Finding Your Relatives in British Newspapers

This outline was created and presented by Julia Mosman at the English-Welsh group meeting Thursday April 23, 2015 and is published here with Julia’s permission.

Why

Benefits

  • Fill in gaps – essential knowledge, such as suicides, sudden deaths, children who didn’t survive long, etc.
  • Adds knowledge AND understanding
  • May make family connections clear
  • Can open new avenues for research – may discover unknown relations, and surprises.

Frustrations

  • Newspaper availability
  • Cost of db access – Find My Past/British Library access is NOT covered in LDS deal, not available in “library” version (which MNGS, county libraries, and LDS have)
  • Condition of newspapers/indexing – error rate may be significant. Newspapers themselves contained errors – same last name in one article can be spelled three different ways.

Where

Online

  • Cyndi’s List
  • British Library Online [aka The British Newspaper Archive]
  • Individual & regional efforts, e. g., Birmingham Library website, West Briton Newspaper, 1836 to 1862, etc.

Repositories

  • Microfilmed copies
  • Local repositories – libraries, record offices, etc.
    2 places in Cornwall – the Royal Cornwall Library, and the CRO

When

Newspaper Availability

  • Some available from 1620; more variety in 1700s; ballooned in 1800s – many localized papers were created and disappeared in short time spans.
  • Newspapers of record (Gazettes) existed.
  • Bankruptcies by law had to be printed – but many were sent to smaller publications, probably to alert local businesses to possible problems.
  • Taxes were collected on each paper
  • Postal regulations changed – at one time (1800s), papers mailed to subscribers could be forwarded without another fee, so papers were sent to the U.S., N.Z., Australia, and other British possessions, besides within counties
  • Literacy levels were not high in various levels of society, but papers were in the possession of many “lower class” people (such as tinkers, carters, fishermen) – and notices, news, etc. were sent in by clergy and correspondents, so it’s possible for relatives to be mentioned, no matter their circumstance

How

Discover what publications existed for the area of interest during various time periods:
1. GENUKI – by county, depending on the county coordinator
2. Google – by county
3. Cyndi’s List (these are links to subjects, which have links to various websites)
 British Library Newspaper Collections
Concise History of the British Newspaper Since 1620
Early Indian Newspapers
Early Newspapers
English and Welsh Newspapers on the Internet
Irish Newspapers on the Internet
London National Papers on the Internet
Scottish Newspapers on the Internet
Victorian Illustrated Newspapers and Journals: Select list
Cyndi’s List also has links to non-commercial sources, e.g., the Birmingham Iron Age newspaper accessible in Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections.
4. Gazette Gateway –searchable online database for the London, Edinburgh, and Belfast Gazettes, the official newspapers of record in the United Kingdom.
5. Newspaper Archive–(a free database at LDS family history centers, you can create a “free” account).
a. Choose a Place (United State, Algeria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Jamaica, Japan,United Kingdom, (some nations omitted)
b. Under United Kingdom, check counties – they’re limited and do not cover all regions
c. Can also search by Country, State, City, and Publication
d. There’s a very good Help section, which includes tutorials covering techniques, PDF searching, using filing cabinets, and using search alerts; can also contact them via email, telephone, or writing
e. When I tested the site for The Cornishman, in the 1890s, images were not available
6. British Newspaper Archive–a joint project of the British Library and FindMyPast. 408 titles online as of 15 April 2015. “Searching the site is free, but to view the newspapers you have to pay a fee…” Can purchase a one month (GBP 9.95) or 12 month subscription (GBP 79.95). Can also use “Pay-as-you-go” – 40 pages, GBP 19.95, valid for 365 days. A one-off payment
 Monthly is valuable for people researching a number of locations. Pay-as-you-go is good if you’re not researching a number of subjects
. Yearly is mandatory if you’re researching a large number of persons. Remember, you can use the Free version at your local library, or LDS FHC as an alternative to a personal subscription. The site also occasionally offers free access days–watch for announcements of these.
Using the site:

