I’ve said before how important archives are. They are a gold mine of information and give us a fantastic view into our ancestor’s lives, and the newspaper archive is one of the best ways to connect to our past. The best thing about the newspaper archive now is that it can be viewed online and you don’t have to go the bowels of the newspaper building to see them.
OK let’s start with a little bit of history of the printed word and newspapers. Written words have been around for thousands of years and handwritten books were only for the wealthy. In the mid 15th century Johannes Guttenberg developed the printing press, possibly by adapting a wine press. In this press the type was set in the frame, inked and then a sheet of paper was placed over the top. A board was placed over this and the handle pulled. This printed the page and meant that multiples of the same pages could be printed. It also meant that the cost of books reduced and were now more accessible, well relatively speaking as most still couldn’t afford them or even read.
This printing method also lead to the rise of leaflets, pamphlets and newspapers, thus allowing the spread of information throughout the land much faster.
Newspapers were available from the 1600’s onwards and the rise of them was in the 1700’s in the UK. The first recognised newspaper was the Oxford Gazette in 1665 and still exists today as the London Gazette. Most newspapers were regional and included the important information from the area, as well as the major stories of the day. The rise of the national paper began in the 1700’s with The Times first being published in 1788. In 1842 the Illustrated London News was the world’s first illustrated newspaper and included drawings depicting the news of the day, some in colour from the 1850’s. In 1880 the first photo was reproduced in the US paper the Daily Graphic and the first colour photos began to appear in the 1970’s.
So why are the archives so important? Well it’s all well and good having these paper full of the news, but if they’re not preserved then what was the point. You effectively lose all the content that was published. Newspapers are more than just news, they are historical documents no different to old books. We have copies of historical books and documents, such as the Magna Carter signed in 1215 by King John so why not copies of our old newspapers.
They used to be stored in piles by month and year or in large books and you had to search through them being extra careful not to damage the pages. They were then scanned and put on to microfiche and you had to sit in a dark room looking through the pages. Now thanks to the t’inernet (Yorkshire for Internet) you can sit in the comfort of your own home and look at the papers. You can carry out keyword searches and find events and announcements. This is where it becomes valuable to genealogists. You can now search for your ancestors by name and it can help answer questions you have. This was great in the case of my great, great grandfather Peter Wardle. I had found Peter on the 1891 census in Knutsford jail and I had no idea how he got there. What had he done? So I went onto the newspaper archive and put his name in and tadah! Up popped Peter. He had gone to jail for contempt of court when he failed to produce papers needed for a trail. He was in for 9 months and I found an article from the Birmingham Post stating that the judge had ordered his release after he delivered the papers. Without the archive I may never have found out what he did as the records for Kuntsford jail no longer exist.
Your ancestors don’t necessarily have needed to do something newsworthy to be in the news. Families placed announcements for events. This means you may find the announcement of a birth, a marriage which may help you find a new generation of ancestors through the couples parent’s names and you can also find a death announcement which may list family members names and where they were buried.
Don’t discard the newspaper archive, they are fantastic and can help break down brick walls in your research and are also great as a historical primary source and can give you information about not only your ancestors but also what was going on in the world around them. Happy searching!