The digitization of newspapers is rapidly changing the lives of many researchers today and the most useful database is without doubt the British Library’s British Newspaper Archive (BNA) at www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk As digitization progresses I am finding out a variety of interesting facts about my ancestors. Some are fascinating tit bits which help flesh out what I already know about them. Such is the entry in the deaths column of the Worcester Herald for 18 July 1857 which I discovered today for my great great grandfather William Clement Heritage. I already knew that William had died aged 41 of a kidney related disease but this short yet simple entry gives me a little bit more, stating that his death was ‘ deeply regretted his family and friends, and [that he was] much respected.’
Newspapers can be one of our most informative sources
Other finds are more significant – feeding me important facts that will help me break down some of my family history brick walls or providing me with graphic details of how a relative died. I have had two such important finds recently. The first concerned another William Heritage. This William had baptised all but one of his children in Ettington south of Stratford upon Avon and was last recorded there in 1798 when he contributed £5 towards the building of the new church. I had also found the draft for a lease on a mill at Whichford some 12 miles away dated 1799 that William was planning to take out jointly with his father-in-law Charles Chapman. Charles had died the same year, however, and there was no evidence that William had gone ahead and taken out the lease. The next known record for William was not until 1818 when he was buried in Haselor a village just north of Stratford.
The British Newspaper Archive revealed that William had indeed taken out the lease at Whichford but that he had not stayed there long, for in 1802 an auction notice shows him putting the contents of his mill business at Whichford Mill up for sale on account of his leaving the area. So another three years of his life have been accounted for but I still some way to go to finding out why and when he ended up at Haselor!
Secondly and more dramatically I found out more about my Westwood family who are one of the case studies in my book (see page 25). I already knew that one of Joseph and Margaret Westwood’s three sons to die in his youth was Joseph aged 21 but up to now I only had the details on his death certificate. This told me that he had been killed by lightning in fields near Cark-in-Cartmel in Lancashire in 1912. A search on his name and the year of death across all newspapers in the BNA brought up two items of news concerning his death. As is often the case these were to be found in local newspapers based many miles from where he lived and died and goes to show that tragic deaths like this are newsworthy no matter where the newspaper is based – so it is wise to search across the whole database rather than restrict it to newspapers in the vicinity of the event.
Newspaper entry concerning Joseph’s tragic death
Both the Hull Daily Mail and The Lichfield Mercury gave details of how Joseph died and using both articles together I was able to get a good idea of what happened that day. The thunderstorm had been brief but severe and had struck Joseph and two other men as they were cutting bracken. What was very revealing for me was that Joseph’s younger brother Thomas aged 14 had been one of the other two men but had survived. The Lichfield Mercury describes how Joseph’s body was ‘burned from the right shoulder to the right foot’ while the Hull paper gave the following account:
Evidence at the inquest at Cark North Lancashire on Monday showed that after the lightning had struck the 3 men engaged in Bracken cutting at Holker Bank on Saturday afternoon Joseph Westwood Junior was left a dead in a sitting position with his eyes open. Only about six inches of his coat was torn but his body was badly marked by lightning. Thomas Westwood 14 was found in a delirious condition looking over a gate with his clothes badly torn and Thomas Sargent the other injured man had wanted some distance before collapsing.
New data is constantly being added to the BNA so don’t forget to re-run your searches at regular intervals. When the Westmorland Gazette and Lancaster Gazettes for 1912 are added no doubt I will find further details about Joseph’s death.
You can find out more about Newspapers and Magazines and how to use them as sources for family history in Chapter 5 of my book.