When bad hand writing stripped a staffer of his job

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)

Handwriting no more evokes strong responses. Bad handwriting at most invites a smirk from troubled readers. Virtual writing has elbowed out good handwriting and the pride of place it once had. Letters and words are now mass produced and systematically ripped off their individuality. Hand written notes meant that each letter bore the stamp of the writer and even reflected the writer’s moods.

The archives tell a story when bad handwriting cost a person his job. In the 19th century, good handwriting was everything in official communication. Going through old letters one came across exemplary specimens. Each letter hid within the identity of the writer. The dips of ‘g’ and ‘y’ and the slants of ‘k’ and ‘f’ were all keys to the writer. In equal measure, messy handwriting was given little tolerance.

The Acting Collector of Malabar W. Robinson sends forth a series of memorandums coming down heavily on a staffer with bad handwriting. Written from Wandoor on January 18, 1858, and addressed to the Acting Head Assistant Collector, Robinson makes no bones about his displeasure. The memorandum states, “The Acting Collector has obsessed for some time the exceedingly bad hand in which the public letters from the office of the Acting Head Assistant Collector are copied.”

No tolerance

There is no hint of tolerance from Robinson’s side and he advocates getting rid of the staffer straight away. “The writer of such a hand is he considers wholly unfit for public employment as a clerk or English writer,” says the memorandum. He wants to know the identity of the individual behind these shoddy letters. He is also miffed with the Acting Head Assistant Collector for bringing in such an inefficient person into the office. Robinson wants to know the qualifications of the person and states it in no unclear terms that he “would never himself think of allowing so poor” a staffer in his office.

In the second memorandum brought out on January 28, Robinson adopts a sterner stand. He bays for the staffer’s blood. He “considers the handwriting of the individual so very indifferent as to be a great drawback to his usefulness and cannot consider him quite eligible for the post.”

In the third memorandum issued from Feroke on February 20, Robinson goes ahead and withholds the sanction for this appointment. “The individual selected is clearly unfit for office,” it states.

From the memorandum one gathers that the Acting Head Assistant Collector is tolerant towards the staffer which in a way irks Robinson further. “The Acting Head Assistant may be willing to put up with his utter incompetence rather than cancel the appointment,” it states. But Robinson finds the writer identified as Mr. Vanspall an encumbrance. The Acting Collector agrees that Mr. Vanspall may be skilled in some other jobs but certainly not writing.

He states, “Mr. Vanspall may be competent for employment in the general service but the Acting Collector cannot allow him to enter it, by accepting duties for which they must know they are not competent.” He suggests that the Acting Head Assistant finds an alternative to Vanspall soon.

This poor candidature also prompts the Acting Collector to take a closer look at the appointments. Future appointments now require the Acting Collector’s sanction. “The Acting Head Assistant will have the goodness in future to submit all his nominations in the public service or appointments above those peons and subordinates under 10 Rupees for the information and approval of the Acting Collector,” says the memorandum.

In another memorandum issued on February 26, Robinson targets the Acting Head Assistant, G.R. Sharpe too. He wants Sharpe to inform him how Vanspall got a job in the first place.

Robison in the letter written on March 3, waxes eloquent about the merits of a new candidate for Vanspall’s job. Following the communication from Sharpe, Robinson observes that “the applicant has good testimonials and Mr. Thomas with whom he has had an opportunity of speaking about him, think well of him — He writes a very indifferent hand as the Acting Head Assistant will find from the accompanying specimens.” This candidate had apparently left the previous job as he detested travelling. Impressed by the candidate, Robinson asks Sharpe if this candidate “can do better for the office.”

Meanwhile, one sees that Vanspall is trying his best find another job for himself in the service. But Robinson is anything but encouraging and quietly washes his hands off the matter. In a letter to Vanspall in May, Robinson writes, “The Acting Collector has made no promise as erroneously asserted by Mr. Vanspall in his petition…he does not see any early prospect of employing Mr. Vanspall as a writer, for which the Acting Collector considers him unfit.”

(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)

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