The Pitman Collection

If you head into our University Archives, you’d better be prepared for a shock! In the far corner, on top of a set of archival drawers, is a ghostly white head in a glass box.

This is the death mask of Sir Isaac Pitman. It’s over 100 years old and one of 7,000 items in our Pitman Collection – the largest single collection we have in the library.

Born in Trowbridge, near Bath, Sir Isaac invented Pitman’s shorthand in 1837. Still used today, Pitman’s ‘writing by sound’ is a phonetic system which uses symbols to represent sounds rather than letters.

Our Pitman collection consists of materials relating to the design and development of shorthand. His new system established the family business based on shorthand instruction and the management of a phonographic printing and publishing empire.

Pitman’s love of language must have run in the family too, because our collection also consists of Sir James Pitman’s (Sir Isaac’s grandson) books in Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA). ITA was designed to help minimise discrepancies between spelling and pronunciation. By 1970 it was estimated that it was being used in approximately 4000 schools in the UK and in a wide range of teaching projects in North America, Australia and Africa too.

Sir James Pitman, was our first Pro-Chancellor in 1966. He donated both his grandfather’s collections including the Tale of Peter Rabbit – or in ITA, The Tael ov Peeter Rabbit.