Your BNA Stories – Using Old Newspapers to Flesh out the Bare Bones of Your Ancestors | The British Newspaper Archive Blog


Your BNA Stories – Using Old Newspapers to Flesh out the Bare Bones of Your Ancestors

We love it when you get in touch to tell us about your discoveries in the Archive. Jessica Gilbank has recently started using the Archive to learn more about her ancestors.

Although Jessica had already gathered some info about her ancestors using BMD records, she wanted to see if it might be possible to ‘flesh out the bare bones’ of their histories – hence her visit to the BNA site.

In short, Jessica learned all manner of things about her ancestors!

Jessica takes up the story below…


Introduction and background
Ever since I was little, I’ve been fascinated by my family and how we are all linked together. I remember neatly writing out my family tree on scraps of paper from as young as seven but only getting as far as my parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.  It’s not that previous generations weren’t talked about in our house, not at all, I just don’t think at that age I was able to absorb or properly comprehend the value and importance of all the little snippets of family history that were being discussed in my presence by members of my close and extended family.

I wish I had, mainly because three of my grandparents had already passed away before I was born and the fourth I sadly only got to meet just three weeks before he passed away when I was eight years old.  This meant that unlike most other children I knew I didn’t have the luxury of sharing in a child & grandparent relationship that so many are able to treasure, but also I was missing out on their own memories and stories that they might have been willing to share about their immediate families & life events.  From a family history point of view I only really had what my parents knew about them from the perspective of their own generation.

Making chains for the Titanic
My mum, in particular, even only having a small amount of information to go on seemed particularly proud of her heritage and had always talked of tracing her roots but never quite got around to it.  She’d often wax lyrical of her grandfather and his brothers ‘helping to make the chains for the Titanic’ (a story which has yet to be proved but I have recently found could very possibly be true) and countless other fascinating stories, some of which by actually getting to work and tracing our family history through records after she passed away, turned out to have a lot of truth in them.

By doing this I was able to share information with my dad about his more recent family history and also further back that he didn’t have a clue about.  I became and still am enthusiastically devoted in my spare time to investigating my family history on all sides and as I’m sure any keen family historian will agree, although they are possibly one of the most valuable of resources, records such as registers of births, marriages and deaths can only take you so far.

Using old newspapers to add colour to BMD records
I have generally been very pleased with the outcome of my searches and have amassed a wealth of information about my family over the four years I have been researching.   I quickly realised though, that without photographs to put a face to a name or personal stories to add some colour, some of my ancestors would always just be represented by a few short words and numbers in a box.

With nothing to make them stand out to my children other than their ancestral connection, and nothing to give me a true glimpse of their personality, I set about finding out how to add some ‘flesh’ to the ‘bare bones’ of my tree so to speak and that is when I became interested in The British Newspaper Archive website.

Discovering that my ancestors were newsworthy
As a busy, working mum of two, I have to fit all of my genealogy research as my hobby of choice, into any bit of spare time I have, so I knew as soon as I heard about this website I would endeavour to make very good use of it.  I really didn’t know what I expected to find, in honesty I thought there would probably be very little that was newsworthy to uncover about my ancestors as I descend mainly from coal miners, agricultural labourers and steel-working families mostly in the north of England.  But still, I thought I might find some interesting family announcements in local news from days long ago.

And newsworthy not always in a good way!
How wrong I was! Just by searching a surname and place I had my first interesting piece a few months ago, which was a small article that appeared in the Sheffield Telegraph in 1902.  It documented the fact that one of my paternal great-great grandfathers had been a treasurer for the check-weigh fund at the colliery at which he worked, and had been imprisoned for embezzling funds.  I was certainly shocked and maybe a little horrified.  It seemed he wasn’t alone in the act but at that time he and my great-great grandmother had a young family to look after so it saddened me to think he felt the need to abuse his position of trust in this way only to have to leave them behind for a short spell in prison.

Some light relief in the area of carriage licensing in the 19thC
My thoughts on his sad situation turned to a little humour when I found a further article on how he had been fined 20s for using a carriage without the appropriate license, with his mother coming to his defence in court stating that he had only utilised it after he’d obtained the licence.  This got me to thinking what else he might have been up to, was he just a bad boy of the time or was he struggling with his circumstances and just doing what he had to in order to get by?  If I never find the answer to that question at least I now have a clearer picture in my mind of him and the type of person he could have been that I couldn’t have obtained from the facts and figures displayed on a typical birth, death, or marriage certificate.

His story doesn’t end there though.  Once a widower, I found he later married his sister-in-law, my second great grand aunt and sister of his wife, after she too was widowed.  I knew when they died but without ordering their spouses death certificates I hadn’t a clue what had happened to them.

A colliery accident
Another quick search of the British Newspaper Archive website threw up an extremely detailed account of how my 2nd great grand aunt’s husband had been tragically killed in an accident at another pit, which horribly seemed to be his own fault.  It gave information that I could have never found from a certificate alone and reading it made these people I’ve never met, and before my research had never heard of seem immediately very real and slightly changed how I had first looked upon the second marriage to each other when I first discovered it.

