British Newspaper Archive


The British Library Newspapers are being digitised and about 10% of the projected total is now available online. Searching is free and a payment is required if you want to see the full article. This is going to prove to be a major source of family history and below I give first impressions of my first session - simply using the search facilities. I will later add information on my experience of viewing the actual pages.

First Impressions - December 2011

The British Newspaper Archive is now online - or rather just over 3,100,000 pages of old newspapers have been digitised with about 37.000,000 still to go.


The following records the subject of my first tests of the Search routines - without buying any actual pages


Test 1

The first thing I did was to check to see the current coverage by papers in or bordering on Hertfordshire.


Bucks Herald (1836-1891)

Hertford Mercury & Reformer (1836-1867)

Herts Guardian, Agricultural Journal, and General Advertiser (1852-1867)

Luton Times and Advertiser (1856-1876)


Test 2

I knew that the Murder of Edward Anstee at Marshalswick Farm, Sandridge, in August 1880 was widely reported so I checked to see which papers had mentioned it. The list on the right identifies the papers where I found a reference - and the * indicates those which also mentioned the surname Reynolds - as my Great Grandfather Jacob Reynolds gave evidence in the subsequent trial. The first of many entries mentioning Jacob was:


Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper  

Sunday 5 September 1880


... Mr. Jacob Reynolds, at Dernardes-heath farm, on the morning of June 5. The prisoners were also charged with breaking into Mr Wollotts fari at Sadell, and tlle blacksmlith's shop of Mr. Page, at St. Alballs; the prisoner, T homras Wheeler is further ...


In general the quality of the digitisation was pretty good but I have highlighted the words that were wrong in this - which was a typical not very good news item.


In many cases the story was a virtually identical syndicated text.


Test 3

I then carried out two searches, one for "Jacob Reynolds" and the other for news items which contained both "Reynolds" and "Sandridge". The following are some of the more interesting items found.


Morning Post

Thursday 13 Feb 1862  


... Mr Jacob Reynolds, of 1 Adelaide-place, London-bridge, agent and manager to Messrs Finch and Co, artificial manure manufacturers. From the evidence of Mr. Reynolds it appeared that the prisoner was in his employment as clerk, and on the 10th December ...

A very exciting item, as it is the first definite evidence I have as to exactly what Jacob Reynolds was doing in London at the time. I am clearly going to have to view the complete news item.

Herts Guardian, Agricultural Journal and General Advertiser

Saturday 12 November 1864

... r. J. Reynolds, of Hammonds, Sandr.dge Ito Ellen, eldest daughter of Mr. D. Smith, Water-end, ' Sandridge. DEATHS. On the 24th ult., at Christ's Hospital, Hertford, : Charles Henry, eldest son of the late Henry Grant J Foote, Esq., H.B.Ms Consul at L ...

Hertford Mercury & Reformer

Saturday 20 April 1867 


... Mr Jacob Reynolds and Mr John Henry Smith were appointed overseers for the parish of Sandridge, ROADS AND ROAD SURVEYORS. Mr. E. George , one of the late surveyors for St Peters parish, objected to the clerk's fee of 9s 6d for passing their acc...

A pretty routine item.

Luton Times and Advertiser

Saturday 17 September 1870


... ty of Jacob Reynolds, at Sandridge, on the 8th inst. The prisoners at first elected to be tried at that court and pleaded not guilty, but on reconsidering the matter expressed a desire to be sent to the Quarter Sessions, They were accordingly committ...

Did someone steal some of his property - if so who and what?

Essex Newsman

Saturday 15 January


... se of Jacob Reynolds, of St. Peter, noar St. Alban's, Mr. Salter, with whom was Mr. Forrest Fulton and Mr. Savage, said this was a charge in connection with an indictment which was framed against Thomas Wheeler, who was tried at the recent, assize at ...

An unexpected item - which appears as a single syndicated statement in a small number of papers. It would be interesting to look at the original to see what the issue was.

