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Saturday, 6 August 2011


It’s my 100th post here! I try to be eclectic in my choices of subjects – family name, period, occupation, home – and not to be too judgemental. I’m fond of them all, and quite sure they all did the best they could according to their own situation and the morals and conditions of their times. It’s one thing to regret the mistakes of former days; but I think it’s pretty meaningless to judge them by modern standards, or indeed to apologise for acts committed and views held by our ancestors centuries ago. I suppose I see my mission simply as keeping these memories of my ancestors alive.

I try to celebrate their achievements, not their weaknesses. No doubt it is because I’m a writer that I am particularly drawn to literary or educational contributions to society. But there does seem to be a strong strand in many branches and in every generation of my family tree: the urge to communicate, be it by book, poster, classroom or pulpit.

Thomas Gurney (1705-1770)
A great communicator, quill always to hand

A good example of this is my 5x great grandfather Thomas Gurney. He was the son of a Bedfordshire miller, driven by his Baptist faith and a belief in the worth of knowledge. By the age of nineteen he had not only founded a school but developed a shorthand system which would remain in use for two hundred years in the highest offices in the land. Communication was the key to redeeming, useful self-improvement for Thomas.

Here is the story of his early years, as told in a biography by his grandson William Brodie Gurney in 1845, some 120 years after the events.

[Thomas Gurney’s] indisposition to his father’s business, however, still continuing, he left his home, with his father’s consent, at the age, I apprehend, of nineteen, if not earlier, and opened a school in a neighbouring village, employing his time much in reading. It must have been when he was very young that he attended a sale and purchased a parcel of books, one of which was on Astrology, in which he was at the time much interested. The lot was described as “sundries;” and I think he purchased it for 1s 6d or 2s [7.5 or 10p].

One of these books was “Mason’s Shorthand,” a system which had been practiced, but had fallen into disuse in consequence of its complexity. This immediately engaged his enquiring mind, and he determined to simplify it, for the purpose of enabling himself to take down sermons; and I have a book of sermons taken by him at Ridgemount in Bedfordshire, in 1722-23. This purchase must have been before he left his father’s house; therefore he could only been only seventeen or eighteen years of age when he began taking these sermons.

One of the books, I have stated, was on Astrology. This subject had excited his attention, and, while it afforded him amusement, it gave him, among his neighbours, the character of a man of wonderful knowledge, and occasioned his being consulted more than once on matters of interest. One anecdote, while it displays his judgment in making the best of a thing, shows also the disposition to magnify that which fell from the wise man.

A lost cow is nothing new
(Farmville game on Facebook notwithstanding)

A woman having lost her cow went to my grandfather to learn whether she should ever recover it, and what means she should employ. After hearing her detail, taking down his great book he shut himself up or a few minutes; and then, returning with some figure he had drawn, judging from her account that the cow had not been stolen but only strayed, he told her very gravely that she should see it again shortly. In the evening the cow returned; and then the woman raised his reputation to the highest pitch by informing her neighbours that Mr Gurney had told her in the morning where the cow was gone  and had enabled her to trace he animal in all its wanderings, and to ascertain beforehand the very time of its return.

Quite how a great book of astronomy could be imagined to give insight into the random movements of a cow, is open to question. But it’s a wise man indeed who knows what works in making an impression! The use of shorthand to record and disseminate Baptist sermons was significant at a time when religious intolerance was still rife and non-conformity was a radical, subversive alternative to the establishment Church of England. When Thomas’s great great grandson William Henry Gurney Salter joined the family shorthand business (by now the official medium of record of the Houses of Parliament), he practised his skills by recording the sermons of his father, the Baptist minister William Augustus Salter. So Gurney shorthand came full circle for another two generations of communicators.

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