The Swindler Asgill

Posted on July 23rd, 2015 by Jim Shaughnessy

This story was submitted to us by Anne Ammunsden, whose exploration of the British Newspaper Archive led to some amazing discoveries and unravelled some mysteries that had baffled her family for generations

When I subscribed to the British Newspaper Archive I did so with the intention of trying to find some reference to a book review my mother sent me (when I was living in Tonga in 1986/7) about a book she thought I would enjoy. The book was a fictional story, located in Tonga, hence she thought I would be interested. I purchased the book in Sydney a few months after receiving the review, read it, and to my absolute astonishment discovered that there was a passage about real events surrounding my uncle’s death in Hong Kong, in 1941, when the Japanese invaded. I was blown away that these real events in Hong Kong could be conveyed in a fictional story about Tonga! After reading the book I stupidly lent it to a friend, and she never returned it. Since then I have been searching for this book in order to buy it again – but this is proving an almost impossible task now that I have forgotten the title and – worse still – the name of the author! I had hoped the BNA would solve the problem for me! But my near to 30 year search continues still, since I have not found a way of bringing up a book review from the late 1980s.

Since I got nowhere searching the newspaper archives for the hoped-for book review sent to me by my mother all those years ago (which would then tell me the name of the book of course!) – I thought that I would change my search criteria, just by way of contrast, to one word – “Asgill”. I am descended from a British army officer by the name of “Asgill” who was, though innocent, condemned to death by General Washington in 1782 – in retaliation for a crime he had not committed. He was eventually saved from the gallows by Queen Marie Antoinette, who pleaded his cause to General Washington. This being a well-known story I knew that just that one word would bring something up. And, sure enough, it did. 38 pages of “Asgill” articles!

Charles Asgill

Charles Asgill

What I didn’t expect, though, was that my search through those 38 pages of references to “Asgill” would bring about the solving of a mystery (within the present-day Asgill family) which has eluded them for the past 150 years. They have always believed that General Asgill had a son, called William Charles Asgill, who was the disinherited heir to the Baronetcy, and they’ve felt cheated ever since. It now transpires that their “William Charles Asgill” was, in reality, “The Swindler Asgill” who is written about in the following publications. Apparently “The Swindler” changed his name to “Asgill” in order to portray himself as the General’s nephew, and thereby swindle merchants of money to pay for his luxurious lifestyle! I was desperately hoping that one of the following articles would tell me the real name of “The Swindler Asgill” so that some closure could be had by the present-day Asgills by knowing from whom they really are descended. But it seems that “The Swindler” got away with his crimes and there appears to be no report telling the reader who this man really was.

Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier Saturday 13 September 1823

Southern and cork
Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette Thursday 18 September 1823

Durham County Advertiser Saturday 20 September 1823

Salisbury and Winchester Journal Monday 22 September 1823


Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette Thursday 02 October 1823

Bath chronicle
Had he been caught he might well have been deported to Sydney, Australia, where this narrative by me began.

So now I have two searches to conduct, rather than one; Who was “The Swindler Asgill” and who wrote that novel about “Tonga”?

It’s lucky that I purchased a year’s subscription!

Crime and the Blitz

Posted on July 17th, 2015 by Holly

The bombing of civilian targets in Britain during World War 2 is now commonly referred to as ‘The Blitz’. The song ‘All Stick Together’ released by Ralph Butler in 1939 summarised the need for Britain to pull together as a nation against the threat of an invasion, and the ‘Blitz Spirit’ has gone down in history and is still invoked today in times of strife.  However, whilst the vast majority of the population may have been sticking together, there were those who took advantage of the war’s blackout and regulations for their own less ignoble ends.

Air Raid Precautions and Blackouts

To make aerial bombing harder for the Luftwaffe, cities were ‘blacked-out’ at night. All light sources – from cigarettes to street lamps – that could be seen from the air needed to be extinguished or covered. Streets in Britain rang to the shouts of ‘PUT THAT LIGHT OUT’ from ARP wardens, and those who failed to do so risked fines or imprisonment.