Luton Times and Advertiser
Sat 13 Apr 1872

... , Mr. Reynolds, Sandridge; Mr. Edwards; Redbourne. Mr. J. Willis, Mr. J. Cox, Sandridge ; Mr. Welch. Streatley ; Mr. D. Smith, Mr. R. Sibley Mr. Chennels, Mr. Callon, Mr. Merton, Mr. Green, Mr. Buckmaster, Mr. Beaumont, Mr. Arnold, Mr. Brown, Tring M ...


Newspapers mentioning the Murder of Edward Anstee

Aberdeen Journal

Alnwick Mercury

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette

Blackburn Standard

Bristol Mercury *

Bucks Herald

Bury and Norwich Post *

Chelmsford Chronicle

Derby Mercury

Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald

Dundee Courier *

Essex Newsman

Essex Standard *

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette Daily Telegraph *

Exeter Flying Post

Freeman's Journal

Glasgow Herald

Hampshire Advertiser

Huddersfield Chronicle *

Hull Packet

Illustrated Police News

Ipswich Journal

Leicester Chronicle

Leeds Times

Liverpool Mercury

Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper *

London Daily News

London Standard *

Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser *

Manchester Evening News

Manchester Times

Morning Post *

Newcastle Courant

Northampton Mercury *

North Devon Journal

Northern Echo

Nottinghamshire Guardian *

Nottingham Evening Post

Northern Echo

Oxford Journal

Pall Mall Gazette

Portsmouth Evening News

Reading Mercury

Reynolds's Newspaper *

Sheffield Daily Telegraph *

Sheffield Independent *

Staffordshire Sentinel *

Tamworth Herald

Western Gazette *

Western Times *

Worcestershire Chronicle

Wrexham Advertiser *

York Herald *

Yorkshire Gazette *


Test 4

"Lawes Patent Manure"  Search of Adverts for first sales in different parts of the country.


Norwich Chronicle 

Saturday 11 May 1844

LAWES' Patent Manure Offers the best Security for Turnips fromthe Fly* by bringing them to the Hoe, MANY DAYS earlier than the usual time. IT produces a Crop excel ent, both in quantity and quality. It has the ipprovalofmany ofonr best practic ..

Bury and Norwich Post 1847

Essex Standard 1848

Hull Packet  1849

Exeter Flying Post  1850

Royal Cornwall Gazette  1850

Western Times  1850

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette  1850

York Herald 1852

Yorkshire Gazette 1852

Hertford Mercury and Reformer 1853

Nottinghamshire Guardian 1853

Newcastle Courant 1854

Lincolnshire Chronicle 1854

North Devon Journal  1854

Hereford Times 1854

Hampshire Advertiser 1859

Carlisle Journal  1860

Fife Herald 1860


A quickie Test

My Great Great Grandfather Dolphin Smith moved from Wiltshire to Sandridge, in Hertfordshire, in 1842. This news item suggests a reason.


Perry’s Bankrupt Gazette
Sat 05 Feb 1842
... and Dolphin Smith, of Ramsbury, yeomen ...

I have carried out extensive research with Victorian newspapers before, as bound paper volumes, as microfilm, and some digitised images. Digitising old papers is difficult as the print is often small and often hard to read so I was delighted with the quality of most excerpts I saw. I found the search interface easy to use - and easily found some important references to family events. For those who are interested in find out more about what their ancestors did this is going to be a most valuable tool - especially when an even wider range of newspapers are included.


For another example of multiple reports of a Hertfordshire story

see Serious Riots in Watford.

