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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

National Events in Newspapers

Newspapers provide general background news and information, even into the 19th century and often from private letters containing eye-witness accounts of events and conditions originally intended for relatives and friends. Herber cautions that newspapers have always made mistakes because informants were often illiterate and it was difficult for publishers to verify information.

If you find an old newspaper retained by the family search it for relevance, one of your kin may have been directly involved in a national event. Even if they weren’t there will have been repercussions from wars, epidemics and bad harvests and much more. Many people retain editions for significant events that moved them personally, such as the outbreak or end of war, a coronation, Churchill’s funeral etc. Nowadays it is even possible to buy copies of papers for a particular birth date to see what was in the news at the time.

An example, from the time of the War of the Austrian Succession, is shown below.

Chart: National News in 1745

General AdvertiserWednesday May 29, 1745

  • News of shipping arrivals and departures from Deal and London dated May 27
  • The progress of the army in Genoa dated May 16.
  • News from Jamaica dated Apr 1:

On the 16th past arrived here Vice Admiral Davers, with the Squadron under his Command, as also the Victuallers and Store Ships.
Yesterday came Advice, that His Majesty’s Ship the Stafford, has taken and carried into Jamaica, two Ships bound from France to St. Domingo.
She has also retaken an English Sloop that the French had taken two Days before, bound from New York to Port Royal, laden with Bread and Flower.

Local Events in Newspapers

At first the provincial newspapers reported only national events, as mentioned above, but this gradually changed during the 19th century until at the end of it they were reporting local activities and concerns in great detail. With speedier communications, and basic literacy for most after 1880, people could read both a national paper and local paper. The former would concentrate on national and international news and commentary. The latter might give a totally different viewpoint on these issues, as well as report events and issues of only local concern such as fires, floods, railway building and enclosure of land, all of which would have impacted your ancestors. Note that although London produced the national newspapers there were many local newspapers in all boroughs within Greater London as well, although they generally started later than those in the provinces.

The upper classes would have come to notice more frequently as they were involved in civic and church affairs, business and social occasions. The lower classes tended to be noted only when indulging in less desirable activities such as poaching, deserting their wives or the army, drunkenness or absconding with money. In every paper there are scores of ordinary, identifiable citizens playing their roles. There are also the legal notices searching for legatees, disclaimers for debts of a runaway wife or profligate child, bankruptcies, auctions, sales of shops, farms and businesses, reports of meetings of the Board of Guardians, highlights of proceedings of the law courts, livestock and produce prices in agricultural areas, sporting events, scholarship winners, election candidates, military service, donors to charities, arrivals and departures of shipping in ports, and regiments in garrison towns, and visitors lists in spas.

Chart: Workhouse News 1836

The Times 8 Dec 1836
ST. GEORGE’S SOUTHWARK

At the meeting of the Guardians of the parish last night, Mr. Jupp in the chair, Mr. Hoole complained, that owing to the negligence of the contractor, and he must say the very reprehensible carelessness of the board, the female pauper inmates had been for several weeks without shoes, and were consequently, in such weather that, obliged to walk with bare feet upon the cold pavement. True, the shoes were there, but they would not fit, and they were also inferior to the sample. Why were they not, therefore, immediately returned to the contractor, and replaced by others that the poor women could put on? The guardians pretended to be men of justice and humanity, but he would put it to them whether under similar circumstances they would have suffered their wives and daughters to walk barefooted (hear, hear); and yet the poor women in the workhouse were not less entitled to shoes than their own female connexions at home. He hoped the board would forthwith put an end to the cruel postponement. Mr. Robertson, the master, here brought in several pairs of women’s shoes, which, on being compared with the sample, appeared rather deficient in size rather than deficient in quality, though some were pronounced 6d-a-pair below the standard. It was at length resolved that a fresh supply be forthwith procured, and that the contractor be ordered to execute his undertaking better on peril of being sued on his bond. Mr. Flitch said he had not yet received any communication from the Poor Law Commissioners on the beer question.

When considering your ancestors’ day-to-day affairs certainly start with the local papers, but if the item was sufficiently heroic/disastrous/criminal /gory then try the national papers as well. There is typically a great difference between the reporting, of say a murder, at a national level where the reporter would be expected to be familiar with the intricacies of the law, and by the local reporter who may not be similarly conversant but will know the family and local particulars.
Finding your ancestors in the papers may also depend upon luck with concurrent events. Just as today, your relatives’ events may be eclipsed by major stories such as a war, new taxes or a coronation. On the other hand you may gain a bonanza of local detail if it was a ‘slow news day’. If you find absolutely nothing in the local paper about a known event important in the area, perhaps the paper had an editorial bias favouring one group and tailoring their coverage to their audience.

Newspaper reports are not an original source even though some information may be primary. Since daily newspapers are necessarily produced in a hurry they are prone to inaccuracies; especially in details such as spelling of names.

Advertisements in Newspapers

Seek out advertisements for ancestors who were in trade, property sales, emigration agents and dates of ship sailings, patent medicines, descriptions and illustrations of household articles. Fascinating serendipitous discoveries await us all! Jones has an illustration of the auction notice in the Sussex Advertiser 1847 for the sale of smuggler’s effects including pistols and blunderbuss that belonged to the infamous Hawkhurst Gang in 1747. Less exciting examples from the General Advertiser dated Wednesday May 29, 1745 are shown below. A sale by candle was one where bidding started as a candle stub was lit and the winning bid was the last one before the candle died.

In 1927 the affluent young man could find the latest motor cars illustrated in the local newspapers, and the ladies could see what was in fashion this season.

Advertisements from the General Advertiser Wednesday 
May 29, 1745

Advertisement from the General Advertiser.jpg

Advertisements from the General Advertiser 2.jpg

(From the personal collection of Dr. Penelope Christensen)

Newspaper Car Advertisement 1927

Newspaper Car Advertisement 1927.jpg

(From the personal collection of Dr. Penelope Christensen)

Advertisement for Ladies’ and Children’s Clothing
1927

Advertisement for Ladies' and Children's Clothing 1927.jpg

(From the personal collection of Dr. Penelope Christensen)

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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.


  • This page was last modified on 6 September 2014, at 16:21.
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