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Gordon Johnson Index Page

 Family History

Gordon Johnson

We tend to think nowadays that someone only gets into a newspaper by being famous or infamous, but that is simply because newspapers have changed dramatically through the advent of radio, TV and the Internet - there is less news, more celebrity scandal.

Modern newspapers for the last ten years or so are often available on the Internet, either free or at a fee for seeing a full article or page. This is because during this period computers were being used to set up the newspaper for printing, and so could be converted for Internet pages. Check whether your local newspaper of interest is available this way. There might be an historical article which can be of value.

Back in the early 1900s and earlier, newspapers were more frequently local, and included more detailed news than you find today. Your ancestors may very well have been mentioned in stories - or even contributed their own original writings: I helped one lady discover several dozen poems written by an ancestor and which appeared in local newspapers in Aberdeen over many years.

Much more likely are appearances as one of many names in a story. This can be a report on prize-winners at a flower show, local gala, or school sports event; routine reports on the activities of clubs and organisations; reports where local officials get a mention - crime reports, official openings of buildings, new shops, or expanded local businesses. Social and religious events often merit mention of individuals. The crime reports might include one of your ancestors as a victim or the accused, as well as lawyers, policemen and legal people. Witnesses at trials may be relatives of yours, and if your relative was actively involved, the court report may give you excellent insights into their life.

Another useful but less noticed source is the adverts in the newspapers. In earlier times, these covered the front page of local newspapers, with the inside given over to major reports of national and international news; literary reviews; fashion, war reports (frequent as the British Empire expanded in the 1800s), agricultural reports, fishing boats landings of catches; weather, and finally local news (happenings
as opposed to reports of routine events).

The local news was considered of minor importance, and a weekly paper would probably have only one column or so of local news under the heading "Local Occurrences", where you might see snippets about local fires, sudden deaths, presentations, unusual weather conditions, and oddities such as giant vegetables or unusual fish species. The finder or participant is usually mentioned by name. Unfortunately, most UK local newspapers have never been indexed, and where indexing has been done, it varies in quality and coverage.

For example, would you index the adverts by the firm's name, or omit the ads? Do you include every person mentioned, or just those in local reports? Do you include the names of fishing boats landing catches?, and so on. Every decision on these matters determines the quality of the index. In the case of Caithness, check with Wick's North Highland Archive (above the library) on their card index to one local newspaper (the "Groat") from its start in 1836 up to 1860, with some later entries into the 1870s. The North Highland Archive has one volunteer doing indexing of births marriages and deaths in the Northern Ensign up to the mid-1870s (see staff about these), and as time goes on, more indexing will gradually improve the way we can access local papers, many of which are now available on microfilm in main local libraries around the country. Local newspapers held in bound volumes are the John 0'Groats Journal from 1836 (continuing) and the Northern Ensign (1850-1922 ceased publication)

In the meantime, you can best prepare to use these by pinning down events in your ancestors' lives. Try to find out WHEN events of note occurred, as newspapers are filed in date sequence. Even if you have no
accurate date, if you can say that something happened at the time of harvest, or during the winter, that can narrow down your search period.

Things NOT to expect to find in the early newspapers:
Photography was slow at being used by newspapers, and where illustrations appear, they are usually engravings or other artistic
drawings, sometimes a portrait but more often found in ads depicting shop fronts. While photography started around 1840, photos don't start appearing in newspapers till 50 years later, and even longer for local newspapers. Look for family picture postcards instead, as these became very popular after the standard size postcard was adopted in 1899, until about 1918, when increases in postage reduced usage. Ones with portraits on them are mainly from the period 1920-1940, but very few were actually posted. Most were passed around the family by hand as cheaper forms of photo prints.

While colonial newspapers frequently included obituaries, those in UK newspapers few, and were mostly obituaries of notables - national figures, members of the peerage, and politicians and top businessmen. Most local worthies merit no more than a paragraph or two, if at all, unless it is the parish minister or burgh provost. Reports on activities of ordinary members of the public. Newspapers were subject to a tax for much of their early existence, and as such were bought mainly by the middle and upper classes. The news content reflected this clientele, so that the doings of the lower classes seldom got a mention.

For example, in one local newspaper I read of a major epidemic of cholera which had hit a fishing village a mile away from the town, where dozens had died. The only one mentioned by name was a local publican. The others, being merely fisher-folk, were not named at all. Each local newspaper has its own eccentricities, and may have changed its style and content over the years, so try to get to understand the local newspapers for your locality of interest, and you'll get more out of them.