Joy Hancox

Byrom Projects

Joy Hancox is an Associate of the Royal College of Music, London, and a member of R.I.L.K.O. (Research into Lost Knowledge Organisation). She is also an Associate Member of the Association of School and College Leaders. She gave up a successful career in Music, the Performing Arts and Schools Administration to concentrate on her research.
Joy Hancox is the originator of the Byrom Projects research programme. This programme began when she acquired a unique original ms. in John Byrom’s shorthand. Her training as a musician and familiarity with musical notation enabled her to approach the transcription of the shorthand with a persistent curiosity. She was aided by a rare copy of John Byrom’s shorthand manual. It soon became clear that this manuscript material had never been in the public domain and, with her curiosity aroused, she hunted down other original mss in family papers, record offices, libraries and museums in the UK. Some material she was able to purchase, some she was given privileged access to over the years by people closely associated with the Byrom family and the descendants of staff who had worked for them. Much of it has never been used before and it has placed Joy in a unique position to re-appraise the historical significance of this once prominent Lancashire family, in particular John Byrom (1691 – 1763).
A member of The Royal Society and the inventor of a phonetic shorthand from which the later Pitman system was developed, John Byrom did not publish his method during his lifetime, despite being granted a monopoly to publish and teach it for twenty-one years by George II in 1742. A pirated version compelled him to petition Parliament to bring in a Bill to protect his system. The monopoly lasted for twenty-one years and with its protection Byrom continued to teach privately to leading politicians and figures of the day. Thus his shorthand gained currency for a confidentiality and secrecy akin to a form of coding.

John Byrom lived through the unsuccessful Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745 and was known to have been a secret Jacobite, yet he escaped the punishment meted out to many for their treason. The degree of his immunity can be gauged from the fact that in November 1748 he was asked to transcribe and read to aristocratic friends in London a letter from Paris written in his own shorthand describing the arrest of Prince Charles Edward Stuart by the French and his treatment. The letter ends “it is treason” now to say that he was tied or “ill-used”. John Byrom was careful not to record in his own journal the name of his correspondent, but it is an indication of his standing with the great and the good. This incident alone belies the commonly accepted view that John Byrom was simply a minor eighteenth century figure.

Joy Hancox became fascinated by the intrigues that seemed to gather around John Byrom, politically, socially and intellectually. Barred from any public office because he had refused to swear allegiance to the Hannoverian succession, he never bought a property, nor had any inclination to do so. He led a nomadic life in London moving between various coffee houses and inns during the season and then returning to Manchester. Despite having a wife and children there of whom he was fond, he cultivated a deliberate independence. At the same time the Byrom family of Manchester was rising in prosperity as the town rose with the growth of the cotton industry.

As the years went by and Joy Hancox’s resource of original material expanded, she became convinced that Byrom’s role in history had been diminished both intentionally and by the hazards of time. As a Freemason he was restricted by the rules of membership, which during his lifetime had afforded a protection for some of his activities. Even so his life demonstrates that things are not always as they seem. His Jacobite activities brought him into contact with a previous tenant of her own home, Thomas Siddal. He did suffer the ultimate punishment for his Jacobite loyalties and in the process provided cover for some of John Byrom’s own treasonable behaviour.

It was during these years of study that a collection of 516 geometric drawings previously owned by John Byrom came to be part of her on-going research. It soon became clear that their significance was intended solely for those with an understanding. In other words they were part of another system of encoding. But, whereas Byroms shorthand was based on letters and sounds, the drawings were based on numerology. So Joy was faced with a different kind of challenge. At some point the drawings had been placed in two brown paper bags which in themselves acted as a protection to the contents. But, although they were carefully preserved, their meaning had become obscure with the passage of time. The question was had they any significance for the present day? It is all too easy to spend time on trivialities. However, the quality and precision of the work, some in colour, seemed to deny this.

Eventually, Joy Hancox learned that they were connected with a prestigious European family of printers, the de Bry dynasty. The family had been particularly prominent in the seventeenth century, publishing writers such as Robert Fludd and Richard Hakluyt and carrying out commissions for the royal family of Stuarts.