A guide to using newspapers in your research in the UK

Recently I did a post asking for people to let me know what sort of things they would like to know more about, especially in terms of researching in the UK for those who live outside of the UK. One of those suggestions came from thegenealogygirl about newspapers, about where to look and whether it was worth looking in newspapers for people who tended to be seen as being more lower class or working class people – would they ever be in the papers?

It was a great suggestion. I often use newspapers as a great source for adding flesh to the bones of my ancestors and when researching clients trees and I often include these when blogging about my ancestors. There are so many newspapers that over time have covered the British Isles, from rural areas to big cities.

Initially when I started researching I came across the Gale Historical Newspaper Collections. It was a gateway to access sites such as The Times Digital Archive and the British Library’s 19th Century Newspaper Collection. I first came across it when there was a limited free access period and I spent probably the better part of three days solid using it. When it went back to pay per view I felt a bit stumped, but I then found out that my local library had access to it to – and better still I could access it for free in my own home just using my library card number! The Gale collections are often available via libraries and educational institutions around the world, so it is worth checking out whether your local library or university has access to it and how you can go about making use of it. It doesn’t just cover UK newspapers as it also has some American collections too and I see they are planning to have the UK Daily Mail archives online soon. Access to which papers depends on what the library or education instituation has subscribed to.

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A letter to the editor of The Times from 1847 – about a poisoning case in Clavering, Essex. One of my Pilley family was involved in this case – as a policeman.

The main repository in England for newspapers was the British Library Newspaper Archive in Colindale, London. However public access to the building has now ceased and the papers have been digitised (and continue to be with the collection being added to regularly with the current figure being over 7.5 million pages online.) The digitised copies can be searched on a pay per view basis via the British Library Newspaper Archive website. If you are already a subscriber to the website Findmypast then depending on what type of subscription you have you will also be able to access this collection through Findmypast who are working in partnership with the British Library Newspaper Archive. The added bonus with this archive is that it not only covers English newspapers, but also some Scottish and Welsh newspapers too.You can view what newspapers are covered to see if the area you are interested in is covered. It is worth bearing in mind that larger towns and cities papers would cover news from the surrounding areas – so check out some maps to see the likely coverage.

The only problems I have with the Findmypast newspaper search is that when you view a result it doesn’t highlight your search keywords on the page so it can take a little while to hunt down the correct article in a highlighted section – some are easy if the article has been refined and highlighted on the page and it is pretty obvious which one you want to look at, but others – the highlighted section can cover lots of articles! If you search on the British Library’s website then the words are usually highlighted to help ease of locating the right article. They do both give you a bit of preview of OCR transcribed text to allow you to decide whether or not you want to view the resulting articles – which is good if you are paying credits to view. My other issue is that to save the records they are in pdf format, and if you are like me and prefer things to be as jpeg image files then it involves taking a snapshot from the pdf or a screenshot of the screen rather than downloading the pdf and then saving that as an image in your image/photo editing software like Paint or Photoshop.

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An article from the Shrewsbury Chronicle of 1777 searching for a missing apprentice William Brown (the brother of my 6x great grandfather.) I particularly like the description of him!

If Welsh newspapers are what you are after then the National Library of Wales has done a phenomenal job digitising their newspaper archives and they are free to search. Like the British Library collection, this project is ongoing so more pages will be added as time goes by.

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The marriage announcement of my great grandparents from the Llangollen Advertiser of 1903.

Another great newspaper source is the one that covers the London, Edinburgh and Belfast Gazette – it was previously called Gazettes Online but now just called The Gazette. This is particularly useful for many announcements such as military promotions, bankruptcy, business partnerships, probate, formal name changes by deed poll. These are also in pdf format.

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A notice of a business partnership dissolving from The London Gazette in 1937

Another good website for UK newspaper archives is ukpressonline which covers papers like the Daily Mirror and The Daily Express amongst others. This is a pay per view site but searches are free.

And deviating slightly from the UK (OK a lot) Trove is a great source for Australian newspapers.

As for what sort of information can be found – well, so much! From family notices like births, marriages, deaths, obituaries, in memoriams etc., to notices of bankruptcy cases, legal cases such as business disputes, civil disputes… One main thing I like to use newspapers for is for researching criminals. Most papers printed details of the cases brought before the local magistrates at regular sessions, giving information about the people involved, where they were from, their occupations, the crime they had committed (or had been a victim of), any witnesses. I like to use this in conjunction with the Criminal Registers on Ancestry and Findmypast to see if a person named was from the same area as mine and more details about their crime. I’ve had criminal ancestors, ancestors who have been victims of assault or theft, police ancestors mentioned in relation to their work, and ancestors who have been witnesses to crimes.

You may also find references to charitable organisations, church groups, travelling shows, local politics, accidents, adverts for staff, adverts for services and products – great if your ancestor ran a business and had a product or a service to offer. You might find details of land sales and properties and another great resource is locating details of inquests, as many inquest papers no longer survive, they had to be reported in the local news, so if you cannot find inquest paperwork – check the newspapers for a report. I’ve found details of prizes for schoolchildren, prizes given at local horticultural shows (finding out your ancestor grew prize winning turnips and roses is always nice!) and details of shipping – for instance if your ancestor was a mariner and they transported goods from port to port and you know the name of their ship, you can often find details of their trips and their cargo.

So will you find the ordinary man and woman in the papers? You may well do! You never know what sort of things your ancestors got involved in, and if you don’t search, you might never know. I’ve found labourers mentioned in relation to fights down the pub, a great grand uncle mentioned for not driving with due care and attention, another ancestor for not having a licence for his dog, another man who had been drunk in charge of a cart and ploughed into a line of parading policeman (when he himself was a part time constable!)

One tip though is to make sure that if you are looking for people with pretty common names that you also add in something to your search to help narrow down the field. For instance although my 2x great grandfather’s name was pretty common being John Brown – I know that his family were the only Brown’s in Glyn Ceiriog so I used the word Ceiriog in my search and it brought up records relating to him. Yes you will bring up things that are no connection and the issue with OCR scanning is that often some words it thinks are there, that aren’t. You may find results where you aren’t 100% sure whether it might relate to your person or not – but it is worth filing away in case you can find any further details to prove or disprove it.

So have a go – dig around and I defy you not to get sidetracked along the way reading articles and at times being quite emotional reading about some of the tough and sometimes awful times people went through.

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6 thoughts on “A guide to using newspapers in your research in the UK

  1. I’ve also found newspapers to be a great source of information. The stories–even wedding announcements and obituaries– often had such a wealth of information and description.

    • They are great, and I am so grateful that organisations have made the effort to store and to digitise them.

      It is also worth pointing out that local records offices also hold copies of their local papers which are usually on microfilm or fiche but some have them bound in large books. Some local history libraries also have copies and often might have name indexes to make searching easy. For instance I know that the Oswestry Local Studies Library has a name index and they are always really helpful doing searches (as long as you are pretty specific to help narrow down what you are after) and they will send you copies for the cost of a couple of pounds to photocopy and post.

      It is always worth checking out what you can find and where to look.

  2. Thanks Alex for all of this information! I am going to have to restrain myself and wait to try out your trips until after my trip. The Australia info is right on track for me and I have several of my Scots who immigrated to Australia. Thank you, thank you!!

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