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National Handwriting Day & The Hurt Books

National Handwriting Day – 23 January

National Handwriting Day is considered a chance to appreciate the art of handwriting – a skill that is a privilege denied to many, and that often feels lost in an age of text abbreviations, emails and social media.

In 1828, William Austin Burton patented the first typewriter in the USA. In 1971, Ray Tomlinson sent the first email, and on December 3rd 1992, Neil Papworth sent the world’s first ever text message: “Merry Christmas”.

We have had access to other means of recording the written word for over 190 years, yet it is believed that the earliest true writing systems – the Sumerian archaic and Egyptian hieroglyphs – emerged from around 3400 – 3100 BC; over 5,400 years ago.

Handwriting can offer important insights about a person; a calligraphic style may hint at the upper-class; a childlike hand the most basic education.

The handwritten diaries of Anne Lister, written between 1806 – 1840, remained indecipherable for years until a historian cracked her crypt-hand.

The code revealed explicit details of her life as a land owner and her secret relationships with women.

Diary of Anne Lister, May 1832. Image courtesy of the West Yorkshire Archives, Calderdale.

Hurt Books

The Devonport collection holds one of the largest surviving collections of Hurt Books in the country; one of the many handwritten records kept in the dockyards for hundreds of years.

Hurt Books were kept by dockyard medical professionals detailing accidents at work.

Typically, they were split into large and small ‘hurts’. A small hurt could be dealt with quickly, while a large hurt might require ongoing treatment.

That doctors have poor handwriting is a long existing stereotype. Though there is no correlation between standards of writing and the medical profession, illegible notes can be attributed to the sheer volume of records made by doctors in single day.

Historically, they certainly provide a challenge for the archivist wishing to transcribe them.

Bad handwriting from a 1941 Dockyard Workers Hurt Book. National Museum of the Royal Navy; Devonport Collection

But sometimes our archivists get lucky and find a series of records kept in much clearer handwriting.

Good handwriting from a 1975 Dockyard Workers Hurt Book. National Museum of the Royal Navy; Devonport Collection

The clearer the handwriting, the easier it is to decipher the story behind the document, including all the gruesome and gory details.

In the record below, 27 year old J. Doyle – a dockyard labourer in 1915 – was injured when two fingers of his right hand were crushed between two boats!

Accident record 1915 Dockyard Workers Hurt Book. National Museum of the Royal Navy; Devonport Collection

Hurt Books show us the difficult and dangerous jobs people were doing, how frequently accidents happened and if particular roles were more prone to injury than others.

They can tell us a patient’s age, their position, and whether they contributed to the incident through drink or their own carelessness.

While clear handwriting makes transcribing easier, documents such as these offer much valuable information regardless of the standard of penmanship.

 

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