The following was posted on the Newsletter, November 2012

Old Hertfordshire News NOW ONLINE on FindMyPast

 The extremely useful  British Newspaper Archive has just been made available worldwide on FindMyPast - and needless to say everyone is trying to use it. As a result it is slow and occasionally throws you off with an apology, but the rush will eventually slow down.  If you try it out there are some problems which are not immediately clear from the instructions.
To illustrate the problem I did a search for Keyword "Tring" between 1830 and 1840 setting the county as follows.
  • HERTFORDSHIRE - found 350 Articles in the Herts Mercury & Reformer
  • BUCKINGHAMSHIRE - found 634  articles in the Bucks Herald
  • BEDFORDSHIRE - found 0 articles
  • OXFORDSHIRE - found 150 articles in the Oxford Journal 
  • DURHAM - found 411 articles in the Northern Echo
The important thing to note is that if you select a county it is the county the newspaper is published in. Tring is close to the Buckinghamshire border and at the time was well covered by the Aylesbury papers (only one of which is currently in the archive). It is less well covered by the only Hertfordshire paper in the archive. If you search in Bedfordshire the search still takes time - and a "0" appears with any warning to tell you that there is no Bedfordshire paper for this period in the archive (yet)! The Oxford figure included references to a proposed railway line from Tring to Cheltenham which was never built.
The high figure for the Northern Echo suggests it was a much larger paper than the rest which regularly reprinted national news from other papers. In fact at least half the "Tring" responses are due to the fact that scanning is far from perfect and the real word is something like "string" with a badly printed "s" or "King". However I spotted plenty of genuine Tring references.
I will have another look - using it for personal names - and report sometime in December.

A Detailed Assessment of The Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast

This looks at the current FindMyPast package and highlights the things you need to know to get the most out of it. It also compares it with the official British Newspaper Archive web site, and some test search show that given the same question they come up with the same answer, despite their different interfaces.

I carried out a number of test searches as follows.

Search 1 - An rare and unusual surname


Any references to the surname Phipson before 1810. This was chosen because the surname is very uncommon, and distinctive, and I studies the family in depth.  I found 6 references as follows:


1796 Reading Mercury - advert (advertisement)

1799 Reading Mercury - Letter correcting error (article)

1804 Hampshire Chronicle - accident at Covent Garden (article)

1804 Salisbury and Winchester Journal - marriage announcement (Article)

1805 Morning Chronicle - marriage announcement (Miscellaneous)

1807 Hereford Journal - death listed (Family Notice)


All were relevant and the first three were new to me. The 1796 advert told me that Joseph Phipson has taken on a practice as a surgeon in Henley upon Thames and the 1804 story told me that he had been at a pantomime in Covent Garden when there was an accident and his services were needed. The 1799 letter was interesting because Joseph Phipson was saying that he was still alive despite the paper having published that he had died. I spent some time trying, unsuccessfully, to locate the offending passage. It showed that FindMyPast has no effective mechanism or searching a single issue, or even displaying the pages for a particular paper on a particular date!  The two family marriages and the death should all have been classified as "Family Notices" demonstrating that the classification system is unreliable.


I started to look at the larger number of results between 1810 and 1820, and most if not all, seemed potentially relevant but I hit a problem with one - and it took so much time I decided to not to check out everything. The problem was that the search reference took me to a single block of text, containing many vary different stories spread out over several pages. The system give no indication of where on the pages your key word is and I could not spot a single "Phipson". What may have happened is that a different word was misread as "Phipson" - or perhaps I just missed it.


Search 2 - Search for a rare place name

See Amwellbury 1800-1850


Search 3 - A known "missing person" problem with a common surname


My great great grandfather, Francis Reynolds, abandoned the family and became involved on the shadier side of horse racing. When I first researched him in the late 1970s we knew nothing about him between the 1841 census and his tombstone dated 1874 i except for indirect references in family wills that he was not acceptable to the wife's family. More information became available later in the form of an obituary in an old family scrapbook, which revealed that he had been known as "the Marquis" around East Anglian race tracks, and online censuses which at least provided information as to where he had been lodging.


I carried out a number of searches looking for combinations of "Francis," "Reynolds," "Newton" (where his farm was, "The Marquis" and several racing terms. While I found some useful references (see Francis Evered Reynolds) there were considerable difficulties and I can have no confidence that all relevnt references were found.


