A new local history source that wows

I have just spent a morning looking at new British Library online service, British Newspapers 1800–1900, and I have seen the future. For the first time ever, local historians and other users, regardless of their location, are able to explore over two million newspaper pages from forty-nine national and regional UK titles, all at the click of a button.

The online search facilities are very easy to use and enable the newspapers and periodicals to be searched in microscopic depth. I searched not just by place names, but street names as well, for places whose newspapers were not included in this first group of 19th century newspapers and, every time, some entries were found: there were 8,512 entries for 'Lenton' and 274 entries for 'New Lenton', the part of Lenton where I live. I found 8,512 entries for 'West Bromwich Albion' and 1,016 for 'Wembley'. I also searched by dates for late-June in different years throughout the 19th century and came across lots of topical stories which would not be out of place in 2009.

In other words, the fact that a 19th century newspaper from your town or city is not included should not deter you from visiting (and using) this new database. I picked a few places at random and came up with the following hits: Norwich (179,328); Hereford (113,975); Swindon (27,028); Leeds (713,372); Braintree (7,296); Croydon (104,440) and Weymouth (40,220). All places which are miles from any of the towns whose newspapers are in the database. It is also easy to use: under the 'Advanced search' heading, type in the location and it will then show you the total hits divided into five groups: advertising, arts & sports, business, news and people. It's most user-friendly online database I have ever used.

Among my New Lenton finds was a long and detailed account in the Derby Mercury, dated 26 May 1841, of a 'Wilful Murder' in New Lenton of an unknown baby, found in a local dyke by two men. What attracted my attention was the account of how the men saw and followed footprints until they disappeared in a bed of nettles. A fourteen year old, James Jackson, who was with the men, made a lengthy statement at the inquest about what had happened and is quoted as saying 'I feel certain that the mark at the bottom of the dyke was made by a woman's shoe, which had not nails or tacks in it. I saw the constable take the measure of the foot-mark, and thought it was a rather large foot'. The matter of fact way in which this is reported suggests to me that the constable was doing something that was expected of him. If so, then forensic work by early-Victorian policemen must have been more common than many of us realise.

Stockport Infirmary

An entry in the Preston Chronicle from 25 June 1859 on 'Election Expenses' tells you just how far we haven't come in the last 150 years. The article addresses the issue at some length: 'Much as has been done by legislation to put a stop to corrupt expenditure, there would appear to be a large door yet open for corruption. The numerous election petitions that have been presented to the present parliament allege that corrupt agencies are at work in many boroughs; and should the inquiry which these petitions demand be gone on with, we have the disclosure of pretty doings in many constituencies… The Corrupt Practices at Elections Act, which was passed in 1854, has done some little in checking expenditure, but is deficient in several particulars.' After citing several examples of 'corrupt practices' in different parts of England, the story concludes by saying 'It would be as well to legalise bribery at once, as to permit the present system of paying for votes under another name'. No doubt a search of the site will find similar reports in other newspapers, although I came across this one purely by chance.

On a more cheerful note, I liked the story in the Manchester Times (above right), dated 30 November 1900, about the 'Stockport Infirmary Extension' with all its new facilities, which must have seemed fantastic to those reading the report at the time. The fact that we have been able to download the page, then capture the news story for you to see, tells you just how good this new British Library online newspaper search facility is.

Through London by Omnibus

Again, by chance, I found a full-page, unsigned, story in the The Graphic (left), dated 6 September 1889, 'Through London by Omnibus', in which the writer, at first, deluges his reader with a mass of fact and figures about London, before moving on to to describe the extent of 'Greater London' and some of its less famous landmarks, as well its well known buildings. However he argues that all this information tells you little if you do not discover London for yourself and says: 'The only way to gain a true and adequate impression of the metropolis of the world is to take it by degrees, and first to familiarise our minds to it by the easy study of its great central thoroughfares from the top of an omnibus'. As someone who, back in the 1950s, explored London from the top of buses and trolleybuses on countless weekends, and during school holidays, with the help of a bus map and a 2/6d 'Red Rover' ticket, this article spoke to me and described a London both recognisable, and alien, at the same time.

I am sure this wonderful online collection of 19th century UK newspapers is full of such articles and stories waiting to be discovered by local historians and others. I look forward to other newspapers being included in the database. At current prices, it will cost £750millions so I know it will take a long time but, just think, one day every newspaper in the British Library's collection of newspaper and periodicals will be searchable in this way. As for the money, in the order of things, given what our government does spend money on, this is an affordable project. I may not live to see it completed, but I have seen enough to be excited and to marvel at what will be.

Now, the good news and the bad news. You can search the site for free, but downloads have to be paid for. A 24-hour pass (up to 100 downloads) costs £6.99 or you can buy a seven-day pass (up to 200 downloads) for £9.99. Access to The Graphic and The Penny Illustrated Paper is free.

Robert Howard

23 June 2009

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