THE SOCIAL HISTORY BEHIND FAMILY HISTORY – NEWSAPERS

In this short sequence of pieces we have looked behind the basic ‘fill in the boxes’ of family history research to the bits that can make our ancestors ‘come to life’. We’ve looked at coroner’s records and wills and this time we are looking at newspapers. Here, as in other aspects of family history research, you must have a reason to be looking at these sources. If you don’t know why you are looking then you won’t know where to look. With newspapers an answer to ‘why’ coupled to a reasonably accurate ‘when’ is vital if you are going identify the ‘where’ to look.

The first newspapers were more like agency reports.  The Mercurius Gallo-Belgicus – in Latin and first published in 1587 – collected information from Europe and was sold in book format. The first regularly published newspaper was the 1622 offering Weekly Newes from Italy, Germany etc. I suspect these are of little use to most of our readers. In 1665 Henry Muddiman started the Oxford Gazette, which, in early 1667 became the London Gazette. This has been published bi-weekly ever since as the official organ of the Government – announcing bankruptcies, naturalisation and official measures — everything but general news!   If your ancestor was an immigrant or failed in business, this may provide a record.

A relaxation of controls following the ‘revolution’ of 1688 saw a flood of newspapers emerging – primarily in the major cities. At first they were weeklies, which became bi-weeklies and then dailies. 1690 saw the first provincial newspaper – the Worcester News-Sheet. In 1709 this morphed into the Worcester Postman and, over the next four decades, it stopped and started until 1753 when it became Berrow’s Worcester Journal. This still publishes as http://www.worcesternews.co.uk or http://www.berrowsjournal.co.uk for the digital version. In 1695 the Stamford Mercury was born and has been in continuous production ever since. It bills itself as “Britain’s oldest newspaper” though the Edinburgh Gazette – launched in 1699 – runs it close.

In 1712 a Stamp Tax on newspapers was introduced – a halfpenny on a half sheet or less, and a penny up to a full (folded) sheet. The result was that the ‘quality’ papers, like the Spectator, had to close down, but the scandal sheets were buoyant enough to survive. It was estimated that in 1753 almost 7½ million papers were sold in England. By 1760 it was 9½ million and by 1767 over 11 million. In 1776, there were 53 papers in London alone – the main home of the press.

For most of us, though, it is the local press that helps develop our family tree and discover many other facts about life in the past. I certainly make great use of them when putting together my various Blogs. Think about the situations that we covered under Coroner’s Records. A different slant would almost certainly appear in the local newspapers.   The local Magistrates Court reports are usually meticulously covered in the local paper. You may find great-grandfather drunk in charge of a donkey; Uncle Charlie found on enclosed ground with a piece of wire and arrested on suspicion of intent to poach or Granny being caught gleaning corn on the private estate of a disapproving landlord.

Less dramatic, but often more enlightening, are marriage and funeral reports. Think back – was your marriage or your parent’s marriage, reported in the local press? Was great-grandfather’s funeral covered? The odds are that, if they were, there will be references to the attendees – often identifying their relationships to the main players. The list of wedding gifts or condolences may well also identify where the individuals worked and/or their social links to clubs, associations etc.

Seriously – the potential of newspaper archives as a research tool is near unlimited and you never know where they will lead you. For example – I recently found something on one of the Facebook threads I get. It was a copy of a press description of a suicide but the quoted source newspaper is not, it appears, in the newspaper archives. However, I found many suicide reports over the years for the day & month in question. These provide some fascinating snapshots of the past which may well be summarised in a future Blog. I found something else as well that is much less gruesome.

It is nothing to do with wills or coroners’ records – or anything I have written about BUT it made me smile. I hope it does for you as well. It was in the Coventry Standard of Friday 18th June 1915 and reads:

On Epiphany Sunday a teacher had been giving a lesson on the Epiphany and its meaning.
When a little boy of five went home his mother asked him what his teacher had taught him. The little chap replied: “She has been telling us about a railway porter.”
The mother, somewhat puzzled said: “Whatever has she been telling you about a railway porter?”
“Well, mother,” said the young hopeful, “teacher did not call him a ‘railway porter’ but the ‘man in the station’ but, of course, she didn’t know his proper name is a ‘porter’”.
The mother subsequently found out that the teacher had been trying to explain the Epiphany and had frequently used the word ‘manifestation’.  The five-year-old had translated it into ‘man in the station’!

On this I’ll leave this look behind family history sources – though the subject may return.

I’ve been a ‘scribbler’ for years and a few bits have been published. The biggest one came out last November from the History Press – ‘The Peterborough Book of Days’ – 366 factual pages, c75,000 words. You won’t have to put up with that many words but will, I hope, enjoy some short(ish) pieces of fiction on beejaytellingstories on this same blog site. Have a look now – there are a few pieces to taste.

Hope to ‘see you’ over there as well as over here!

Brian

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