A guide to the uses of local newspapers and where to find them.
From the 18th century to the present day, newspapers are an invaluable source of information for family and social historians: births, marriages, deaths, advertisements, crime, entertainments, disaster, scandal, and the price of fish are all reflected in their pages. The Derby Mercury can be viewed online for the 19th century, and many other Derbyshire titles can be accessed on microfilm at the record office and/or local libraries. Many national titles can also be accessed online.
History of the newspaper
The first English “newspaper” was perhaps the “Trewe Encounter” of 1513, reporting on the Battle of Flodden. Local news pamphlets about unusual events “where it rayned wheat the space of six or seven miles” continued to appear, as did “corantos” of news published abroad, but the Civil War during the 1640s gave the newspaper its first real start, as hunger for news of the struggle combined with greater freedom of the press. Provincial papers began with the Norwich Press in 1701, though stamp duty made newspapers expensive and they were often read in coffee houses rather than bought for reading at home. Stamp duty continued to restrict expansion until it was repealed in 1855. Increased literacy, better printing technology, railways and the electric telegraph all powered the growth of national and local newspapers. Early newspapers contained mainly national and foreign news and very little illustration, but by the late 19th century drawings and even photographs were becoming more common.
The first Derbyshire newspaper was the Derby Postman in 1721, followed by the Derby Mercury in 1731. Chesterfield is well represented by the Derbyshire Times from 1854 and the more radical Derbyshire Courier from 1831. For early news, check all available county titles; later coverage is both wider and more in-depth, so check the title for a specific area first. However, not all the local variant editions, for example of the Derbyshire Times, have survived. It is not always easy to pinpoint the title you will need for a particular town or village, so do ask us for advice if you’re not sure. Some areas may be better covered by non-Derbyshire titles, for example the Burton Mail for Swadlincote (a good run of which is available at The Magic Attic) or Nottinghamshire papers for the east of the county (see Nottinghamshire’s Inspire Culture) – use the Newsplan database online to find out titles held at libraries across the East Midlands. The British Library also holds copies of most titles.
We also hold files of local newscuttings from the 1960s to 2015 which are currently being digitised, and will eventually be available via our onsite computers.
How to access newspapers
Most of our titles are on microfilm, apart from very recent issues of current newspapers. It is advisable to book a microfilm machine in advance to view these, and please let us know if you require a printing facility. Digitisation of newspapers from 2015 onwards is currently in progress.
Free access to the British Newspaper Archive is available at the record office and all Derbyshire Libraries. This site includes many local titles including The Derbyshire Times. You can search for free and then use the reference given to look the article up on our microfilms.
The official Government newspaper, the London Gazette, contains a wealth of historical information including bankruptcies, and is free to view online.
A word of warning: most of these sites use OCR (Optical Character Recognition), rather than human indexing, so you need to think laterally and use different search terms for the same thing to maximise results.
What you can expect to find
Apart from births, marriages, and deaths, ancestors are more likely to have “got into the papers” by wrongdoing, or witnessing wrongdoing. Court cases were reported with relish, especially murders. Most coroners’ reports only survive in newspapers. If your ancestor ran a business they may also feature, including advertisements. Social historians will find the growth of railways and canals, the rise and fall of companies, strikes and many social trends. Road accidents, war news including deaths, prizes, sporting events and sales of all kinds may be reported.
- Chapman (1993) Using newspapers and periodicals
- DFHS (2004) A Derbyshire medley: lists of Derbyshire people from newspapers… [CD]
- Gibson (2011) Local newspapers 1750-1920
- Gordon (2007) Local newspapers in Derbyshire libraries
- McLaughlin (2000) Family history from newspapers
- Murphy (1991) Newspapers and local history