Pitman transcription reveals my great-grandmother’s secrets

Mary in 1896,  at the age of 24

Mary in February 1896, at the age of 24

Many thanks to my friend Josie Oppenheim, who responded to the previous blog post by locating a Pitman transcriber online. Tracey Jennings, a shorthand expert in the U.K., came up with translations of the four bits of shorthand text scattered through my great-grandmother’s diary of trip to her father’s birthplace, the village of Pontardulais, Wales, in 1892, when she was 20.

Mary Davies had taught herself Pitman shorthand, the prevalent system of the 19th century, and many stenographers have their own invented symbols for frequently used words and expressions. Therefore, the transcription is sketchy. What’s clear is that, rather than sex or even moonlight kisses, the racy details Mary wished to hide were proposals of marriage and declarations of love.

The first shorthand passage comes after a visit to a street carnival in the company of her cousin Maggie, the two Misses Williams, their brother Simeon, and several other boys.

We found a “Merry-go-around”, swings & a game of chance, which consisted of cocoanuts on sticks & the one who could knock the cocoanut off the stick was entitled to one. Simeon & another gentleman succeeded in getting five which they divided up amongst us. Finally with some reluctance we withdrew from the crowd, & eventually reached home but finding there company to entertain we did not retire until 12 o’clock.

The following shorthand passage translates to: “Simeon said when that time comes you will be my wife!”

Three weeks later, Mary and Will Bevan, who’s been hanging around a lot, go out on one of their frequent long walks with Maggie and Mr. Matthias. They stroll down a winding road Mary calls “a true lover’s lane,” and then comes shorthand text that states:

He told me tonight that he could very well be in love with me and please may he see me at our usual coffee tavern. Was … in love every day.

The afternoon before the Sheepdog Match, Maggie is so tired from washing her dress that she declines to go for a walk, so Mary and Mr. Bevan set out alone.

We stopped at a little house where an old woman named Nance Richards lives, a little woman, so tiny & ugly who supports herself by selling sweets. Mr. Bevan bought candy & nuts. Leaving there we walked up the track through the tunnel & then ascended the mountain, presently striking a beautiful lane. We sat down for a while & then went on & stopped at a farmhouse where the lady gave me some lovely roses. We then came home but were caught in the rain.

The coded words that follow are transcribed:

… along the lovely levels when he told me he loved me, asked me to be his wife but I said no. Would not take no for an answer. Ordered me then to give him an answer or I could go home which I promised to do on Saturday.

The final passage comes after Mr. Bevan and Mr. Benson, Maggie’s new beau, spend an evening in the house where the girls are staying with their cousins. The boys send out for sweets and oranges, and the two couples have a pleasant time eating and playing dominoes. But the shorthand text is too garbled to make sense of.

I hope Mary doesn’t mind that I have given out her secrets, now that everyone involved is long gone from the earth. I don’t think any of her descendants will be scandalized by her news. I only wish she had given us more details about her feelings for her admirers. Was she sad to leave poor Mr. Bevan behind? Or was she tired of his protestations? Probably I will never know.

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