Crime & the Blitz

However, although darkness helped avoid accurate bombing from the enemy, it also concealed the nefarious activities of looters, black-marketers and violent thugs. Contemporary newspaper reports reveal that the Blitz wasn’t quite the era of British stoicism and solidarity remembered in today’s national consciousness.

Looting, Theft and Black Racketeering

With major metropolitan areas plunged into darkness, the petty crime rate soared. Looting became a constant problem for the authorities, as did instances of mugging and petty theft.

Crime & the Blitz, Records, historical records, parish records, census records, marriage records, military records, newspapers, historical newspapers, how-to, findmypast, find my past, find my past uk, family tree,  family history, genealogy,,

Thieves took advantage of people being out of their homes in public shelters or the Underground to raid their homes for valuables, and stole directly from bombed out houses & sites. ‘Spivs’, now largely romanticised as ‘Robin Hood’ figures, often bought or pilfered luxuries from shop’s stockrooms and sold them on at an extortionate mark-up to customers.

Crime & the Blitz, looting - Hull Daily Mail - Monday 30 June 1941

[Private Walker in Dad’s Army is an example of the romanticised version of the Spiv]

Even relatively mundane items were stolen or removed from premises to ‘protect’ them. A letter to a Sunderland paper from Tuesday 26 November 1940 reported a stolen sink whilst another in the Yorkshire Evening Post reported the case of a woman who secured a pair of shoes ‘just in case’ someone else stole them!

Crime & the Blitz - Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette - Tuesday 26 November 1940

Crime & the Blitz Looting for 'good' - Yorkshire Evening Post - Saturday 30 November 1940

Violent Crime

One man, Gordon Cummins, used the blackout to mask a spree of killings. Nicknamed the ‘Blackout Ripper’, he used the Blackout to commit his crimes and move around without arousing suspicion, and was only apprehended when a delivery boy caught him in the act.

Crime & the Blitz Looting for 'good' - Yorkshire Evening Post - Saturday 30 November 1940

Cummins was not the only violent criminal to take advantage of the preparations for war. An elderly farmer who shot at police over five acres of unused land ended up in an armed standoff with them. When tear gas was thrown into his farmhouse, he donned his gas mask to negate the effects and continued to fire on them.

Crime & the Blitz 6 gas mask used to negate Tear Gas -Lancashire Evening Post - Tuesday 23 July 1940

Although these were isolated incidents, the newspapers in our archive reveal the harsh realities of the Blitz. Search our collection for more stories of vice – and valour – throughout the war.

If you’d like to learn more about the Blitz and those who lived through it, look out for the upcoming release of the 1939 Register – a record of every civilian in England and Wales at the outset of war – at Findmypast.

“Glorious News!” Wellington’s Victory At Waterloo, As Reported In Newspapers

Posted on June 18th, 2015 by Holly

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon’s defeat by The Duke of Wellington and the Allied Forces finally concluded a nail-biting campaign during which the fate of Europe had hung in the balance, and ushered in nearly a century of relative peace. So now, as celebrations and commemorations abound, our minds have naturally turned to how the news broke two centuries ago…

This wonderful extract from the Morning Post, Thursday 22 June 1815, paints a vivid picture of the response when word of the outcome reached home shores:


Morning Post, Thursday 22 June 1815


The article continues in the same emotive language, declaring: “Britain, therefore may indeed now be truly considered as at the summit of glory. Having saved herself by her own exertions, she has saved Europe by her example and support, and to her generous and noble sacrifices will Europe and the world be indebted for the overthrow and annihilation of the curse and scourge of the human race – upon which great and God-like event we may now venture to congratulate the British public and the whole race of civilised man.”

