England History of Newspapers (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Newspapers[edit | edit source]

Newspapers are a type of periodical (or serial) usually differentiated from magazines by differences in format and use. There is scarcely a person alive today who has not featured in a write-up, perhaps also a picture, in a newspaper. In the last half of the 19th century a great many of our ancestors would have likewise been ‘in the papers’, but progressively fewer before that. People have always looked to newspapers to inform them about the latest political, economic and social issues, as well as local events, services and gossip. Newspapers are the largest untapped source of contemporary information available to genealogists and nothing else evokes the atmosphere of a 19th century town as much as its local newspaper. Their sheer volume as well as accessibility issues have made them intimidating in the past, but that is slowly changing with the efforts of volunteer transcribers and indexers, microfilming, digitization and electronic search facilities.

History of Newspapers[edit | edit source]

The earliest English newspapers appeared in London in the 1620s but publication was sporadic, and limited to a single folded sheet. They contained mostly news from abroad and thus appealed only to merchants and those rich enough to travel. During the Civil War (1642-1651) the need for news of domestic political events was supplied by a proliferation of news sheets, newsbooks, and pamphlets, causing Cromwell to restrict them by licensing from 1655. This suppression of newspapers lasted until 1693 during the more tolerant time of William III.

The government’s official newspaper commenced publication in 1665 as The Oxford Gazette, but two years later changed its name to The London Gazette under which it still continues. All the official announcements, church, civil and armed service appointments, grants of peerages and medals, naturalizations, changes of name, bankruptcies and business liquidations are here. The London Gazette started publication twice weekly, and then each weekday to date. Both the Guildhall Library and British Library have complete sets, but the Family History Library has only a few issues on film and nine extracts for particular purposes.

The website gives access to the current London Gazette and the companion Edinburgh Gazette and Belfast Gazette; a searchable archive is being added, so far covering the two world wars and 20th century honours.

The first provincial newspapers commenced in the late 1700s and included Berrow’s Worcester Journal from 1690 and theStamford Mercury from 1695 at and which the Lincolnshire Archives are currently digitising. The provincial papers were typically weeklies; the first London daily was The Daily Courant from 1702. Early provincials included the Norwich Post (1701), Bristol’sPost Boy (1704), Exeter’s Post Man (1704), the Newcastle Gazette (1710), the York Courant (1715), Plymouth’sWeekly Journal (1718) and the Liverpool Advertiser (1756). One should note that the names of newspapers often changed over time because of re-organization, changes in circulation and mergers.

Other important early London newspapers included:

  • The London Daily Post and General Advertiser (later The Public Advertiser) 1734-1794.
  • The Daily Universal Register of 1785 renamed The Times in 1788 and still the leading national daily.
  • The London Evening Post 1727-1813.
  • The Observer, a Sunday paper founded in 1791 and still going strong nation wide.
  • Illustrated London News (ILN), founded 1842, was the first weekly to use illustrations which it did superbly using wood engravings, then lithographs, and all the further developments in pictorial journalism. The title belies the fact that it had comprehensive coverage of provincial events as well. Cole has some snippets from 1842 (Paris fashions) and 1847 (starvation in various parts of England, Wales and Ireland). The 150th anniversary issue has an excellent history of the ILN and the picture collection, described by Hart, is online at .
  • The Daily Telegraph is one of the oldest surviving national papers, first published in 1855.

Early papers were very slim compared to modern ones, but the number of titles proliferated in response to growing demand from the literate. Forty thousand individual copies were being read each week in London alone. The government thought this a convenient source of tax revenue and introduced a Stamp Duty of one penny (1d) per whole sheet and a half-penny (½d) for a half-sheet from 1712. (One whole sheet was folded to make a four-page newspaper). These taxes were increased five times between 1756 and 1815 with the result that only the literate and affluent could buy newspapers. This situation changed when the Stamp Duty was reduced in 1836 and finally abolished in 1855 resulting in a huge increase in provincial titles.
Until the railways came in the 1830s and 1840s communication was slow and provincial papers mostly contained out-of-date material lifted from London papers. Speedy rail communication enabled the London papers to become national ones, and this in turn fueled a need for local news supplied by provincial papers. Another factor contributing to the increase in numbers of titles and circulation was the use of cheaper wood-pulp paper, instead of the high rag content which does not acidify and turn brown; but the old nickname rag for a newspaper remains. Other factors were improvements in type-setting and printing machinery; increased revenues from advertising; and the gradual increase in education. The Press Association, founded in 1868 to collect and disseminate information by telegraph, resulted in more useful information from this time about localities and individuals.

The British Library site Collect Britain has a growing, eclectic mix of images including maps, illustrations, sound recordings and newspapers.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.