Deciphered shorthand

‘So […] fiction may have had some foundation of truth in it’: Transcribing ‘Nelson’ part II

At the end of our last #SolveItDickens challenge we left poor Admiral Nelson in ‘a dying state’ at the Battle of Trafalgar, after being shot by a French sniper. Now, thanks to the incredible efforts of the Dickens Decoders, we are delighted to share a near complete transcription for the ‘Nelson’ shorthand dictation exercise. You can download the transcript at the bottom of the page. Many thanks to everyone who made this possible by taking part in the challenge, transcribing 54 symbols for the first time in the process! These new discoveries are credited on our ‘Roll of Honour’.

What have we uncovered? From the outset, this shorthand exercise promised to give an ‘alternative picture of the events of the day’. Perhaps it is not too surprising, then, that instead of following Nelson to the ship’s cockpit for the famous deathbed scene depicted below (including Nelson’s last words, which have been the subject of some controversy), we stay on the deck of HMS Victory with the quartermaster, in the midst of the battle.

An artistic depiction of the death of Admiral Nelson by William Devis. Nelson lies, white and pale, at the centre of the painting, surrounded by his officers.
Figure 1: Arthur William Devis, The Death of Nelson (1805-9). Courtesy of Royal Collection Trust RCIN 405920. Nelson’s death was the subject of numerous artistic depictions, in part because a prize was offered for the best one.

The next few sentences focus on the quartermaster and midshipman’s attempts to identify the person responsible for Nelson’s death: ‘a man in a blouse’ (‘blouse’ curiously written in longhand rather than shorthand) stationed in the maintop of French ship the Redoutable. Just as the quartermaster spots the assassin, ‘emerging from behind some concealment of rigging or sail’, he too is shot; the midshipman – John Pollard – immediately returns fire, killing the sniper. After the battle ends, the Frenchman is found ‘lying dead with a ball in his heart’.

The final part of the shorthand exercise turns to Nelson’s post-mortem journey. As the ship’s surgeon, William Beatty, made clear in his best-selling Authentic Account of the Death of Lord Nelson (first published in 1807), quick thinking was needed to preserve the body of Britain’s fallen hero. ‘There was no lead on board to make a coffin’, Beatty tells his readers, and so he had to improvise, ordering Nelson’s body be placed in a cask filled with high proof alcohol (Beatty, p.62).

Figure 2: An extract from William Beatty’s Authentic Narrative of the Death of Lord Nelson, courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Beatty describes every step in the corpse’s grisly progress from the Cape of Trafalgar, first to Gibraltar and then on to England. The alcohol within the cask had to be regularly ‘drawn off’ and a ‘fresh quantity introduced’, to delay putrefaction (Beatty, p.63) At one stage, the lid of the cask began to lift as the body released gas, terrifying the sailor assigned to guard it!

The shorthand dictation exercise glosses over these gruesome minutiae, although it does pass wry comment on the fact that ‘any really or pretendedly choice rum offered in the market for a long time afterwards was called “The Admiral”’. This alludes to rumours that the alcohol Nelson was pickling in was drunk by sailors, leading to the nickname, ‘Nelson’s Blood’, for the daily pint of rum given to sailors aboard Royal Navy ships. It’s a macabre touch, in keeping with the dark sense of humour that Dickens demonstrates elsewhere – compare the opening of Our Mutual Friend, in which Gaffer Hexam – a man who makes a living by fishing bodies out the Thames and emptying their pockets – tells his daughter that the river is ‘meat and drink to you!’ (Book I, chapter 1).

Figure 3: Marcus Stone, ‘The Bird of Prey’, an illustration for the first instalment of Our Mutual Friend (1864-65). Courtesy of Philip V. Allingham at The Victorian Web. Marcus Stone was the brother of Arthur Stone – the owner of the shorthand notebooks that we are currently working on. After the death of Dickens’s friend Frank Stone in 1859, Dickens tried to help both young men, by recommending Marcus for artistic commissions (and inviting him to illustrate his final complete novel) and by teaching Arthur shorthand. You can find out more about Marcus Stone here.

Beatty’s Authentic Narrative and the shorthand dictation exercise share a number of details. Beatty mentions the officers’ fears that ‘His Lordship would be made the object of the Enemy’s marksmen’ and their wish that he should ‘cover the stars on his coat with a handkerchief’ – fears that were apparently not communicated as Nelson’s ‘sentiments on the subject’ were well known (Beatty, p.20). Both accounts note the fate of the sniper. The ‘gold lace’ mentioned in ‘Nelson’ part I is also a memorable part of Beatty’s Narrative, where it is highlighted as part of the official autopsy report:

On removing the ball, a portion of the gold-lace and pad of the epaulette, together with a small piece of HIS LORDSHIP’S coat, was found firmly attached to it.

