Take your family history further | The British Newspaper Archive Blog


Take your Family History further with Newspapers

Newspapers are a fabulous source for family historians. You can be confident at least one family member will be named in the pages of newspapers in some capacity. From national stories to local notices newspapers carry details not found in traditional family history sources.  In this blog post learn what these papers have to offer you in your search for your British and Irish ancestors.

In our previous blog post, we outlined some of the main uses of newspapers for genealogy.  In this blog post, we’d like to turn our attention to using newspapers to build up a richer picture of your ancestors’ lives.


One of the things we wish for as family historians is knowing what happened in the ‘between time’.  What were our ancestors doing between censuses?  What influenced the decisions we see recorded in the documents of officialdom that we rely on – marriage, migration, crime.  This is where newspapers can help.  When you know the economic, social and political conditions faced by your ancestors you can begin to piece together a richer picture of their life. Reading about the events they lived through gives you an insight into the community they belonged to and the influences that were at work in their lives.  For most of us, our ancestors did not participate in the events which make it into the history books.  Their lives were lived on a smaller, local scale.  Luckily for us, newspapers are full of local news.

Searching for the village or town your ancestors came from in newspapers will bring to life the place and time your ancestors’ lived in.  An unassuming suburb or town is transformed when you know its history.  The first mention of the hometown of my Dublin ancestors is in a Scottish newspaper dated May 1739.  The article recounts the prosecution of a murder which occurred at the annual fair.  Standing in the town now, a fairly anonymous commuter belt suburb, it’s hard to imagine that it was the site of a bustling fair – which conjures up visions of crowds of country folk hawking wares and bidding on livestock.  To say nothing of a murder!  The case itself was a sensational one.   A drunken baron murdered a tavern porter in cold blood.  Although the death sentence was issued it was eventually reprieved and he was even pardoned!

Caledonian Mercury May 1739
Caledonian Mercury May 1739


It’s not necessary for stories to be sensational for them to be interesting.  By reading articles about the town the local cafe is recreated in my minds eye as the coaching house it once was.  An important stop on the way from the city to the midlands.  Through the newspapers I can also trace the wax and wane of the fortunes of the flax, steel and oil mills.  The buildings are all now derelict but throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century they employed hundreds of people in the village, including children.  Using newspapers I follow the history of the well know local hospital for ‘imbeciles’ (as it was called up to the 1930s) from its move from a neighbouring town in the 1870s through to its national reputation for excellence in the 1950s.

Downpatrick Recorder September 1872
Downpatrick Recorder September 1872

Wending my way through the pages of the newspapers there are more murders, accidents, and incidents.  In 1823 there was a riot at the fair.  In 1876 a seventeen year old patient at the hospital was accidentally shot dead.  Events which are now largely forgotten but would have formed a large part of my ancestors’ lives.  No doubt discussed for days and weeks afterwards.  Incorporating these stories into those of my ancestors’ lives enhances my understanding of their lives and brings them to life in a way that traditional sources do not.

Saunder's Newsletter August 1823
Saunder’s Newsletter August 1823


 …& Influences

Newspapers can also reveal the push and pull factors that were at work in your ancestor’s life and which affected their life choices.  Why did a brother leave behind a family?  Was he involved in political agitation, did he leave to fight in a war, or perhaps he simply saw an advertisement like this one for ‘lands for sale in America’ in 1797, and left for adventure and the hope of a better life…

Land for Sale America Hampshire Chronicle May 1797
Hampshire Chronicle May 1797

Family history is about telling stories.  Newspapers can enrich those stories.   A knowledge of local and national events will give you a better understanding of your ancestor’s life beyond ‘names and dates’.  Discover those events today and make them part of your family’s story.

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