How old newspapers can aid historical research: by Denise Bates

Historicalnews coverToday I welcome to No Wriggling Denise Bates, whose latest book, Historical Research Using British Newspapers is published by Pen and Sword this month. I have often written on this blog of how useful I found the British Newspaper Archive in my research for Shell Shocked Britain and at all my talks I stress how important a resource old newspapers are. Denise has used my experience, and that of other writers, as case studies in her book. In this post she looks at the ways in which research into mental health can be enhanced by reference to the newspapers. Shell Shocked Britain was inspired by a cutting found when I was undertaking some family history research, so imagine what you might find in those fascinating old pages…..

Old newspapers are no longer an archive resource mainly used by seasoned researchers. An internet connection and a log-in enable anyone with an interest in the past to read old newspapers, at a time and place which is convenient to them. There are many gaps in our knowledge of the past and digitised newspapers now offer anyone who is intrigued by topics that fall outside the academic or commercial mainstream a way of pursuing their own interests. Sometimes the subject-matter of historical research has been driven by the academic or the publishing community meaning that some topics have effectively fallen ‘out of history’. Some writers have been too keen to make a point at the expense of accuracy and, for some topics, finding material to learn from has been a practical problem. Newspapers can be very helpful in all of these situations.

Mental health in the nineteenth century is a subject where newspapers contain a rich repository of material for investigation, to supplement existing knowledge about life in the asylum or the hysterias supposedly experienced by females. When I researched Pit Lasses, my book about the women and girls who worked underground in coal mines until the job was banned for them in 1842, I had hoped to discover something about their mental well-being but found scant information in the records of the time. A fortuitous breakthrough came when I traced a newspaper report about an unnamed female who had died at a Lancashire Colliery in 1844. The case was included in Frederick Engels’ political tome, The Condition of the Working Classes in England. Engels was keen to show that women still laboured underground and suppressed the inconvenient fact that the teenager did not work at the colliery but had killed herself by jumping down the shaft.

No reason for Margaret Wignall’s suicide was given in the brief paragraph, but as more newspapers became available on-line I discovered a detailed report of the inquest into her death. The Mines Act of 1842 had cost Margaret her job and other work was hard to find. She had briefly been employed as a children’s nurse but was dismissed because of her rough manner of speaking in favour of a more refined girl. Presumably depressed by her inability to earn her keep, perhaps nagged by her parents on this point, she took her father’s lunch to him at the pit and then killed herself in public view. The truth about her untimely death is much more complex and shocking than Engels’ text suggested.

Margaret’s is just one case amongst many reported in nineteenth century newspapers where an individual may have suffered mental health problems. My breach of promise research found several broken engagements where one of the parties probably had schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder or depression, although this was not recognised at the time. Not all individuals turned to the devastating outcome of suicide but it is clear that many struggled to cope without support or understanding from of those around them.

As these brief examples show, newspapers contain a wealth of information on many subjects, but it is not always presented a direct manner. An open-minded researcher who is prepared to commit time to locating and interpreting information drawn from newspaper reports may make discoveries that enhance our understanding of the past, or even challenge existing beliefs about it.

My sincere thanks to Denise for writing this post, and do look out for her book in all good bookshops, or find out more at the Pen and Sword website.

Historical Research Using British Newspapers by Denise Bates is published by Pen and Sword in April 2016. Her previous books, Pit Lasses and Breach of Promise to Marry are also available from Pen and Sword.

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This entry was posted in Books, Family History, Guest posts, History, Mental health, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Victorian History, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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