Find Elusive Family Information in Newspapersby Shauna Hicks
Newspapers are a great resource for getting to know our ancestors better. There are the obvious references to births, deaths, marriages, funeral notices and perhaps an obituary. We can often find more detailed information on births, deaths and marriages in newspapers that is simply not recorded on official birth, death and marriage certificates or church registers.
However, our ancestors may also have had a sporting background, or they may have had an accident, or been the victim of a fire or criminal assault or robbery. Or they may have been the criminal and we may find them mentioned for petty crimes such as drunk, disorderly, obscene language, wife desertion and so on.
These days many Australian, New Zealand and overseas newspapers have been digitised and are now available on free or subscription websites. This article will highlight some examples and resources that you can use to look for your own ancestors in newspapers.
In Australia the place to look is on Trove, a portal site managed by the National Library of Australia. This site includes a whole range of information on all library formats, not just newspapers and my book Trove: Discover Genealogy Treasure in the National Library of Australia explains in detail the type of information you can discover on your ancestors. In particular, the eResources section allows registered members free access to a wide range of British and Irish digitised newspapers.
However, for the purposes of this article I will only discuss the Digitised Newspapers and More section of Trove.
Newspapers from 1803 to 1954 have been digitised and are freely available and capital cities, regional cities and towns are all represented for various titles and date ranges. Check the list of newspapers already digitised and don't forget to have a look at what's coming next. New titles are being added all the time.
When searching for a person use inverted commas around the name to reduce the number of hits and perhaps use a locality if it is a common name. For example, "William Atkinson" and Gympie return a number of hits on his death in a mining accident in 1912. Using a year can also help narrow down the number of hits. Trove has a number of filters which can all be used but don't do too narrow a search to start with.
Papers Past is a National Library of New Zealand website containing more than two million pages of digitised newspapers and periodicals from 1839 to 1945. This is an ongoing project so it is necessary to revisit to see what has been added.
You can browse the newspapers by date, region or title or simply do a keyword search using an exact phrase, any words or all words.
British Newspapers Archives 1710-1953
This collection of newspapers available through Findmypast.com.au represents one of the largest collections in the United Kingdom and includes thousands of local and regional publications across England, Wales and Scotland which have been digitised and indexed. It is an ongoing project and you do need to revisit regularly and repeat your searches.
Filters that can assist in narrowing down the number of hits include date, place, county, region, newspaper and article type. It's important to remember that newspapers covered broad areas and often stories were picked up and reported in neighbouring areas. To see a full list of newspaper titles included select "By Newspapers" from the filters on the left side of the page.
If you are fortunate to have a reasonably uncommon name then a simple surname search can reveal previously unknown information on your ancestors. For example, I searched for entries on Joshua and Deborah Eldridge from Monks Risborough in Buckinghamshire. In The Bucks Herald 17 April 1886 I found a notice of the death of Joshua and in the same newspaper on 19 October 1889 I found a death notice for his wife Deborah.
In another article in The Bucks Herald 4 May 1879 I found an inquest into the death of Joshua's 65 year old brother James who had committed suicide. While a sad entry, it did provide some detailed background information on the family and the community in which they lived.
Sometimes it is very hard to find information on our ancestors other than church records and this is where digitised newspapers can fill in unknown details about their lives. In the Sussex Advertiser 12 April 1815 I found reference to the sale of a property being used as two tenements in Horsham which was occupied by Luke Killick and others. The property was near the Queens Head Inn and consisted of about three acres of land with numerous fruit trees, hog pounds, a stable, sheds and a large garden. This description gives me a much better idea of how and where my ancestors were living in 1815.
Another family name is Pragnell and a search in the British Newspapers turned up a headline of 'Seduction and Manslaughter' in the Sussex Advertiser 24 July 1855. William Pragnell was indicted for the manslaughter of William Read at West Tytherley. Read was a married man who had seduced one sister of the accused and it appears that William Pragnell caught Read attempting to ruin yet another one of his sisters. He rushed at Read and struck him a single blow which killed him. A verdict of guilty was returned but the judge only sentenced Pragnell to one week's imprisonment. I'd love to know more but only the bare details were reported in newspaper.
There are lots of search strategies that can be used and site filters can also be useful. However you need to think how an ancestor's name may have been spelt, both given and surname. Was their name abbreviated or were only initials used or were they simply referred to as Mr or Mrs? Researchers need to repeat the search a number of times to make sure that they take into account all of these variations.
Where a site only uses optical character recognition (OCR) then you need to think even more laterally if something is not turning up when you expect it to. Not all digitised newspapers have been indexed like the British Newspapers Archives site so make sure you look at search instructions for the individual sites.
The examples throughout this article highlight the different kinds of information researchers may be able to turn up by searching digitised newspapers. In some ways it is like a big lucky dip, put in a name or a place and see what turns up. Serendipity may seem an inexact methodology, but just looking at all my 'lucky' family discoveries, I'm certainly glad that I can keyword search newspapers these days. However, I've been equally successful looking for newspaper entries to confirm information (and expand on the details) that I have obtained from certificates, family memorabilia and archival documents.
The biggest problem I have is staying focussed on what I am looking for! All too often I find myself starting to read surrounding articles which can be equally relevant if it is a local newspaper. It is amazing how fast time flies when looking through newspapers.
Digitised newspapers are a fantastic resource for genealogists and family historians and all of the projects mentioned in this article are ongoing with more being added all the time. Don't neglect this valuable resource and happy reading!