Opening of the Newsroom at the British Library

Newspapers are, of course, one of our most important sources for accessing death records such as obituaries and inquest records. On Monday I was lucky enough to attend the official opening of the British Library Newsroom at St Pancras. Officially opened by the new Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, the evening also included a tour of the new reading room given by Stewart Gillies, Head of British Library Newspaper Services and a short talk by the BBC’s economics editor Robert Peston.

The Newsroom replaces the previous newspaper library at Colindale in North London which closed in November. Facilities in the new reading room appear to be first class. All original newspapers are now stored safely in a purpose built storage facility in Boston Spa, Yorkshire in order to preserve their life. Newspapers were not designed to last forever and many times after reading an original paper at Colindale I noticed that flakes of paper would remain on the desk after the newspaper had been returned. Therefore access to a large proportion of historic national and local newspapers is now provided either digitally or via one of 40 state-of-the art microfilm readers in the Newsroom.IMG_0667 Many readers will be familiar with the British Newspaper Archive website which is also available on-line at home for those who subscribe and via findmypast. The site is freely available to use in the Newsroom and, although a growing database, already contains millions of pages of newspapers. Use of Optical Character Recognition software (OCR) in tandem with a search engine makes fishing trips for names, places and subjects now a viable possibility turning up items that would never have been found before because so few newspapers were indexed.
Those newspapers not available via the BNA can either be viewed via the new digital microfilm readers or ordered from cold storage in Boston Spa to view at St Pancras but only if the newspaper is fit to travel. 48 hours’ notice is required to do so. The new microfilm readers in the reading room are attached to computer screens which swivel and rotate to accommodate the size and shape of the page you are viewing. From these you can enlarge and print out any part of the page you are interested in and, if you have a lot of papers to study, then you can save all your print jobs to print off in one go at the end of your session.

The British Library is not only responsible for preserving historical newspapers and periodicals but also for capturing and preserving modern day news via websites. Leading into the main Newsroom is a lobby area where you can access some 4.8 million pages of such archived websites.

The Newsroom looks like a great place to research and is already proving extremely popular with a wide range of researchers. To use the Newsroom you will need a readers ticket and full details of how to obtain this can be found at http://www.bl.uk/reshelp/inrrooms/stp/register/stpregister.html

With thanks to Amelia Bennett for the photograph which comes from one of the historic newspaper pages displayed on the Newsroom wall.

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Using Newspapers in Family History

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

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

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.