Bath’s Famous Residents – Sir Isaac Pitman
15 November 2020
We’re not getting out to sample the newest restaurants and we can’t visit our favourite Bath attractions - so it’s been a while since we’ve written a Bath blog. That has given us time to look back at days gone by, and shine a light on some of the history of Bath which isn’t so well-known.
In this blog, we look at Sir Isaac Pitman and what signs of him can still be seen around Bath, as we know many of our guests, like us, are interested by Bath’s history.
Sir Isaac Pitman may not be Bath’s most famous resident (after all he is competing against the likes of Charles Dickens, Sir William Herschel, Jane Austen, and more recent Bathonians such as Jacqueline Wilson and John Cleese), but nevertheless he’s well worth a mention given his legacy to people the world over, and Bath in particular.
Sir Isaac Pitman lived in Bath between 1839 and his death in 1897. He lived at 5 Nelson Place for four years, then later he lived at 12 Royal Crescent where he spent seven years, before moving to 17 Royal Crescent.
Pitman was the inventor of phonography – a system of phonetic shorthand which he developed in 1837. Originally he took up Samuel Taylor’s system of shorthand, and wrote a manual for it, but the publisher rejected his manual and suggested he invent a new system of his own. This is just what he did, and this system came to be known as Pitman’s shorthand.
Pitman’s shorthand has been adopted by note-takers around the world as the system of preference. It didn’t take too long to catch on. During the 1840s he originated the idea of correspondence courses, which certainly helped to spread the word, and by 1886 he had sold over 1 million copies of his ‘Phonographic Teacher’ in Britain alone. It wasn’t long before Pitman, now living in Bath, began to leave his mark on the city.
As well as developing his phonography system, Pitman also ran a private school in Bath from 1839 to 1843, and was highly active in the Bath New Church – promoting temperance and Swedenborgian teachings. Soon after he set up his school, Pitman began his Phonetic Institute at Bath – a printing office and publishing house for the dispatch of books to all parts of the world. This business continued on even after his death, managed by his two sons. (A more detailed exploration of the Institute and it’s iterations can be found here at HistoryofBath.org )
With all this as a legacy, it’s no wonder that you can find signs of Pitman scattered around the city. In Bath Abbey there is a memorial plaque dedicated to him; on the outside of 17 Royal Crescent there’s a heritage plague which reads “Here lived Sir Isaac Pitman b. 1813 d. 1897”; while on Lower Bristol Road you can still see the iconic frontage of what was The Pitman Press (now being redeveloped, but the frontage is staying).