Wellington’s despatch from the battlefield is described in detail, as is its delivery to the king by the Major Henry Percy, who had raced across the Channel to share the tidings as swiftly as possible. According to the Morning Post, Major Percy  “proceeded to Lord Harrowby’s, in Grosvenor-square, where all the Cabinet were assembled, and there delivered the Dispatches and the Eagles with which he was entrusted, amidst the universal and extatic cheering of the populace [sic]”

The British Newspaper Collection have the power to make historical events come alive, relaying a unique contemporary insight into days gone by. Start exploring today, and see what you can discover!


We added over 150,000 new newspaper pages last month!

Posted on June 10th, 2015 by Holly

We added an amazing 154,078 pages to the British Newspaper Archive last month, including 49,420 for the Saunders’s News-Letter  and 26,572 for the Sevenoaks Chronicle, Westerham Courier & Kentish Advertiser. These new additions took our total number of pages to 10,932,393 pages at the end of May!


Subscribe for just £9.95 –>


Thousands of new pages from local titles to explore

You’ll find a full list of last month’s additions below, with the new titles highlighted in bold. We hope you enjoy exploring!


Title Num of images
Aberdeen Journal, and General Advertiser for the North of Scotland 2,541
Aberdeen Weekly Journal and General Advertiser for the North of Scotland 424
Ashton and Stalybridge Reporter, etc. 1,384
Bedfordshire Times and Independent. 573
Birmingham Daily Gazette. 6,326
Buckingham Advertiser and North Bucks Free Press. 7,939
Buckingham Advertiser and Winslow and Brackley Record. 322
Buckingham Advertiser. 6
Cambridge Chronicle and Journal 1,544
Cambridge Independent Press 418
Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser. 614
Edinburgh Evening News 4,680
London Daily Chronicle and Clerkenwell News. 2,071
Saunders’s News-Letter 49,420
Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser. 397
Sevenoaks Chronicle, Westerham Courier & Kentish Advertiser. 26,572
Sheffield and Rotherham Independent 2,823
Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette. 8,723
The Aberdeen Journal and General Advertiser for the North of Scotland 436
The Ashton Reporter. 2,096
The Ashton Weekly Reporter, and Stalybridge and Dukinfield Chronicle. 438
The Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press. 7,171
The Bury free press 499
The Croydon Advertiser and Surrey County Reporter. 996
The Derbyshire Advertiser and Ashbourne, Uttoxeter and North Staffordshire Journal. 8,258
The Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal. 565
The Derry journal 1,090
The Driffield Times and General Advertiser. 213
The Falkirk Herald and Scottish Midlands journal 1,334
The Fife Free Press, & Kirkcaldy Guardian. 3,966
The Fife free press. 422
The Folkestone Herald, etc. 818
The Halifax Courier. 1,393
The Leeds Mercury. 2,878
The Leighton Buzzard Observer and Linslade Gazette. 3,831
The Southern Reporter 443
The Tiverton Gazette, East Devon Herald, etc. 454

The Quintinshill rail disaster

Posted on May 22nd, 2015 by Alex Cox

100 years ago today, the worst rail disaster in British history occurred at Quintinshill near Gretna Green in Dumfriesshire, Scotland.

On May 22nd 1915, a devastating crash involving a total of five trains, killed 226 people and injured a further 246. The vast majority of those killed were territorial soldiers of the 1/7th (Leith) Battalion, Royal Scots, on their way to participate in the Gallipoli campaign.

Disaster stuck when a troop train headed for Liverpool struck a passenger train that had been moved onto the main line at Quintinshill. Moments later, an express train smashed into the wreckage. The gas powered lighting system on the express train ignited, triggering a fierce blaze that engulfed all three as well as a further  two other undamaged trains in a matter of minutes.

Daily Record May 24th 1915

Daily Record May 24th 1915

Many of the troops were killed as a result of the initial collisions although the fire proved equally devastating.  Due high levels of wartime traffic on the railways, railway companies had to pressed obsolete carriages with wooden bodies and frames into service. These carriages had very little crash resistance and were lit using the Pintsch gas system. When gas reservoirs attached to the underframe of the carriage ruptured, the escaping gas ignited from the coal burning fires of the engines. A lack of lack of available water meant that, despite the valiant efforts of Railway staff the Carlisle fire brigade, it was not possible to extinguish the blaze until the following day.