Search 4 - Jacob Reynolds and Lawes Patent Manure


Jacob Reynolds was born and grew up in Norfolk, worked for his Uncles, and became manager for their business selling Lawes patent manure, before moving to St Albans, where he played a notable role in the town, later becoming an alderman on the Herts County Council. Considerable problems were encountered.


A Summary of the Problems.


While some of the searches were very successful they tended to relate to very rare words or word combinations - such as the searches for the surname "Phipson" or the place "Amwellbury." However in other cases there could be severe problems, and while  there can be successful finds it is possible to waste a lot of time going nowhere.


It is also important to realise that there are significant differences between the search facilities on the British Newspaper Archive web site and the FindMyPast website - the latter having extremely serious limitations compared with the former - ant it would perhaps appropriate to describe the FindMyPast user interface to provide a "lucky dip" facility unsuitable for serious historical research. Basically any search you can carry out on FindMyPast can be carries out on the main Archive web site - but there are many searchws possible on the Archive site which cannot be carried out on FindMyPast.


1. The basic limitations of scanned newspapers


The package is limited by the problems associated with the print quality of old newspapers, and in some cases their preservation. The automatic scanning software used seems to have done a very good job bearing in mind the poor quality of many originals, but clearly does not recognise every word - and there may be some words that are more difficult than others. As a result not every word is recognised and there are many cases (such as "string" with a poorly printed "s" being indexed as "Tring" ) where the wrong word is recorded. While not everything is perfectly recorded it allows vast amounts of data to be searched that you could not do manually and so one should not grumble that everything is not retrievable.


2. Chunking the Newspaper Articles


Particularly the earlier papers lacked the clear headline we expect in modern papers and a single column, will often include a dozen or more news stories with little more than a new paragraph to indicate when one finished and the next one begins. What has happened here is that text has been manually broken down into blocks - which may be a single article or a whole page of small advertisements. These blocks are flagged up as "Articles", "Advertisements", "Family Notices" and "Miscellaneous". If you are looking for two or more words they might, for example, happen to occur in two different articles in the same block of text - so the smaller the blocks are the better. The size of blocks chosen is such that you may get many "false" returns from your searches because the words you are looking for occurs in different articles in the same block. A number of the problems occurred because the blocks were, in many cases, far too large - and for instance one block might include a a dozen or more news stories or a hundred or more small advertisements and there was no way, when searching for two words to say that they must be close together.


3. Coverage


Early local weekly newspapers were often no more than a single folded broadsheet - and often served to distribute national news, however more titles come into existence after 1855 (abolition of stamp duty) and they contain much more local - perhaps concentrating on a single town and national news disappeared as trains allowed the wider distribution of genuine national newspapers. The archive only has (so far) a small selection of the possible newspapers, and may not have all years for some papers - and some papers may only been published for a few years. How useful the facility will be to you depends on how well the material currently in the archive meets your needs.


The papers currently included which relate to Hertfordshire are:


Bucks Herald (1833-1909)

Hertford Mercury & Reformer (1834-1868)

Herts Advertiser (1925 only)

Herts Guardian ... (1852-1867)

Luton Times & Advertiser (1856-1880)


The main archive site makes it easy to find out what newspapers are covered and their dates while the FindMyPast does not. However the archive is being updates with more newspapers and more years for some papers which are already covered - so if you are going to use the archives you will need to know what you have searched and what has changed. - because you will only want to search the new material. As the current archive only represents a small subset of what is planned this is a serious potential problem.


4. Potentially Too Many Matches


The total volume of material already in the archive is already vast, and the collection is only a few percent of what it eventually will be. In addition the about of coverage any individual will get will vary widely - from someone who is never mention to someone who get extensive coverage (often duplicated many times over) because they were famous or who regularly advertised weekly in a number of papers. For instance a search for the rare surname "Phipson" up to 1850 gives 1819 hits while "Reynolds" gives 81705 and "Smith" (which may include other uses of the word) gives 854656 hits. For the same period "Amwell Bury" gives 51, "Amwellbury" gives 6, Watford (not such an important town at this date) gives 19254, Hertford gives 77712, and London gives 2,224,965 - or if you search all dates 16,255,588. For all dates there are 105 "John Phipson" and 240,423 "John Smith" of which 3144 are in the same block of text as the word "Watford" but not necessarily in the same article.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


