As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and people are staying at home, many have found time to pursue their hobbies and there is a world -wide upsurge of interest in family history. Most are using online resources, including newspapers.
I believe that in the past, newspapers were the most under -utilized genealogical resource, but new technology is now changing that.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, the early 19th Century British poet, historian and Whig politician once stated that ‘the only true history of a country is found in its newspapers’.
When you consider the first Australian newspaper began in Sydney just fifteen years after the arrival of the First Fleet, just imagine how much history of Australian families and their overseas connections must be buried in Australian newspapers.
We can read all the political, economic and social history books available for background context of our ancestors, but we can certainly better understand the lives of these ancestors when we find their stories, items and notices in old newspapers.
Types of Newspapers
- Ethnic and Foreign Language
Access to Australian Historical Newspapers
In Australia, the National and State Libraries have the responsibility of tracking down and collecting newspapers published, even today. They have many volumes of bound hardcopies of both Overseas and Australian newspapers. These can be located through their catalogues.
Regional and Community Libraries, historical societies and museums may also have original hard-copy or microfilm copies of newspapers, particularly those of the local area. You may have to travel to these local institutions to access these newspapers or you may be able to make arrangements for someone to view them on your behalf. There may be costs and fees associated with this service.
On-line Digital Access
In the past, it could be said that local and family historians did not use newspapers in their research because of poor accessibility, but this is no longer the case. Over the last few years, millions of pages of newspapers throughout the world have been scanned and digitized, and made available on-line to the public, through commercial ventures of subscription web sites, such as ancestry.com and findmypast.com, as well as historical document programs in National and State Archives and libraries.
Perhaps the most important source for Australian 19th Century and early 20th Century newspapers on-line are through the National Library of Australia, in their Historical Newspapers program, 1803-1954 at :-
http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper and the historical journals, and magazines program through the Australian Periodical Publications 1840-1845. This is part of the Australian Co-operative Digitization Project, which can be found at http://www.nla.gov.au/ferg/.
Between these two sites hundreds of titles are offered. These are in pdf format and can be searched by word or phrase, which makes them a very accessible resource. However one important warning- not all surviving issues of newspapers have been microfilmed, digitized and put on- line.
The first newspaper in New South Wales was the Sydney Gazette which first appeared on 5th March 1803 and was printed by George Howe, a convict. It was published for many years, ceasing in 1842.
As well as including functions many of us associate with a newspaper it also carried official governmental orders and proclamations, serving as the government gazette until 1832 when the New South Wales Government Gazette was inaugurated. Several other newspapers were published in Sydney over the years including:-
- The Australian-(1824-1848);
- Sydney Monitor (1828-1838);
- The Sydney Herald-(1831-1842) (later the Sydney Morning Herald);
- The Colonist-(1835-1840);
- Australian Chronicle-(1839-1843)
- Sydney Chronicle-(1846-1848).
I have had extensive experience of these Sydney newspapers and using them in local and family history, and have spent many hundreds of hours compiling selected indexes. Although all are now out of print they can be found in Libraries and Family History Societies.
1. Index of Births, Deaths, and Marriages in Sydney Newspapers Vol 1 1830-1832
[Nola Mackey,1996,65pp, ISBN 1875840133,Out of Print]
2. Index of Births, Deaths, and Marriages in Sydney Newspapers Vol 2 1833-1835
[Nola Mackey,1996,107pp,ISBN 187584015X,Out of Print]
3. Index of Births, Deaths, and Marriages in Sydney Newspapers Vol 3 1836-1837
[Nola Mackey,1996,91pp,ISBN 1875840176, Out of Print]
4. Index of Births, Deaths, and Marriages in Sydney Newspapers Vol 4 1838
[Nola Mackey,1994,65pp,ISBN 18758409192,Out of Print]
5. Index of Births, Deaths, and Marriages in Sydney Newspapers Vol 5 1839
[Nola Mackey,1994,67pp,ISBN 1875840214,Out of Print]
6. Index of Births, Deaths, and Marriages in Sydney Newspapers Vol 6 1840
[Nola Mackey,1995, 64pp, ISBN 1875840230,Out of Print]
Here are some examples of Birth, Death and Marriage Notices and Reports in newspapers which allows you so see the range and type of information given.
As wonderful as it is having this electronic access to newspapers family historians need to remember. One document or newspaper item concerning an event is not proof.
Assessing Newspapers as a Family History Source
- Do not automatically take the published word as gospel, and proof of what happened. Look at the evidence and how it was presented. Reports of Inquests and Court Proceeding are likely to be correct as the evidence is taken under oath, but an obituary or biography of a person’s life may contain untruths and exaggerations.
- If there were more than one newspaper being published in the area in a time period look at them all. You will be surprised to learn they will not report the same event exactly the same. There may be more information in one than the other.
- Not all newspapers are equal- and there is good reporting and bad reporting and much depends on the editor of the paper at the time.
- Newspapers have always been in the business of selling news, but they have always come under the Crown laws concerning slander and misrepresentation of facts. Some owner/editors stretched these boundaries and have found themselves in Court. There have been several newspapers who were sent to the wall and insolvency through court cases concerning slandering opposition newspapers.