Victoria Hamilton: The Scrivener

(reading time approx. 8 minutes)

In the 1940s, Victoria Hamilton was a former secretary for a real estate lawyer.  She found herself without a job when her employer unexpectedly died. She was his scrivener and particularly excellent at preparing beautiful documents. She had also prepared them for other lawyer friends of her former employer. In the profession, she was considered an “artist of documents”.  We, who were in the profession, became aware of her work in preparing deeds and other related official paperwork used in real estate. When we saw her work at settlements, we knew only one person could make such a document.  She prepared these forms on genuine parchment. It made them beautiful enough to frame.  She used large silver dollar sized gold seals on the documents for the notary seal and small dime sized blue and red seals for the signatures of the sellers, witnesses, and the recorder of deeds.  Each uncompleted line was filled in with red lines. The names were underscored with double red lines.  Extra large parchment, gold, red, and blue seals, red lining – wow – masterpieces.

Before typewriters, real estate documents were hand written in script, just like the Declaration of Independence. Lawyers who specialized in preparing these legal records for real estate were called “conveyancers”.  Even though the lawyer or REALTOR was engaged for this service, they didn’t personally type the documents. They were typed by their secretaries, called “scriveners” or “scribes”.

Most REALTORS and lawyers knew the name Victoria Hamilton. She was a celebrity as a professional scrivener. What made Victoria stand out from the other typists was the frame worthy beauty of her finished documents.

When Victoria’s employer died, she was out of a job, so she worked for her lawyer friends from her home as a scrivener.  She got busy and decided to rent space in the rear of a store in the center of downtown Philadelphia.  There, she could continue accommodating her clients. She set up tables and rented a few typewriters. The word spread about her services. She became so busy with work that she had to hire a few skilled typists.  She found them by calling the nuns at a local convent and high school for exceptional students. In a matter of a year or so, her reputation grew to where professionals from all over the area used her services.  She hired handicapped, homebound women typists, widows and shut-ins. Then, she rented more space for her growing staff.  By the 1960s, Victoria employed over 100 expert typists, stenographers, and proofreaders. Her office now took up the entire second floor of an office building on Chestnut Street, in center city Philadelphia. The shut-in ladies worked from their homes, and a runner on a bicycle picked up and delivered their assigned documents daily.  She shared her fees with the typists’ pool. Everyone was happy, and hours were flexible.

One such client was Judge Simon Sommerville.  The Judge asked Victoria to hire his unemployed daughter as a typist in her office.  Victoria said, “Have her call me. We’ll give her a typing test to see how she does.”  The daughter did not call.  The Judge called again, making excuses for his daughter and arranged another interview and a typing test.  Once again, the girl did not show up, nor did she call. The Judge called a third time and made excuses and another appointment.  The girl did show up this time, but wandered in three hours late for the interview. Victoria called the Judge and remarked that apparently the girl was not dependable or matured enough for this job right now.  The Judge became very irritated with Victoria. He made some unpleasant remarks and hung up.

Victoria was recognized by everyone as an expert scrivener and very generous about hiring qualified women with problems or disabilities that were keeping them out of the work force. She was her own charitable organization employer. Her fees in the 1960s, per document, were very reasonable – enough that the lawyer or REALTOR could then add on profit to the scrivener fee. Everybody was happy.  I know because I was one of her many satisfied clients. They were a work of art.

One day, Victoria was served a summons.  She was being sued to cease and desist engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. The plaintiff on the lawsuit was named as the County Bar Association. Ironically, most of the members of the Bar were Victoria’s clients.  They would never initiate such a case.  They loved Victoria and they needed her.  She was always an honored guest at all of the Bar Association and Real Estate Board social activities. Her clients were in disbelief and shocked. What is happening? Why the law suit, and of all people, from the Bar Association?

The word spread that Judge Sommerville was the motivator behind the lawsuit.  Apparently, this was his way of getting even, since Victoria did not hire his daughter.  The word spread of the Judge’s vindictive influence on the Bar Association.  However, the law was very specific.   Only a lawyer could prepare such documents, as a licensed conveyancer.  I never really knew a lawyer who actually, and physically, did prepare any of these documents. Their secretaries typed them.   Victoria’s defense was that she was a scrivener, working under the direction of her lawyer and REALTOR clients, not a conveyancer. A perfect defense!  Nevertheless, the case was stacked against her.  She had to comply, close down and was out of business.   Even if she could afford an appeal in the interim, she had to lay off all of her employees.  Hundreds of her clients now had to prepare their own documents, but couldn’t produce like Victoria’s staff of scriveners.

Before Victoria could arrange for an appeal, she died within a year of being closed down, heartbroken! Judge Sommerville coincidentally died that same year, his vendetta satisfied.  Victoria is dead, the Judge is dead, and over 100 typists were out of a job, and the Judge’s daughter never got hired.

It’s not a happy ending, but Victoria and her beautiful documents will be remembered for years, maybe even centuries to come.  No one discards deeds. Her work is immortal.

Names, dates and places have been changed, but the story is real.  Many of Victoria’s clients are still living, as I am.  We’ll never forget Victoria, nor will we ever forget Judge Sommerville.


On a personal note:  My late wife Winnie was a great admirer of Victoria Hamilton’s quality parchments. Winnie trained herself to prepare these beautiful artistic documents.  She proudly mastered the technique, or “ART” I should say.  She became an especially respected talented scrivener in our County, by those people who knew her work.

The word of Winnie’s skill spread among lawyers and REALTORS, from settlements made with other real estate offices.  Winnie learned to prepare the same quality beautiful documents for many of our lawyer and REALTOR friends as a scrivener, but it was her secret. Just before Winnie passed away, I discovered that she had a bank account with an appreciable sum.  She saved all of her scrivener fees. I never knew about the account until she became ill, but that’s another story for another time.