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Newspapers in Family History

Contributed by Richard Ratcliffe

Early History: The Seventeenth Century

Newsbooks and News sheets appeared in England before the Civil War. During the Commonwealth, Oliver Cromwell tightened up on publications and news sheets. In 1655 he set up a Government Censor which gave the State a monopoly on what news appeared in print.

The Royalists were no better after 1660 and the 1662 Printing Act set up a Licenser which continued censorship and monopoly of the news. In 1665 the Oxford Gazette was licensed but was re-licensed a year later and renamed the London Gazette and subsequently claimed to be England’s oldest newspaper. Today the London Gazette is an excellent resource for finding insolvency data, public notices and honours and awards, both military and civilian going back more than three centuries. To check what information is accessible contact the website www.london-gazette.co.uk  or write to London Gazette, PO Box 7923, London SE1 5ZH.

Licensing restrictions were lifted in 1695 and this resulted in the number of newspapers mushrooming.

On 11 March 1705, the Daily Courant was published for the first time at Ludgate Circus at the bottom of Fleet Street and when the Evening Post began publication in the same area 3 years later, Fleet Street had become the centre of the London newspaper empire.

In the provinces the Worcester Postman, later renamed Berrows’ Worcester Journal, appeared in 1695 as did the Stamford Mercury (later renamed the Lincoln Rutland and Stamford Mercury). Both claim to be oldest British weekly newspaper which is still being published.

These early papers sold for 1d and carried mostly foreign and national news. They had no reporters as such and openly copied each others items. They soon began to carry advertisements to help cover costs – initially these were post coach and carriers timetables.

Eighteenth Century

The explosion in the number of newspapers being launched worried Parliament which introduced a Stamp Duty in 1712 of 1d tax on a full news sheet and a halfpenny on half a sheet with a tax of 1/- on each advertisement. This resulted in the closure of many papers but the more determined proprietors found ways of using the act to their advantage. A tax of 1d was the maximum payable so some proprietors increased the size of their newspapers to 2 or 4 pages and called them pamphlets which attracted less tax. Other proprietors ignored the Stamp Duty altogether and sold unstamped illegal papers at one farthing each via street vendors. Others claimed that their news sheets were stories/poems/articles and were therefore exempt from any Stamp Duty.

By 1730 there were 6 daily newspapers in London which become 9 by 1780 despite further increases in Stamp Duty in 1757 and 1776 causing most papers to be sold at 3d.

In 1784 John Palmer introduced his first Mail Coach services and this led to a much wider readership for the London dailies. Many inns, coffee houses and taverns bought dailies to increase the custom of their literate customers.

Nineteenth Century

Further increases in Stamp Duty from 2d in 1789 to 4d in 1815 as well as an increase in Advertisement Duty to 3/6 in 1815, failed to curb the number of daily and weekly newspapers being published.

The Industrial Revolution saw improvements in printing technology with the invention of the Stanhope Iron Frame in 1800 which was capable of producing 250 good quality papers an hour. The Koenig Steam Press of 1814 which could print 1000 papers an hour was quickly installed by The Times and the Manchester Guardian and later by the Staffordshire Advertiser in 1828, Western Times in 1835 and the Leeds Intelligencer in 1836.

The expansion of Railways after 1830 and the setting up of an independent carrier service by W H Smith in 1848 led to an excellent distribution network. News reached publishers more quickly after 1840 with the introduction of the electric telegraph which was more reliable than pigeons and semaphore.

Stamp and Advertisement Duties were gradually withdrawn after 1832 as many MPs became members of newspaper owning syndicates. Stamp Duty was abolished altogether in 1855 two years after Advertising Duty had been abolished. The price of newspapers fell from 6d to 2d and some new titles were as cheap as a halfpenny. Suddenly newspapers became commercially viable companies instead of the hobby or the sideline of a printer. From 76 newspapers in 1781 there were 563 in 1855. Free from Stamp Duty, the size of papers grew from one sheet to two as the number of readers increased. More people could read thanks to the growth of elementary education in the 19th century. Papers began to appear regularly in many public houses and the number of reading rooms in towns and villages proliferated – later these were replaced by Public Libraries.

By 1860 The Times was selling 60,000 copies per day compared with 18,500 in 1840 but had been overtaken by Daily Telegraph. The Telegraph, first published in 1855 increased its sales by introducing “Box” numbers for replies to advertisements and specialized in “Apartments to Let” and “Situations Vacant” sections. By 1870 it had 8 pages for 1d and daily sales of 200,000.

Evening papers began to appear after 1870 with London’s first popular evening paper The Evening News in 1881 and The Star in 1888 – both concentrating on sport rather than City news.

In the provinces, there were no daily newspapers before 1846 compared with London which had 14. By 1880 there were 96 in England, 4 in Wales and 21 in Scotland. Large cities boasted several daily papers like Newcastle upon Tyne which in 1874 had 5 dailies as well as 5 weeklies and Cardiff – 2 dailies and 4 weeklies.

All the London Papers and the provincial papers were published in a similar format in the second half of the 19th Century.

  • Page 1 – Advertisements
  • Page 2 – National and foreign news plus sensational news from anywhere in the UK and BMD announcements.
  • Page 3 - Reports from the Courts and local news
  • Page 4 – Local news, market prices for cattle, sheep, wheat, letters to the editor and short articles.

Early Twentieth Century

Popular newspapers aimed at working class families began to appear with the launch of Alfred Harmsworth’s Daily Mail with the slogan “The busy man’s daily journal” and “The penny newspaper for one halfpenny.” In 1900 the Daily Express was the first British daily to print news on the front page, while the Daily Mirror was originally launched as “The daily newspaper for ladies.”

Where to Find Copies of Old Newspapers

Copies of many London and Provincial newspapers can be found at the British Library Newspapers Library at Colindale Avenue in North London either in bound volumes or on microfilm. The Library comprises an almost complete collection of British newspapers since 1840 while London editions of daily newspapers are complete back to 1801.

There is a comprehensive catalogue on the British Library website that should be consulted before planning a visit. The Library in Colindale Avenue is a stones throw from Colindale station on the Edgware Branch of the Northern Line.

Recently digitised images of 49 newspapers published between 1800 and 1900 have been made available on a pay per view website. See http://newspapers.bl.uk/blcs for details.

Many Local Studies Libraries have good runs of local newspapers. A comprehensive list of their holdings can be found in Local Newspapers 1750-1920 in England and Wales, Channel Islands and Isle of Man – FFHS Publications [Third edition 2011 ] which is available from The Family History Partnership.

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