  • Start with a broad search, then add filters; start with a name or keyword, then add information, such as a location. Filters are shown on the left side of the screen (Archive type, Historical records, Newspapers, books, & directories).
  • Choose from our collections (be careful of “default” entries)–British newspapers, Irish newspapers, PERiodical Source Index (Persi), US & World newspapers, Australia & New Zealand resources
  • Narrow your search results by County, Place, Newspaper, Article type, Date – from 1700 through 2000.
  • To search newspaper articles for an ancestor, topic, or person from history: 1. Enter the name of the person you’re looking for in the search bar at the top of the homepage. Put a double quote mark on each side of the name and click the “search” button. The quote marks will make your search results more relevant because they tell the website that you’re looking for a phrase. This means your results will only include articles in which these words appear next to one another. 2. You may need to try alternative names to find the person. You may need a middle name, or a different spelling. Many were referred to as “Mr. R. A. Smithers”, Mr. Smithers, or Raymond Smithers, rather than Raymond Alfred Smithers. If looking for a woman, she may have been recorded as the wife or daughter of somebody, rather than by her own name. Often, “the wife of Mr. R.A. Smithers” was used. Once widowed, she could then be referred to as “Caroline Smithers, relict of Raymond Arthur.” 3. You can also use extra information you know about the person to focus your results. For instance, Raymond Smithers was a chimney sweep, so enter that in the search bar too. Putting a + mark before the name you’re searching for will tell the website that while we’re interested in reports about chimney sweeps, they must always include the name “Raymond Smithers”.
  • Search by dates – example: 1720 – 1750, the site has these newspapers (not all that existed): Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Scotland), Newcastle Courant (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), Stamford Mercury (Stamford, Lincolnshire, England), Ipswich Journal (Ipswich, Suffolk, England), Derby Mercury (Derby, Derbyshire, England).
  • Problems I encountered using Find My Past, British Newspaper Archive, in March 2015: 1. Several “repeats” of posts, some less than well identified, some better. 2. The thumb-nail images give an idea of which is most reliable. 3. From approximately 20 “returns”, there were 5 articles in all, some unreadable. 4. Edges were cut off – the first or last letter[s] in a column. 5. Had to use “shortened” or partial surnames because they were misspelled in their index, not in the newspaper itself.

7. Fold 3 (available from Hennepin County Library’s website using your library card) has the London Times, 1785 – 1820
8. Historic Newspapers is NOT the same service as the British Newspaper Archive; it offers copies of entire newspapers, on a specific date after 1 Jan 1900, for purchase. However, it’s shown on Cyndi’s List as “England’s largest private newspaper archive with over 7 million originals dating back to the 1600s. A dedicated research team is in place for special projects and requests.”

The West Briton births, marriages, and deaths are regularly posted to a Cornish list on Rootsweb; almost every column has resulted in people noting misspellings, or mis-identified people. (Wrong groom married to a lady, middle names shown as surname, and so on.)

Newspaper images are indexed using Optical Character Recognition (OCR). OCR has  drawbacks, which one encounters more frequently the further back one searches in newspapers. Papers in 1836 often have tears, “off-line” print, blops of ink, and irregular borders – all of which cause problems even with good OCR technology. Then, if the paper is printing words in Cornish, or Welsh, translation becomes a problem; the OCR assumes an English spelling/meaning, and tries to force the word into the nearest approximation of what was on the page. This leads to very, very odd results at times.

That may be why the British Newspaper Archive only has the West Briton from 1862. The paper was microfilmed in the 1950s-60s, and copies of those films reside at St. Thomas in their special collections, courtesy of the St. Piran Society. (The society intended to index the paper, but the project didn’t get off the ground until the West Briton indexing group took it on in 2003.) The films go from 1836 to 1888, I believe, but the paper started in 1810, and films from 1810 to 1836 exist in Cornwall. Copies of the films are not available, nor will they ever be as the firm which did the work is no longer in existance.

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