Digging into Nineteenth Century newspapers

As a private project I have been researching the history of a small village in South Leicestershire. One of the most productive sources of stories to write about has been the collection of nineteenth century newspapers available to staff and students of De Montfort University. One thing that has struck me is how often the events in an otherwise forgotten village resonate with national events and debates at the time.

Digging around this collection has also given me a better appreciation of the range of research areas in the University where stories in old newspapers can provide important insights. For example:

Epidemiology

In February 1828 two people from the neighbouring village of Arnesby died of the fever prevailing in that village. The newspaper noted a possible link with the sanitary conditions of such villages, highlighting the lack of outdoor conveniences in several of the houses where Shearsby’s poor lived. The resulting conditions, with myriads of insects being generated, were deplored as a disgrace in the centre of england, in the nineteenth century. It was suggested that the county magistrates should do something about these conditions.

Compare the anecdotal reports of 1828 with the detailed reports reaching the Rural Sanitary Authority meeting in Lutterworth Workhouse in January 1890.  Again Shearsby gets a mention as the Inspector had come across a case of scarlet fever there. He had supplied disinfectants and could report that there had been no further cases to his knowledge. The meeting heard reports from villages across South Leicestershire and parts of Warwickshire with a theme of overcrowding and inadequate sanitation. In fact, the same themes of fever, toilets and insects dominate, but there is an increased confidence that there was something that both could and was being done about such incidents.

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, February 16, 1828

Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury (Leicester, England), Saturday, January 25, 1890; pg. 6

Employment Law

In 1834 one of the Shearsby villagers took up a complaint about his employer stopping his wages on account of debts owed at the factory shop. A key part of his case was that he was obliged to take goods from that shop as part of his wages. This practice, known as Truck or, more popularly as ‘Tommy’ had been recently legislated against in the 1831 Anti-Truck Act. As the story unfolded over three weeks it illustrated the difficulties that working men encountered when trying to use the law to protect themselves from unscrupulous employers.

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, October 25, 1834

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, November 01, 1834

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, November 08, 1834

Poetry

While looking for background material on Anti-Truck Movement (there is a letter to the editor of the Leicester Chronicle on paying labourer’s wages in goods instead of money in October 1829) I came across a poem by John Banim: The Ould Man at the Altar.

An ould man knelt at the altar,
His enemy’s hand to take-
And at first his faint voice did falter,
And his feeble hands did shake:

John Banim is, according to Wikipedia, sometimes called the “Scott of Ireland”. If you like to listen to the music of poetry you can follow the ‘f’ sounds: ‘faint, falter, feeble’ and how they relate to a final pair of ‘forgive’ and ‘foeman’. If you visualise the poetry you read you can watch the movement of those hands as they ‘clench’ and are eventually offered in friendship. The prompt for the poem was, a note explains, an attempt to end ‘the petty disputes between rival factions in Ireland’. That such a poem would be printed in a Midlands newspaper shows that the editors hoped to find it resonating with their readers, not least in the context of the Roman Catholic Relief Act (bringing about Catholic Emancipation) of that same year.

There is research going on at the British Library on how data-mining techniques can be used to uncover more verse from historic newspapers.

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser (Leicester, England), Saturday, October 24, 1829

Journalism

Most of the events that got reported in the newspapers relate to either death or bad behaviour by the villagers, most notably in the reporting of the arrest and trial of Hannah Read, accused of the murder of her husband in 1825. That accounts of her trial re-appear in various newspapers with identical wording show how newspapers depended upon each other. They also highlight the role of the court reporter who would have to sit through court sessions day after day before a prominent case would turn up.

Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 11 August 1825
Derby Mercury, August 10, 1825
Jackson’s Oxford Journal, August 13th, 1825
Ipswich Journal, August 13th, 1825

Sport History

But it is not all murder and mayhem. A friendly game of cricket was reported as having taken place at Shearsby with a team from neighbouring Bruntingthorpe in August 1868. Shearsby seem to have come out on top over two innings. The report lists the players and their scores and, to the village historian, show the familiar names of fellmongers, publicans and agricultural labourers at play.

The Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury (Leicester, England), Saturday, August 22, 1868

Searching for your own stories

Students at DMU can find their own stories through the 19th Century British Library newspapers collection, The Times Digital Archive (1785 – 2010) and the Proquest Historical Newspapers collection containing The Guardian (1821-2003) and The Observer (1791-2003). If you get really addicted to old newspapers you can also use the British Newspaper Archive, which is free to search but requires a subscription to view the newspapers themselves.

About Philip Adams

Senior Assistant Librarian at De Montfort University. I have recently introduced a Single Sign On service for the library's databases and electronic journals. I am interested in digital preservation and the use of data to measure a library's impact. All comments own.
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