A sinister discovery
It was when searching for names from my mum’s side of the family that I came across my most sinister find.  I had started looking for the surname of another of my great grandfather’s and in light of the fact that I had only heard good things about their family; I hoped I might just turn up something positive with regards to the family business in the building trade.

I knew from census records that my 3x great grandfather was a Puddler in an iron works for the most part of his adult life and his son, was the one who had entered the building trade.  By the time of the 1901 census my 3x great grandfather was already residing in the South Stafford Lunatic Asylum and so, of the two, he was the person I least expected to find in the news. But by searching the family name in the newspaper archive, I was about to find out what was quite possibly the reason he ultimately ended up there.

A small article headed ‘A WIFE BEATER PROPERLY PUNISHED’ described how in August 1869 he had apparently for the sixth time, gone home drunk and, unprovoked, he attacked my 3x Great-Grandmother, this time brutally striking her ‘several blows’ over the head with a chair.  Not only that but he had previously been convicted four times of the same offence, this time being sentenced to a month’s hard labour, ‘without the option of a fine’ the article stated.

I’d often pondered before how he might have come to be in such a scary place at the end of his life but this tiny morsel of information certainly helped in painting the much bigger picture, and also went on to help me to find a piece in the archive on his own father being committed to the same institution as a ‘lunatic pauper’ in 1847.

My GG-grandparents made regular appearances in the newspapers during the Victorian era
So it seems my great-great grandparents are the generation in my family tree which attracted the most media attention, so far that is.  My favourite find has to be where I got more flesh for the bones than I bargained for in my ‘buxom’ Great-Great Grandmother, Ruth Fretwell.

In a story in the Yorkshire Telegraph and Star in 1899 her husband George, my Great-great grandfather, had taken her to court over her having ‘stolen’ a brown horse, spring cart and other belongings of the family home to the value of £16, while he was out at work a few days after they’d had a falling out.  The story appeared in two newspapers and apparently she had left him one morning and gone drinking at her mother’s house and could not be persuaded back by either her children or George himself.

In court, she argued that she had been the one to pay for all that she took and had accused George of ‘sponging’ from her as she had set up a hawking business five years previously to supplement his wage as a labourer.  Ultimately, they’d been convinced to get back together and Ruth agreed, but only for the sake of the children.

Using old newspapers to reimagine my ancestors
With what I already knew of Ruth, I now fully imagine a woman, hard-working but stubborn who didn’t take any nonsense, confident and not to be messed with.  George however, I now feel may have been a softer soul, again hardworking for his family and I get the impression that by taking her to court George might have thought this the only way of getting her back after the events that occurred.  That’s just my opinion and I’ll never know the truth in that much detail but it feels like it makes sense somehow.

The death of a wandering labourer (1896)
Still racking up the column inches, George’s name appeared in the search results again, this time back in January 1896 when he had let a wandering labourer who had been sleeping in outhouses inside his house to stay the night by the fireside.  What seemed like a kind act was met with a gruesome discovery when the next morning it was discovered that the poor man’s life had expired.

Another accident in the mines
I found that, in 1900, the year following the court case between him and his wife, news of George’s own death appeared in no less than four newspapers to my astonishment.  Yet another tragic mining accident, a cause of death that seems to litter my family history, was to be his fate.  He had been buried by a slip of clay at Grimethorpe Colliery at one o’clock in the morning, again working as a labourer, and had to be dug out by his colleague.  His neck was found to be dislocated amongst his other injuries.

With no mention of his wife Ruth or his children in any of the reports, and noting his given address I suspect their reunion after the court case didn’t last, although I very much hope it did.  I haven’t managed to find out what happened to Ruth apart from that she and one of her daughters were widowed within three months of each other, and that she was living with her two grandchildren in 1911, and listing them as her own.

I am hoping that she and lots of my other relatives might possibly turn up in my next search on the British Newspaper Archive website with further instalments (hopefully minus the tragedy) in their eventful lives, adding further colour to an already fruitful tree.  I have been able to share news stories with my in-laws of their ancestors, too, that they never knew existed, as well as reading the news of my local area in days gone by.  I always enjoy delving into the past and with more and more pages being added to the website, I will surely be back in the hope of repeated search success!

Jessica Gilbank.


3 comments On Your BNA Stories – Using Old Newspapers to Flesh out the Bare Bones of Your Ancestors

  • Hi my name is Stanley and my family are from Canklow/Brinsworth. My great great Grandfather had 12 children so the Stanley in the article may be a relation

    • Jessica V Gilbank

      Hi there, I have only just seen your post! Thank you for replying I’d be really interested to find out if there is a connection 🙂

      • Sorry i didn’t reply to this sooner! Do you know which newspaper the above extract came from and do you have a date? This may help identify which Stanley family it is referring to. (There were two separate Stanley’s in Canklow/Brinsworth at the turn of the century). Cheers.

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