besides his longhand correspondence there are several pages in shorthand. German shorthand, I would guess. Can anyone among the experts ( whose work I admire in this chain of messages) give me advice where to start searching for German shorthand around 1920? A reference to books, textbooks, would be appreciated.
    I do admire the beauty of much of the soldiers’ style. They were still taught how to how to write letters.
    Many thanks, CLBrancaforte

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