William Beatty’s Authentic Narrative of the Death of Lord Nelson, p.71

Beatty included engravings of the musket ball – both as it was extracted and as it was preserved – in a separate plate.

Figure 4: Illustrations from William Beatty’s Authentic Narrative of the Death of Lord Nelson, courtesy of the Wellcome Collection. The first illustration depicts the ball as it was extracted from Nelson’s corpse, including the following labels: a Piece of the Coat, b The Ball, ccc Depressions in the Ball by striking against Bone, d Gold Lace fixed in the Ball, e Piece of the Silk pad, ff Lace of the Bullion

The shorthand dictation exercise does not appear to quote Beatty’s words directly – it seems more likely that the speaker is riffing on well-known details about Nelson’s death. The description of Nelson being ‘conveyed to Gibraltar in a cask of rum’ is incorrect, for example – as Beatty notes in figure 2, this was a popular misconception, as brandy was used instead. This doesn’t rule out the possibility that Dickens could be quoting directly from another source – there were numerous accounts of Nelson’s death in circulation at this time. However, the rhythm and balance of sentences such as ‘it is easier to transmit’ the ‘weaknesses and grimness of men’s bodies than the worth of their souls’, are promisingly ‘Dickensy’ in style.

The investigation continues! The more of Arthur Stone’s notebooks we can transcribe, the better we will understand the nature of these shorthand dictation exercises and the likelihood of them being based on published material, or partially or fully improvised.

You can help by taking part in our latest #SolveItDickens challenge, which focuses on the second page of ‘The Two Brothers’ story. Check out the latest challenges here. Happy solving!

Update 1 June 2022: Eagle-eyed solver, Elizabeth Agnew, has identified another promising source for this shorthand exercise in Robert Southey’s Life of Nelson. We know that Dickens was familiar with Southey’s biography because in one of his semi-autobiographical essays – ‘Nurse’s Stories’ (1860) from The Uncommercial Traveller series – he reflects upon his childhood reading. Among the scenes that Dickens recalls is an episode from Nelson’s boyhood when ‘he got out of bed to steal […] pears, not because he wanted any, but because every other boy was afraid’. This incident is described in the opening pages of Southey’s account.

There are a number of correspondences between Southey’s account of the Battle of Trafalgar and the ‘Nelson’ exercise. Southey details Nelson’s choice and dress and describes the identification of the sniper in detail. Compare the following passages:

An old quarter-master had seen him fire; and easily recognised him, because he wore a glazed cocked hat and a white frock. This quarter-master and two midshipmen, Mr. Collingwood and Mr. Pollard, were the only persons left in the VICTORY’s poop; the two midshipmen kept firing at the top, and he supplied them with cartridges. One of the Frenchmen, attempting to make his escape down the rigging, was shot by Mr. Pollard, and fell on the poop. But the old quarter-master, as he cried out, “That’s he, that’s he,” and pointed at the other who was coming forward to fire again, received a shot in his mouth, and fell dead. Both the midshipmen then fired at the same time, and the fellow dropped in the top. When they took possession of the prize, they went into the mizzen-top, and found him dead, with one ball through his head, and another through his breast.

Robert Southey, Life of Nelson, chapter IX

the old / quarter master on board the Victory who is standing on the poop / by the wheel says to a midshipman that there is a man in a [end of page 1] blouse whom he has seen hiding on the main top / of the ship to which the Victory is lashed yard arm to yard arm who / fired at and struck (down) the Admiral as he saw with his eyes. During / the remainder of the progress of the fight the two (men) watch for this / man. In the moment of his emerging from behind some concealment / of rigging or sail the quarter master points up and cries out “There / he is”. In the same moment the quarter master falls shot by the / same man through the mouth. In the same moment the midshipman / fires and is so convinced that he has hit the man that as / soon as possible after the battle is over he climbs onto/into / that main top to see. Sure enough there he finds a/the man / lying dead with a ball in his heart.

‘Nelson’ shorthand dictation exercise

While the shorthand exercise is not quoting Southey directly, the phrasing and vocabulary is very similar. Many congratulations Elizabeth on identifying this source!

Download the line-by-line transcription below

The same file is provided in .docx and .pdf format for your convenience.

Update 16 May 2022: the original version of this blog noted that 55 symbols had been transcribed for the first time. This has been revised to 54, following some uncertainty over the symbol for ‘tale’ in ‘Nelson’ p.2, line 20. Version 2 of the Nelson transcript, available to download above, also reflects this change.