The troop train had consisted of 21 vehicles and apart from the rear six, which had broken away during the impact and rolled back along the line. The entire train was consumed in the fire.

Many bodies could not be recovered. Those that were recovered were buried together in a mass grave in Edinburgh’s Rosebank Cemetery.

Daily Post - May 25th 1915

Daily Post – May 25th 1915

The cause of the accident was ruled to be the malpractice of two signalmen, George Meakin, and James Tinsley. Both men were charged with manslaughter in England, then convicted of culpable homicide after trial in Scotland. After a year in prison, both Meakin and Tinsely were released and  re-employed by the railway company, although not as signalmen.

The Daily Mirror - September 16th 1915

The Daily Mirror – September 16th 1915

The Chelsea Flower Show In Historic Newspapers

Posted on May 20th, 2015 by Holly

The Chelsea Flower Show is a beloved national institution. Every year the great and good – and green-fingered! – descend upon West London to ogle each others’ offerings and occasionally throw shade on the sub-standard spots.

It’s an enduring tradition, and as our newspaper collection demonstrates, one which has fascinated observers all over the country for many decades…

Chelsea Flower Shocks

As is sometimes the case still today, things haven’t always run smoothly at Chelsea. In 1913 one punter’s dreams were dashed to petal-strewn pieces by a rogue piece of canvas, a tragedy significant enough to earn inches in the Lincolnshire Echo on 22 May 1913:

Chelsea Flower Show - Lincolnshire Echo - Thursday 22 May 1913 - Mishaps


Even a century ago, the Chelsea Flower Show attracted the aristocrats like bees to sweet pollen. Queen Alexandra’s visit to the show was reported by the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Adviser in 1913.

Orchids were evidently the flower of the moment, as the Royals were apparently  very taken with them (thankfully their visit fell a day before the canvas disaster):

Chelsea Flower Show - Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Wednesday 21 May 1913 (2)


Innovation has always been celebrated at Chelsea, though hopefully modern bursts of ingenuity are more PETA-friendly:

Chelsea Flower Show - Sheffield Evening Telegraph - Friday 23 May 1913

Sheffield Evening Telegraph, Friday 23 May 1913


Above all, The Chelsea Flower Show is a place where people with a deep love of plants and growing come together to celebrate their passion.

The care involved when presenting the fruits of their labour has always impressed, as this final article from the Aberdeen Journal (20 May 1913) testifies:

Chelsea Flower Show - Aberdeen Journal - Tuesday 20 May 1913

Were your ancestors gardeners, or perhaps among the crowds at one of the Chelsea shows decades ago? Please share your family’s stories in the comments below – but remember to enjoy the great outdoors this week as well!


Waterloo and the British Press

Posted on May 18th, 2015 by Holly

This blog was submitted by Professor Brian Cathcart. Brian is a professor of journalism at Kingston University London. His book, The News From Waterloo: the race to tell Britain of Wellington’s victory, is published on 30 April by Faber & Faber, price £16.99


How long did it take for the news of Waterloo to reach London? In this bicentenary year of the battle it is something we might expect to know, but the facts turned out to be surprisingly elusive and the newspapers of the day proved vital in delivering a plausible answer.

There is what might be called an official narrative, which is that the Duke of Wellington’s official dispatch arrived late on the night of Wednesday, 21 June 1815, three days and a few hours after the victory was certain. The papers of the next day reported this jubilantly:



Delve a little deeper into the British Newspaper Archive, however, and it’s clear that unofficial reports arrived earlier.

One good if unexpected source is the Caledonian Mercury of Edinburgh that appeared the following Saturday. These reports (which I stumbled upon while sitting on my sofa at home with my laptop on my knee) were written in London on the evening of that Wednesday, hours before the official dispatch arrived.

