Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lewis, James Henry

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LEWIS, JAMES HENRY (1786–1853), stenographer, born in the parish of King's Stanley, Gloucestershire, in August 1786, was the eldest son of James Lewis, cloth manufacturer and landowner, of the oil mills, Ebley, near Stroud, Gloucestershire. He became a professional teacher of writing, arithmetic, bookkeeping, and shorthand, and carried on business at 104 High Holborn; but being compelled to leave London on account of his health, he spent several years in travelling through the provinces, and taught and lectured on writing and stenography in the principal towns of the United Kingdom. During these wanderings he made the acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott, who, on 10 July 1826, wrote in his diary: ‘This morning I was visited by a Mr. Lewis, a smart Cockney, whose object is to amend the handwriting. He uses as a mechanical aid a sort of puzzle of wire and ivory, which is put upon the fingers to keep them in the desired position, like the muzzle on a dog's nose to make him bear himself right in the field. It is ingenious and may be useful. If the man comes here [Edinburgh], as he proposes, in the winter, I will take lessons’ (Journal of Sir Walter Scott, 1890, i. 224).

On his return to London Lewis took a house in the Waterloo Road, but ultimately he settled at 113 Strand, nearly opposite Exeter Hall. In June 1853 he retired to 49 Milton Road, Gravesend, where he died on 30 Nov. in that year. He was buried in Kensal Green cemetery. By his first wife he had a son and four daughters; one of the latter, with her husband, carried on the business in the Strand till about 1870, and the house was soon afterwards pulled down; by his second wife he had a son, Mr. Alfred Lionel Lewis.

His system of shorthand first appeared anonymously at London in 1814, under the title of ‘The Art of Writing with the Velocity of Speech.’ It was often reproduced, with the author's name on the title-page, as ‘The Ready Writer, or the Ne Plus Ultra of Shorthand,’ and under other titles. One undated edition, which claims to be the ninety-seventh, is entitled ‘The Ready Writer and Interpreter of the Royal Lewisian System of Shorthand.’ In some of the editions the rules and instructions are given in doggerel and jocose rhymes. All these works display so much egotism, empiricism, and eccentricity, that many stenographers have been inclined to unduly underrate the value of the system itself, which nevertheless possesses considerable merit and is still used by some professional shorthand writers in the high court of justice. The best exposition of it is to be found, not in Lewis's own books, most of which are purposely obscure, having been intended for the exclusive use of his pupils, but in a treatise by Thomas Campbell Foster [q. v.] entitled ‘Plain Instructions for the Attainment of an Improved, Complete, and Practical System of Shorthand,’ London, 1838, 8vo. Lewis reintroduced the quadrant signs, or what Byrom called ‘curvilinear diagonal strokes,’ which Taylor declined to use, and thus he obtained a larger number of simple signs for his alphabet. Following the example of Mason and Gurney he kept the circle for the most frequent letter, s, and he produced an alphabet which combined facility of junction with great lineality.

Lewis also published ‘An Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of Shorthand, extracted from Lectures delivered at different periods by the Author, comprehending an impartial and critical Examination of the various Systems down to the present time,’ London, 1816, 8vo, with plates giving specimens of the Tironian notes and seventy-three alphabets from John Willis to Oxley. This is a valuable work, and according to Mr. Pocknell ‘it yet remains the best history which any student entering upon the theoretical aspect of shorthand can consult.’ In the correspondence between Robert Cabell Roffe and Thomas Molineux of Macclesfield, in ‘The Grand Master,’ it is asserted, on no apparent authority, that Hewson Clarke [q. v.] was the real author of this history.

Lewis made an important collection of about 240 books on shorthand, exclusive of duplicates. After his death this collection was divided among the British Museum, the Bodleian, the Birmingham Free Library, and the library of Cornelius Walford (Shorthand, i. 163, 177).

His portrait has been engraved; and an oil-painting is in the possession of his son, Mr. A. L. Lewis.

[Private information; Gibson's Bibliography of Shorthand; Edward Pocknell, in the Journalist, 5 Aug. 1887, p. 271; Palatine Note-book, i. 92; Watt's Bibl. Brit.; Lewis's Hist. of Shorthand, p. 206; Snell's Brachygraphic Alphabet; Buck's Stenographic Standard; Notes and Queries, 7th ser. xii. 33; Anti-Jacobin Review, l. 288; Shorthand, i. 191, ii. 254; Anderson's Hist. of Shorthand, pp. 113, 266–76.]

T. C.