Decoding the Tavistock letter, or, Dickens and the ‘dark arts of Victorian media management’

A letter in shorthand on Tavistock House headed notepaper

Last year, the Dickens Code project called upon the help of the public in deciphering the Morgan Library & Museum’s mysterious ‘Tavistock’ letter. The £300 prize may have been modest, but we were amazed and delighted by the response, with the challenge generating more than a thousand downloads.

By the time that the competition closed, on New Year’s Eve, we’d received sixteen formal submissions. On compiling these solutions, the puzzle pieces started to fit together: a word here, or a key phrase there, that enabled us to pin down the timeframe and understand the context.

We now know that the Tavistock letter was a shorthand copy of a communication sent to the editor of The Times, J. T. Delane, in May 1859. This was a key moment in Dickens’s career: following a row with his publishers, Bradbury and Evans, he’d decided to disband Household Words – a popular magazine of which he was the editor and joint-owner. The letter concerns an advertisement for the third number of his new magazine, All the Year Round, which had been rudely rejected by a clerk in the advertising department of The Times. The clerk in question had been instructed to ‘say no’ to anything that could cause injury to another party – and the advert’s inclusion of the statement ‘On Saturday 28th May, Mr. Charles Dickens will cease to conduct “Household Words;” that periodical will be discontinued by him: and its partnership of proprietors dissolved’ seemed inflammatory.

But, as Dickens was at pains to stress to Delane, the judge in the case of Bradbury & Evans v. Dickens had ruled in his favour and actually asked him to put things in this way. As Dickens says, somewhat indignantly, in the Tavistock letter, ‘as to its fairness, it is signed by Romilly [the Master of Rolls] in open court and is taken from the short hand writer’s notes of a judgement of his’.

Ultimately Dickens’s appeal to Delane was successful. The editor passed Dickens’s letter on to the manager of The Times, Mowbray Morris, who swiftly wrote Dickens an apology and agreed to run the advert three times the following week. You can find out more about the background of the letter here.

The advert for the third number of All the Year Round was published in The Times, at Dickens’s request, on 11 May 1859

Thanks to the work of the Dickens decoders, we have gained new insight into this particularly fraught time in Dickens’s publishing career. Rather than Dickens the author, we see Dickens the businessman, involved in the minutiae of ensuring his new journal’s success and appealing to powerful friends to get the outcome that he desired.

Reflecting on the significance of the discovery, Professor John Drew commented:

‘a new Dickens letter discovered and virtually reconstructed though crowdsourced Dickensian brachygraphy, courtesy of the Dickens Code project – a real first! It gives us a fascinating glimpse into the dark arts of Victorian media management and manipulation in which Dickens had long been apprenticed’

Professor John Drew, author of Dickens the Journalist

The judging panel met to consider all of the competition entries in January. Assessing both the quality of the transcription and the quality of the accompanying report, Shane Baggs from San Jose, California, was pronounced the Overall Winner. Ken Cox, also from the US, was ‘highly commended’ and declared the runner up. However, as you will see from our ‘Roll of Honour’, which credits the first transcribers of particular symbols, many people played a crucial role in making this discovery. Thank you to everyone who took part!

We will be running a mini-challenge to fill in the remaining blanks in the Tavistock letter. In the meantime, you can download a partial transcription, crowdsourced from the competition entries, below.