1. “Various Accounts”Various_accounts, British Newspaper Archive, BNA, genealogy, family history, family tree,


2. “Mr C of Dover”

Various_accounts, British Newspaper Archive, BNA, genealogy, family history, family tree,

3. “Brussels”

Various_accounts, British Newspaper Archive, BNA, genealogy, family history, family tree,


The Caledonian Mercury also referred to some different reports suggesting that there might have been, not a victory, but a defeat.

A look at the London Morning Chronicle published that Wednesday morning (21 June) adds some further complications. Here is something from page 3:


Various_accounts, British Newspaper Archive, BNA, genealogy, family history, family tree,


This refers to the Tuesday evening – 24 hours and more before before the official messenger reached London.

And then there is this, also from that morning’s Chronicle (page 2):




According to the Morning Chronicle, therefore, its rival the Post had reported a great victory on the Tuesday morning, some 36 hours before the official dispatch. And this is confirmed by other papers, although sadly that special edition of the Post seems to be lost to us.

Who brought the news of Waterloo and when have been matters of interest to historians since the Victorian age and a variety of accounts have emerged over the years, but this range of newspaper reports alone (and there is much more in these papers) was enough to transform the picture.

They complicate matters, but they also trump many of the other tales in terms of credibility. These are not – as some are – urban legends. Nor are they based on casual or partisan reminiscences, written decades later, as others are. Instead we know they are contemporaneous to the events.

Of course this does not mean they could simply be taken at face value – it turned out, for example, that the announcement at Covent Garden was a hoax. But the newspapers of those days in June 1815 opened doors which had never even been tried before.

Added last month: 10 new titles and 145,000 new pages

Posted on May 13th, 2015 by Holly

April was a wonderful month for new publications, with 10 titles added to the British Newspaper Archive. These included the Berwickshire Advertiser for years between 1830-1955, The Derry Journal, and Glasgow Sentinel.


Subscribe for just £9.95 –>

Thousands of new pages from local titles to explore

You’ll find a full list of last month’s additions below, with the new titles highlighted in bold. We hope you enjoy exploring!


Aris’s Birmingham Gazette 1863, 1868 – 1870
Ayrshire Express 1863
Berwickshire Advertiser, The 1830, 1834, 1838, 1863, 1871, 1873, 1875 – 1876, 1878, 1880, 1915, 1931 – 1949, 1951 – 1955
Birmingham Daily Gazette 1863 – 1864
Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press 1948 – 1950, 1952 – 1955
Burnley Express 1887 – 1888
Burton Daily Mail 1917
Bury Free Press 1872, 1914
Clerkenwell News 1871
Coventry Standard 1868 – 1871
Cumberland Pacquet, and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser 1844 – 1846, 1867
Derry Journal 1825, 1835 – 1878, 1891 – 1903, 1916 – 1924, 1926 – 1929, 1937 – 1942
Fife Free Press, & Kirkcaldy Guardian 1894 – 1899, 1934, 1939 – 1945
Glasgow Courant 1746
Glasgow Sentinel 1850 – 1854
Gloucestershire Chronicle 1927
Gloucestershire Echo 1900
Greenock Advertiser 1871
Halifax Courier 1899
Hawick News and Border Chronicle 1889
Lancaster Gazette 1803
Leicester Daily Mercury 1877
Leicester Mail 1865 – 1870
Leighton Buzzard Observer and Linslade Gazette 1863 – 1889
Lincolnshire Free Press 1895 – 1899, 1911
Luton Times and Advertiser 1855
Newcastle Journal 1868 – 1870
Nottingham Gazette, and Political, Literary, Agricultural & Commercial Register for the Midland Counties. 1814 – 1815
Nottingham Review and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties 1825, 1827 – 1852
Nottinghamshire Guardian 1847
Portsmouth Evening News 1952
Prescot Reporter, and St. Helens General Advertiser 1875
Rochdale Observer 1857, 1868 – 1870
Salisbury and Winchester Journal 1751
Saunders’s News-Letter 1773, 1789, 1792 – 1793, 1796 – 1797, 1799, 1808 – 1811, 1860
Sheffield Independent 1911
Sheffield Iris 1841 – 1843
Tiverton Gazette (Mid-Devon Gazette) 1900
Ulster Gazette 1844
Walsall Advertiser 1879 – 1894, 1911 – 1915
Waterford Chronicle 1850
Yorkshire Early Bird 1910
Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 1955

