Page last updated at 01:06 GMT, Thursday, 18 June 2009 02:06 UK

Just click for a century of news

By Peter Jackson
BBC News

Illustration in the Graphic newspaper of the 1878 City of Glasgow bank collapse
The City of Glasgow bank collapse in 1878 left most shareholders bankrupt

The British Library has put two million digitised pages from 19th century newspapers online, taking research out of its dusty reading rooms into people's homes.

The pay-as-you-go service brings a century of history alive from Jack the Ripper to WG Grace.

Today's news, tomorrow's fish wrapper (or website statistic on the number of clicks) - news has always been ephemeral. Read it, delete it and move on.

It is as true today as it was in the 19th century when newspaper writers churned out political speeches - often verbatim, war reports and local parish news.

Prince William

But in compiling their wordy, often quirky stories, the journalists of yesteryear were unknowingly writing for posterity, providing a unique backdrop to their times.

It is this insight into people's day-to-day interests and lives that makes the British Library's new database so fascinating.

Bob Clarke
People had big panics about highwaymen in the same way as the Daily Mail has great panics about immigration
Bob Clarke

"People are going to get an insight into the psychology of the time... they'll find out how people lived and what they were worried about," newspaper historian Bob Clarke told the BBC.

"Newspapers, particularly locals, are a wonderful resource. The beauty of them is that no other form of literature can tell you what people's hopes and fears were, what they bought and what turned them on.

"People had big panics about highwaymen in the same way as the Daily Mail has great panics about immigration."

Mr Clarke has written a book called From Grub Street to Fleet Street: An Illustrated History of English Newspapers to 1899.

So what was in the news on this day exactly 200 years ago? The Examiner from Sunday, 18 June 1809, carries the story of a boatman who had shown "signs of mental derangement".

1900 soap advert in the Graphic newspaper
Ladies like "dainty" Swan Soap because it floats, a 1900 advert says

"Francis Webster... was discovered by Mr Brown, his surveyor, reclining with his head over a chopper in a butcher's shop," it says.

"Supposing him to be ill, he went up to him when he found he had a knife, which he then held in his hand, and cut his throat in so shocking a manner that he died this following day."

The same paper has a detailed account of the latest developments in the Napoleonic Wars between France, Britain and other European nations.

A few more clicks and I stumble across a familiar-sounding story about the love life of a Prince William.

Prince William of Orange, a Dutch anglophile who served with the Duke of Wellington, had joined Oxford University, we are told.

"It has long been rumoured in political circles, that this young prince is destined to receive the hand of an illustrious princess," the Examiner says.

Rogue compositor

Look deeper in the database and there are stories of nine year olds smoking and drinking and, in 1878, a banking collapse.

The website allows anyone to search over two million pages from 49 national and regional newspapers like the Daily News, Manchester Times or Penny Illustrated Paper.


Curator for Newspapers Ed King on why the archive was digitised

Ed King, head of newspaper collections at the British Library, said the site is a "huge resource" for people researching family histories.

"There are births, marriages and deaths... but it goes further than that with huge amounts of local events, advertisements and reports from meetings which include people's names," he said.

Social insights aside, you can read about the Whitechapel (Jack the Ripper) murders, the first FA Cup final in 1872 or the first England-Australia Test match in 1877.

Dave Gregory captained the home side in Melbourne to a 45-run victory over James Lillywhite's visiting team.

"The Australian cricketers have shown much excellent form against the English Eleven," reported The Graphic.

Searches are free
Full-text articles cost £6.99 for a 24-hour pass allowing up to 100 downloads
A seven-day pass costs £9.99 for up to 200 downloads
Access to the Graphic and the Penny Illustrated Paper is free

On 10 July in the same year, the Daily News reports on the first every Wimbledon tennis championships.

"Ladies are known to prefer a high to a low net," it says.

You can read stories written by Charles Dickens, a reporter on the Morning Chronicle, or discover how the City of Glasgow bank collapsed in 1878, leaving most shareholders bankrupt.

Mr Clarke, 52, says the "turgid" morning titles were for the educated while the Sunday papers featured more "sport, sex and sensationalism" for the ordinary family.

"What they did do was report everything in detail, so you got huge swathes of parliamentary debate, which is boring to us now, but something we miss nowadays - the breadth of it," he said.

The Graphic newspaper
The Graphic was the most successful rival to the Illustrated London News

The new website would have helped him research his own book, he said, which was compiled entirely from his own collection of 1,000 old papers.

Among them is a first edition of The Times from 23 March 1882 - the jewel in the crown.

On page seven, halfway through a reported speech by the then Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt, are the words "the speaker then said he felt inclined for a bit of sex" - although the word for sex was far more graphic.

Nobody spotted it until several of the first editions had been dispatched, and within hours they were changing hands for 50-times their face value, at 12 shillings and six pence.

The highly mischievous compositor, perhaps bored by poring over the 10,000 word speech, was never revealed.

Mr Clarke says 15 years ago they fetched £100 at auction.

Print Sponsor

Media revolution: stop press?
05 Feb 09 |  Business
Welsh English speech goes online
23 Jul 08 |  Wales

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific