Any 18th century shorthand experts out there?

Michael Baron, besides being a Dulwich resident and a bit of a poet, is also a history enthusiast and has a query that someone in Dulwich might be able to answer.


Benjamin Vaughan

The story begins with Michael owning an old book that from the bookplate was once in the library of a Benjamin Vaughan, one time a radical dissenting Whig MP for Calne in Wiltshire. Vaughan, who was born in Jamaica in 1751 and died in 1835 in the USA, owned with his brothers, slaves on their four Jamaican plantations. And his first speeches in the House of Commons as the Whig member for the rotten borough of Calne were on the slave trade, which he deplored, but not against the plantation slaves. With that caveat, he was a supporter of the French Revolution and held strong views on liberty and equality. As a young man and protege of one Prime Minister, Lord Shelburne, he played a key, unofficial role in the negotiations for the Treaty of Paris (1783) that confirmed the independence, as the USA, of the 13 American colonies. His mother was from Boston and through her he inherited 3000 acres of land in Maine, then Northern Massachusetts.

However, his radical connections brought him into conflict with the younger Pitt, then Prime Minister. Fearing prosecution for treason, he fled to France in June 1794, landing from a rowing boat on a beach near Cherbourg, while still an MP. Briefly imprisoned in Paris as a suspected spy, he was released on the order of Robespierre, and spent 3 years in France and Switzerland writing and agitating for travel documents for the USA. His wife and 4 children left London in 1795 for America and were all reunited in Boston in 1797. Then they went to live on his estate in Hallowell, Maine (USA) which he had inherited from his Boston forebears.

The Vaughan Mansion, Hallowell

The Vaughan Mansion, Hallowell. Image via

From being a British MP, banker and merchant, Vaughan became an American intellectual and farmer, and was well connected with leading American politicians and thinkers. Now in the Hallowell house, the Vaughan Homestead Foundation, the curator has just discovered some notes of a lecture by the English scientist Dr. Joseph Priestley (who discovered oxygen) from the time (1766) that Priestley ran a boys school, the then celebrated Warrington Academy, which Vaughan attended before going up to Cambridge, where he studied law, before going on to Edinburgh where he studied medicine.

Vaughan is all but unknown in England, apart from an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. One Boston-born uncle who served with Nelson was known as the Yankee Admiral; and by marriage Vaughan was a cousin of Britain’s first Cardinal, William Manning, but in America he counts as a famous American. Those notes of Joseph Priestley’s lecture are indecipherable, being written in some 18th century shorthand.

If there is an expert on 18th century shorthand in Dulwich or Camberwell, would he or she please contact Michael Baron for a sample of the notes at

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