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John Byrom (1692 - 1763)


English poet, hymnist, and inventor of a system of shorthand, student of religious mysticism. John Byrom's light-hearted and good-natured character is apparent in his journals. His shorthand was never widely used and it was too slow professional stenographers. 'Hymn for Christmas Day', with its uplifting words, is Byrom's best-known work. The phrase " Tweedledum and Tweedledee", about a silly battle between two men, may have been coined by Byrom. As the Tweedle boys, these names later appeared in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Class (1871).

Some say, that Signor Bononcini,
Compared to Handel's a mere ninny;
Others aver, to him, that Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a candle.
Strange! that such high dispute should be
'Twixt Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
('On the Feuds between Handel and Bononcini')

John Byrom was born near Manchester into a family of prosperous merchants and linendrapers. He was educated at Chester, and later he went to Merchant Taylors' School. Byrom studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, under the reign of Richard Bentley (1662-1742) - he ruled the college with such despotic power that his mastership was a succession of quarrels and scandals. In spite of this, Byrom defended Bentley against his enemies. He may have addressed a pastoral published in the Spectator in 1714 to the daughter of the master. The poem, 'Colin and Phebe', became very popular. Phebe was Joanna Bentley, a witty eleven year old young lady, who would draw the attention of many of the college fellows.

At Trinity Byrom had a Fellowship, but he resigned it due to his Jacobite sympathies and mystical leanings and did not take the required holy orders. He also studied medicine for a short time at the University of Montpellier in France. Though he did not take a degree and never practiced he was afterward called 'doctor' by his friends. In 1721 he married his cousin, Elizabeth Byrom. Their daughter Beppy, who had a great love for everything that was Scottish, followed Jacobite fashion. She bought a blue and white dress to celebrate the rebel victory in October 1745. After the rebellion she wore plaid garters. 

While in Cambridge, Byrom developed a new system of "tychygraphy" or  shorthand, and became its teacher. According to a story, Byrom made his invention in a concert. His pupils, who called him the grand master, were required to take an oath of secresy. Byrom chiefly divided his time between Manchester and London, where he lived by teaching his system of  shorthand privately. Byrom charged five guineas per person. Financially he was dependent on teaching until 1740 when he inherited the family fortune after the death of his elder brother. One of his students was  Captain John Vere, a  Jacobite spy. Joy Hancox, a music teacher from Mancester, has argued in The Queen's Chameleon (1994) that Byrom was a lover of Queen Caroline, wife of George II, and the father of Caroline's son, William, Duke of Cumberland. She has further suggested that Byrom was involved in conspiracies to poison George I  and to murder Sir Robert Walpole.

Byrom's system was used by John (1703-1791) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788), founders of Methodism, who recorded their self-examinations in coded diaries. However, Timothy Bright had been called the father of modern shorthand. Queen Elizabeth granted him a patent for a "shorte and new kynde of writing by character to the furtherance of good learning." The word shorthand was used on the title page of Jeffrey Hudson's New Yeeres Gift (1636). (500 Years of New Words: the fascinating story of how, when, and why hundreds of your favorite words first entered the English language by Bill Sherk, 2004, pp. 95-96) Later on Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) utilized the technique in his famous diary, so that no one could read it while he was alive. William Mason first published his system in 1672 under the title Pen plucked from an Eagles Wing; it formed the basis of the Guerney system, used at least 200 years.

In 1724 Byrom was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. His varied acquaintances included the physician David Hartley, the Wesleys, devout Christians, J. Butler, writer of Fifteen Sermons, and William Law (1686-1761), of whom Byrom left accounts in his Private Journal and Literary Remains (1854-57). It is an important source of information on Law, a very religious writer, whose guide to the practice of Christian faith, A Serious Call, influenced deeply Samuel Johnson.

Byrom's Miscellaneous Poems (1773) include some modifications of Law's poem, and the well-known 'Hymn for Christmas Day' (Christians awake, salute the happy morn, / Whereon the saviour of the world was born) of which Byrom is best remembered for. Originally the poem was written for Byrom's daughter Dolly as a Christmas gift in 1749. A copy was given to John Wainwright, an organist, who composed music for it.

Most of Byrom's religious poems are now forgotten. In the epigram on King and Pretender, Byrom played with pro- and anti-Jacobite sentiments. The ambiguously loyal toast begins 'God bless the King! I mean the Faith's Defender...' In 'On Clergymen Preaching Politics' he wrote: "Were I a king (God bless me) I should hate / My chaplains meddling with affairs of state; / Nor would my subjects, I should think, be fond, / Whenever theirs the Bible went beyond." Byrom also wrote religious verse and a pastoral (1714), he had many varied linguistic, literary, religious, and scientific interests, and was attracted to the mysticism of writers like Jacob Boehme and Malebranche. He was a Freemason, a member of the 'Cabala Club,' and collected  hundreds of drawings, many of which were concerned with mathematicall, astrological, alchemical and Masonic symbols. Joy Hancox has argued in The Byrom Collection and the Globe Theatre Mystery (1997) that a number of drawings were concerned with the Elizabethan public theatres, including the Globe Theatre. John Sharp remarked in his review of the book that "the drawings have so many lines and circles on them that, with judicious selection, it would be possible to match them almost anything you choose." (Nexus Network Journal, Volume 1, 1999, p. 168) Byrom contributed two papers on shorthand to the Philosophical Transactions and copyrighted his 'tychygraphy' system in 1742, but his Universal English Shorthand did not appear during his life time. Byrom outlived most of the friends of his youth. He died in London on September 26, 1763.

"God bless the King, I mean the Faith's Defender;
God bless – no harm in blessing – the Pretender;
But who Pretender is, or who is King,
God bless us all that's quite another thing."

(in Miscellaneous Poems, 1773)

For further reading: 'John Byrom', British Writers. Supplement XVI, edited by Jay Parini (2010); David Hartley on Human Nature by Richard Allen (1999); The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble (1998); The Byrom Collection and the Globe Theatre Mystery by Joy Hancox (1997); The Queen's Chameleon: The Life of John Byrom by Joy Hancox (1994); The Byrom Collection: Renaissance Thought, the Royal Society and the Building of the Globe Theatre by Joy Hancox (1992); The Edges of Augustanism; The Aesthetics of Spirituality in Thomas Ken, John Byrom, and William Law by John Hoyles (1972); The Journal of Elizabeth Byrom, in 1745, edited by Richard Parkinson (1857)

Selected works:

  • The Universal English Short-Hand; or, the Way of writing English, in the most easy, concise ... manner Invented by J. Byrom, 1767
  • Miscellaneous poems, by John Byrom, M.A. F.R.S. sometime Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and inventor of the universal English short-hand, 1773 (2 vols.)
  • The Private Journal and Literary Remains of John Byrom, 1854-1857 (2 vols., ed. Richard Parkinson)
  • The Poems of John Byrom, 1894-1912 (edited by Adolphus William Ward)
  • Prayer, the passion of love, 1981

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