Family and local historians have been eagerly awaiting the launch of the British Library Newspaper Archive since we had a short opportunity to test it a few weeks ago.
Now the site is fully functioning and available to all. The British Library in partnership with Brightsolid (the company behind genealogy websites Findmypast and Scotland’s People) have launched the first phase of a ten year project to digitise 40million pages of newspaper. In the first release some 4 million pages have been made available online at the website www.britishnewspaperarchives.co.uk
About 200 titles have been made available so far. While the current list of newspapers does go into the 20th century they are primarily for the 18th and 19th century, thus providing a wonderful resource for anyone researching before the census years. The project is concentrating on local papers and in the first release it looks like every county has at least one paper represented so the spread is quite good. In addition the Poor Law Gazette; Poor Man’s Guardian and The Odd Fellow have been included. It strikes me that the coverage is better for the rural counties than urban areas. Hull and Liverpool for example had several papers but each only has one included thus far. There is also some overlap with newspapers previously digitised through JISC academic funding, some of which have also been licenced for the BL’s previous 19th century newspaper online project – but that is to be expected and all the papers digitised with JISC will eventually be in this archive.
Local newspapers are fascinating and throw up such amazing stories. You can search by key words not only through the editorial content but in advertisements and illustrations.
I have found some remarkable information for my ancestors in the Hereford Times and Herefordshire Journal. As poor labouring folk they were often found as victims of petty crimes such as theft. My Great Great Grandmother Mary Churchill gave evidence in 1861 against her neighbour tried at the Petty Session for a brutal assault of their son – something that of course you just wouldn’t know just by looking at the families listed side by side in the 1861 census.
My most interesting find has been the reports of the trial, conviction and transportation at the Hereford Summer Assizes of Mary’s Brother–in-law and My Great Great Uncle John Churchill (born 1819). He was tried in 1846 for the attempted murder of Elizabeth Morris at the Turnpike House in St Weonards in Herefordshire. The story is reported in one of the longest court reports I have ever seen. There was damning forensic evidence as the constable reported measuring and matching John’s boots to footprints found at the screen. John’s brothers James and my Great Great Grandfather William (who the judged called the more “respectable brother”) gave witness on John’s behalf and it is reported that William contributed £5 or £6 to his brothers defence saved out meagre wages of 8 shillings a week. The Defence Counsel tried to prove that there had been a past history of trouble between the Churchills and Mrs Morris claiming this was a false accusation against John as she had once cried “I do hate the set of you. I’ll transport some of you if it lies in my power”. However her evidence and identification was quite clear and accepted by the jury and while John was found not guilty of attempted murder he was convicted of the brutal assault (described frequently in the papers as “cutting and maiming”), which left Elizabeth badly injured and unconscious on the ash heap. John Churchill was transported to Tasmania on the Pestonjee Bomanjee in October 1846, gaining his ticket of leave in 1854/5 and dying there in 1883.
The peripheral information about the witnesses in this case, such as the amount they earned and who lodged with whom, is fascinating and brings a generation of my family history vividly to life, and I would never have known about it if it weren’t for the digitisation of the Herefordshire newspapers. The reports proved some theories I had about the family and answered other questions – notably why I had not found John’s burial or death record. John isn’t directly related to me and his crime was very serious indeed. But I can’t help but be delighted to have discovered it.
The digitised newspapers are full of such stories and will open so many avenues of research for family and local history. Searches are free but you have to pay to view the newspaper pages themselves. The fees start from £6.95 for 2 days access and 500 credits (50 pages views). A month’s subscription costs £29.95 for 30 days and 3000 credits. Annual subscription costs £79.95 with unlimited access. Images can be saved in folders to your account or downloaded as PDFs. You can order an A1 scan of a particular page which may well be useful. Old newsprint is fiendishly small and while a printout onto an A4 domestic printer has come out remarkably clearly I do wish I had a larger printer attached to my computer. I must admit to a small hiccup with trying to download an image of an article that crosses onto 2 pages which still needs to be sorted out but the email support response was very quick and we are working on the problem. The text of the newspapers has been captured by Optical Character Recognition (OCR) which captures a transcription of the article on the left of the screen. There is a facility for the public to correct any of the glitches that OCR throws up and as a good collaborative family historian I have edited the text of the article relating to John Churchill and tidied up a few errors so anyone after me who wants to read the entry will at least have all the names and places correctly transcribed and thus findable.
All in all this is a great new adventure in family history and will enliven all our stories – good hunting.