Recording speech in early modern England: Parliament, preachers and the Putney debates

In his work on the 1624 Parliamentary Diaries, Philip Baker deals with the difficulties in deciphering 17th Century record keeping on a daily basis. In this blog he discusses how techniques for recording speech developed over the century from Parliament to the Putney debates, which began today in 1647…

Today, thanks to Hansard, speeches in Parliament can be read online within hours of them being made. Using audio feeds, stenotype machines and more traditional shorthand, Hansard reporters provide us with information that was considered a breach of parliamentary privilege to report well into the eighteenth century.

In the age before the official reporting of parliamentary business, even the clerks responsible for keeping the formal records of the Houses were not meant to record speeches. On the one hand, parliamentary debates were considered arcana imperii (secrets of state) unfit for public consumption; on the other, there was the fear that reports of speeches might be used by the monarch to punish those who spoke out of turn. Nevertheless, a number of the clerks ignored this rule with, for example, the Commons Journals being edited for our project on the proceedings of the 1624 Parliament containing numerous passages of actual debate.

Rather than using shorthand, those clerks, such as Ralph Ewens and Robert Bowyer, who recorded parliamentary speeches did so in often appalling longhand in their draft journals or appropriately named ‘scribbled books’. Contemporary shorthand systems had existed since the late sixteenth century and were used frequently from then on to record sermons, though often with decidedly mixed results. Preachers complained regularly that shorthand editions of their sermons were untrustworthy and inaccurate, and the earliest shorthand systems are now regarded as far too cumbersome to produce verbatim accounts of speech from a single source alone.

This may help to explain why so few of the parliamentary diarists of the early Stuart period used shorthand. Instead, the preference of a number of the era’s serial diarists, men such as Edward Nicholas and Sir Nathaniel Rich, was to develop their own personal ‘speed writing’ techniques – a combination of shorthand symbols, longhand and abbreviations.

A more efficient shorthand system was first published by Thomas Shelton as Short-Writing in 1626, but is much better known under its republished title of Tachygraphy (1635). Becoming one of the most popular systems of the period, it was used by Samuel Pepys to write his diary and also to record the Putney debates between the New Model and the Levellers, which began on this day in 1647. While generals like Oliver Cromwell debated the settlement of the post-civil war state with civilians like John Wildman, their words were taken down in shorthand by William Clarke, secretary to the general council of the army, and a team of stenographers.

The surviving manuscript of the Putney debates is a fair copy in longhand, written up in 1662, providing a partial account of the proceedings, which took place between 28 October and 11 November 1647. With its many gaps, repetitions and non sequiturs, this reveals that Clarke and his team at times struggled to keep up with the pace of the discussions, probably because of the shortcomings of Tachygraphy when recording verbatim speech. Nevertheless, thanks to their efforts, at particular moments we have, in all probability, a fairly complete record of highly passionate debates concerning the franchise, the powers of Parliament and the monarchy, and the right to religious freedom in early modern England.


To mark the anniversary of the Putney debates, from today until 11 November we will be tweeting extracts from the debates and related material. So please do follow us – using the hashtag #Putney – to find out more about the words and arguments that Clarke and his team recorded at the height of the English Revolution.

For more on the Levellers and the Putney debates, see the earlier blogs by Philip Baker and Stephen Roberts.

For more on parliamentary diaries, see the earlier blogs Vivienne Larminie and Philip Baker.

3 thoughts on “Recording speech in early modern England: Parliament, preachers and the Putney debates

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s