How Britain celebrated VE day

Posted on May 8th, 2015 by Alex Cox

On 30 April 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in a Berlin bunker. After his death, Reichspräsident Karl Dönitz took the reins of power and headed a new administration known as the Flensburg Government. On May the 7th, Dönitz and his staff met with allied commanders in Reims, France to sign the formal act of military surrender ending nearly 6 years of total war in Europe.

Celebrations erupted throughout the world from Moscow to Melbourne. More than one million people took to the streets to celebrate and In London while crowds massed in Trafalgar Square and up the Mall to Buckingham Palace, where King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, appeared on the balcony of the palace before the cheering crowds. Even Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret were allowed to take part in the celebrations and wander incognito among the crowds.

On May 8th, exactly 70 years ago today, street parties were held in towns and villages the length and breadth of the country and local reporters were on hand to photograph and record the festivities.


Chelmsford Chronicle 11 May 1945


12 May 1945 Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette

12 May 1945 Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette


Gloucester Journal- 26 May 1945

Gloucester Journal- 26 May 1945


Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette - Saturday 19 May 19

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette – Saturday 19 May 19


Writing a first-class History dissertation: How newspapers can help

Posted on April 13th, 2015 by The British Newspaper Archive


Ruth Small studied History at Newcastle University and recently got in touch to tell us all about her dissertation.

She used The British Newspaper Archive in her research and was awarded a first-class mark, with some amazing comments about the originality of her work.

I wrote my History dissertation about the great fire of Newcastle and Gateshead, which occurred on 6 October 1854. It was a fire which led to an explosion in a warehouse of a magnitude that no one had ever witnessed before. Consequently, the newspaper reports also spread like wildfire, becoming national news within two days.

By using The British Newspaper Archive’s advanced search, it was easy to find reports about the disaster. Within seconds, I found out how it had affected both young and old, rich and poor, with some very graphic reports of a country in shock.

Newspaper reports about Newcastle’s great fire in 1854

It was mainly the poor that were affected as their housing was destroyed in the fire, but I was also able to find gems such as the Newcastle Courant’s feelings about Reverend John Storie’s scathing sermon, in which he declared that the fire was ‘God’s Judgement on an Ungodly City’. Unsurprisingly, the Courant was not very impressed by his opinion!
Reverend John Storie claimed that Newcastle's great fire in 1854 was 'God's Judgement on an Ungodly City'

Newcastle Courant – Friday 03 November 1854

View the whole newspaper page


The London Daily News stated that the fire had been a case of ‘good timing’, clearing the town’s slums which had been riddled with cholera only the year before. The newspaper made comparisons with London’s great fire, which followed the plague in the seventeenth century.

With comments such as the ‘vast numbers of colliers who do not wash their skins for months’ an outraged Newcastle Courant stepped in to defend them stating categorically that they do wash every day ‘from head to foot’!
The London Daily News argued that the great fire of Newcastle and Gateshead in 1854 was a case of 'good timing'

London Daily News – Tuesday 10 October 1854

View the whole newspaper page


Dissertation was ‘a truly original study’

I was able to investigate the extent of the reports, both the length of them and the national coverage. I found that there were 360 articles longer that one column reported in most corners of England, Scotland and Ireland, but surprisingly not in Wales.

Although reading through these took a few days, I dread to think how long this would have taken before digitisation, let alone the miles of travel involved!

I received some amazing comments, particularly regarding the originality of the dissertation; that it ‘represents a truly original study’ and ‘fills a huge gap in regional history research [also] emphasising the supra-regional national significance of the fire’. So all I can say is ‘thank you’ to The British Newspaper Archive!




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