British Librarys early newspaper archive goes online
As the Leveson inquiry reveals fresh horrors about press behaviour every day, the British Library’s archive of early newspapers, which has gone online, shows there is nothing new under the Sun – or, perhaps, in it.
More than 4m pages, drawn mainly from 19th-century regional newspapers, previously kept in decent obscurity at the library’s newspaper archive in Colindale, north London, will now be available for historians and family researchers to browse for a small fee, or free if they visit the central library in King’s Cross. All human life, not to say all the news fit to print, is certainly there, albeit written up in florid Victorian prose – great events, horrible murders reported in exhaustive detail, celebrity gossip, as well as the occasional intrusion into private grief.
Thus, the Herts Guardian, Agricultural Journal and General Advertiser, reporting on the death of Lord Raglan, the hapless British commander in the Crimean War: “Our commander-in-chief … pained in his last hours by the ribald attacks of an unprincipled press.”
They could knock down celebrities in those days too. Following the death of Grace Darling, the lighthouse keeper’s daughter who had become a heroine for rescuing shipwrecked passengers off the coast of Northumberland, the editor of the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette sneered in the sort of tone to be heard any day now on blogsites: “We wonder our contemporaries do not know better than to suppose the public are generally interested in the health of this peasant.”
And, when John Bean, “a deformed boy aged 16, a wretched and diminutive looking being” who had tried to kill Queen Victoria – a few weeks after two previous assassination attempts – in the summer of 1840, there was the authentic voice of editorial outrage when the perpetrators had their sentences commuted. The Hereford Times could not believe it: “The country will participate in the feelings of indignation and horror with which we announce that another miscreant has been found mad enough, or wicked enough, to have entertained designs against the life of our beloved Queen … On the very day on which it became publicly known that Her Majesty had spared the life of him who had raised his hand against her own, another vile attempt upon that precious life would seem to have been intended.”
As for scandals, the British Chronicle in September 1790 had a ripe one about an unnamed peer who fancied his valet’s wife and sent the servant off on an errand which would take him away overnight. The valet was suspicious, hid near his wife’s apartment and locked the couple in when he heard his employer enter, before heading off to the peer’s wife’s chamber on a similar mission. “In the morning gentle readers you may picture to yourselves the confusion of the whole family: his lordship was found locked in the arms of Mrs Anne and her ladyship was discovered in the same situation with Mr Thomas.”
The archive features more than 200 newspapers, which are being copied for the library by the online publisher Brightsolid. Ed Vaizey, the culture and communications minister, said: “The archive is a rich and hugely exciting resource packed with historical detail. I searched for my own constituency of Wantage and within seconds had 42,000 results – an indication of the breadth and variety of material featured.”