We have a problem which will get at least 10 times worse when the archive is complete in that many of the questions we want to ask, are going to produce very large number of answers, and we need tools that allow us to narrow the field down to a manageable number - and while there are some tools, in most cases they are totally inadequate on FindMyPast, and a bit better, but still limited on the British Newspaper Archive site. I list some of the problems I noted.


Searching for someone by name: FindMyPast has two boxes labled  "First Name(s)" and "Last Name" but this is misleading. The software has no idea what words are personal names and which are not.  All it means that the Last word directly follow the first word. The British Newspaper Archive simply has keywords and a phrase is indicated by using quotation marks.


Searching by Date: The British Newspaperl Archive site allows you to search by dates - which means that you can search for a single day, week or month. In FindMyPast you search for a range of years (which could be just one year) and you cannot concentrate you search on a short period when, for example, looking for an obituary when you know the date of death.


Rejecting unwanted terms: The British Newspaper Archive site allows you to exclude blocks which contain given words, which allows you to reduce the number of hits you need to examine. The facility is not available on FindMyPast which is a very serious omission.


"Alternative Words" - Find my Past had no facility to allow you to carry out a single search using alternatives - such as "Amwellbury" OR "Amwell Bury" - you have to carry out two separate searches.


"Spelling Problems" - Both the British Newspaper Archive Archive and FindMyPast have a built-in spelling corrector which you cannot switch off. I wanted to search for advertisements (which could be anywhere in the country) for Lawes artificial fertilizer. A search of "Lawes" is interpreted to include any text which includes the common words "law" and "laws". Another search for the surname "Locke" automatically gave me texts containing the word "Lock" (as on a canal or as part of a door) together with words such as "locked".


"Nearby Words" - there is no way of limiting searches to say all the search terms must be within a given number of words. The absence of such a facility and the very large block size means a very large number of irrelevant hits.


Presentation of Matches - this gives the "headline" for the block (which may be totally irrelevant because of the way the blocks have been set up) and a limited number of words surrounding one of the key words. If you are carrying a search for say "Phipson" and "Death" it will normally come up with an excerpt containing the common word - when you need to see an excerpt which contains the rarer word (i.e. surname in this case) before deciding whether it is relevant. This means you can waste a lot of time looking a the full newspaper page for matches which are totally irrelevant.


Order of Results - On both the British Newspaper results appear to be presented in random date order. This means that if the same story is published in a large number of papers in the same week they are scattered at random through the list. It would be much better if they could be organised in date order so you can get a feel for what kinds of information is available at a given date. In the "Amwellbury" example I had to repeat the searches in 10 year (or less) slices in order to be able to draw up a dateline of the key entries.


"Have I been here before" - Because the poor search facilities and the possible number of possible hits you sometimes need to search through lists which contain the same items. There is not facility to say you have already down-loaded this newspaper page - so again you download more than is necessary - wasting more times.


"Where on earth is the reference" - When you download the newspaper page there is no indication of where the relevant paragraph is and this can be very time consuming because to the size of the blocks - and in some cases I have been unable to find the relevant text.


I could go on ...


Despite my very critical comments the facilities provide a wonderful lucky dip facility - and if you are lucky you may find out things about your ancestors you could never have found in any other way. It could well be that the easy to use (at the lucky dip level) interface which lacks the tools to ask serious questions is deliberate - to ensure that any serious research is carried out on the British Newspaper Archive web site. However a number of the failings also apply to that site as well. Factors such as the size of indexed blocks seem to be more relevant to minimising the amount of manual work the firm scanning the newspapers has to do - while having the effect of maximising the time wasted by searchers using the system.



December  2010   Page Created
September 2012   Watford Riots link
November 2012   Online at FindMyPast