Newspapers are a great source for family history and can give you an image of your ancestors that you will not get from official records; this can be good or bad!
The first newspapers appeared around the 17th Century in Britain and across Europe. In the early 19th Century, in Britain, there was a massive rise in the number of newspapers produced. There was normally more than one title being produced in each town, offering something for everyone e.g. people of different political affiliations or social status.
The British Library holds the largest collection of newspapers and has most runs of newspapers published in the UK since 1800. They are currently working on a mammoth 10 year project, in partnership with Find My Past, to digitise 40 million newspaper pages and make them available online in the British Newspaper Archive. They have currently digitised 10,570,347 pages (25 March 2015). Titles that they have digitised can be found here.
Many local studies libraries and some archives also hold old newspapers for the local area. These are normally available on microfilm, but sometimes you will get to view the original newspaper.
What can newspapers tell you about your ancestors?
Newspapers are a great source for family history and can give you some great stories about your ancestors that you probably wouldn’t find elsewhere. Here are some examples of what you can find in newspapers:
- Obituaries and funeral notices
- Coroners’ inquests – (good source for these, as records are often closed for 75 years or have been destroyed)
- Birth and marriage announcements
- Attendees of weddings and funerals and description of the event itself
- Court proceedings – (for that criminal in the family!)
- Legal notices such as probate, bankruptcy, divorce, sales and purchases
- Articles about local factories and businesses – (which may mention employees, such as the retirement of a long term employee)
- Local sporting teams and news of local societies – (for your ancestors’ pastimes )
- Church news and Sunday schools
- Events at local schools or exam results
Some of the local newspapers may even include photographs, so you may even get to see your ancestor!
Even if you can’t find anything about your ancestors, newspapers are a great source for local history. It can be great to browse through the local papers to get a feel for the place your ancestors’ lived and get an idea of what they got up to.
- Browse through local papers to see what life was like in the place you ancestor lived – some local newspapers cover local events, anniversaries and community traditions.
- There could be advertisements for your ancestors’ business or things your ancestors could buy.
- If can be useful to look through newspapers if you can’t find any other record for a particular building or society, such as non-conformist churches or learning institutes. Newspapers will often include articles on opening and closing ceremonies and other events.
The list is endless…
What I found in newspapers
Newspapers can really help to bring your ancestors to life, unlike official records. The census is a snapshot of people in a house every ten years. The image I got of my ancestors was quite romanticised, a household with lots of children in a quaint rural village. How wrong I was! Think about what you get up to in a decade, here are a few examples of what I found about my ancestors (be warned, it is not always pleasant – all examples are from 19th and early 20th century and involve no one living)
One ancestor got convicted of receiving stolen goods (shoe rivets). He was aged 67 and got sentenced to two months hard labour, but a petition was signed for his release due to his age, health and previous good character.
Several ancestors won prizes at horticultural shows for their vegetables; one of which was judged by another branch of the family.
One family wouldn’t look out of place on the Jeremy Kyle show. The husband appeared frequently in court sessions columns for assaulting his wife, deserting his family (which he accused her of too) and drunk and disorderly. The wife’s father was also no stranger to prison after stealing rabbits.
Newspapers are such a valuable source of information on so many different aspects of your ancestors’ lives.
Where to access newspapers
This Wikipedia page has a list of links to online historic newspaper archives from around the world.
You can also find a collection of newspapers from around the world at the Google news archive.
The London (1665-), Edinburgh (1669-) and Belfast (1706-) Gazettes are available here.
The Spectator (1828-2008) is available here.
Welsh newspapers online at the National Library of Wales are available here. There are currently 7.6 million articles, 725,000 pages.
You can also access newspapers at the British Library, at their St Pancras and Boston Spa sites. It is worth contacting them beforehand, as some newspapers are stored in the National Newspapers Building in Boston Spa and take 48 hours to be retrieved and some newspapers are not accessible at the Boston Spa site.
At most local libraries you can have online access to the archives of the big national newspapers such as The Times, The Guardian and The Observer.
Local Studies Libraries and Archives
Many local studies libraries and some archives have collections of old local newspapers, many of which are on microfilm/fiche.
In the early 2000s the British Library started a project called Newsplan, to help microfilm and preserve local newspapers. You can find more about it here http://www.bl.uk/reshelp/bldept/news/newsplan/newsplan.html. The databases that were produced are a useful resource to help you see what is available and where it is.
The British Newspaper Archive http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/ Accessed 25 Mar 15
Find My Past, British newspapers 1710-1953 http://search.findmypast.co.uk/search/british-newspapers?_ga=1.110797702.2025586563.1425574293 Accessed 25 Mar 15
Google news archive https://news.google.com/newspapers?hl=en#I Accessed 25 Mar 15
Newspapers and comics, help for researchers, The British Library http://www.bl.uk/reshelp/findhelprestype/news/index.html Accessed 25 Mar 15
Newsplan, help for researchers, The British Library http://www.bl.uk/reshelp/bldept/news/newsplan/newsplan.html Accessed 25 Mar 15