Newspapers for family history research

Sydney Gazette of the best ways to fill in some detail of the lives of our ancestors is to find a mention of them in a newspaper, or, better still, a whole article or obituary. In small country towns such as those in which many of my ancestors lived the death of a prominent local citizen was a newsworthy event for small local newspapers. No-so-prominent citizens may have been included in birth, death and marriage announcements, gossip columns, and legal notices such as for the granting of probate. Even if we can’t find our ancestor or other relatives by name, we can still get a very good idea of what their lives were like.

Current newspapers

For current newspapers try the Guide to Australian Newspapers which has a town search in the top right corner. Entering “Blayney” gave a list of three newspapers that all include Blayney in their coverage, with links to the individual newspapers. Even if your family no longer lives in the area these newspapers can give you an idea of what life is like for the locals and how it may be different from yours. For example, the website of the Blayney Guide has news from the Blayney Chronicle and a link to Sydney for Kids. It is easy to forget that for kids that grow up in the country a trip to Sydney is a big deal, as it was for me when I was growing up in Dubbo. A newspaper story discusses locks being put on another of Blayney Shire Council’s bores to stop people from stealing the water, and another gives the finding that residents of western NSW are more likely “to be overweight, binge drink, and smoke” than in the rest of the State (Blayney Chronicle, 31st May 2007, 11:10am).

Old newspapers

For historical newspapers that may no longer be published you can search in the catalogue of the State Library of NSW (or the National Library of Australia or your State library in other states). The National Plan for Australian Newspapers is a joint project between the National and State Libraries to locate, collect and preserve every newspaper published in Australia. Searching in the catalogue of the SLNSW shows me what is actually immediately available to me (with a delay of 20-30 mins) in the library itself. A keyword search for Periodicals Only for “Blayney” gives a list of 18 results which are either newspapers or council reports and publications. The dates for available issues are given and whether they have been microfilmed or kept in offsite storage. Once you have found the paper and the date that you want you request the microfilm at the Library, wait a short while for it to be retrieved, stick it on one of the microfilm readers with the larger screen, find the page you want, and print it off. Couldn’t be simpler.

Australian Periodical Publications 1840-1845 is an Australian Co-operative Digitisation Project that has digitised and made available online periodicals that began publication in 1840-1845 relevant to Australia. They may have been published beyond these dates. Pages have been scanned and made available as multi-page PDF files. OCR (Optical Character Recognition) does not appear to have been used to enable indexing and searching of names and other words. The free software Adobe Reader is required to read them. Even if you can’t find mention of your ancestors’ names in these publications there is a wealth of more general material that can give you an idea of what life was like for them.

An example, chosen at random, is the first issue of the South Australian Colonist, which began publication in London in 1840, which gives a copy of the commission of, and detailed instructions to, the first Land and Emigration Commissioners to enable them to sell “waste Crown land” and use the proceeds to bring emigrants out of England to settle in the British Colonies; first-hand accounts of immigrants and settlers and instructions for new or prospective settlers; and a report of the Aborigines’ Protection Society, all in the first six pages! The last page contains advertisements for ships about to sail to Australia, land available for purchase, and other necessary equipment such as iron bedsteads that folded up and attached to the chest for travel (presumably it attached to one’s luggage, not to one’s person!).

Early Sydney newspapers

Of course, the early papers of New South Wales were begun before these dates. The first Australian newspaper was the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. The first issue has been digitised by the State Library of NSW and can be seen here. Further issues up to 1842 are available in Mitchell Library on microfilm. The Sydney Morning Herald, which followed after 1842, is available on microfilm at the State Reference Library of the State Library of NSW from the first issue in August 1842 up to three months ago, with more recent paper issues available on request.

A brief history of newspapers in Australia can be seen at the Australian Government’s Culture and Recreation Portal here, and another one, from the National Library of Australia, here.

Yellowed cuttings from newspapers are often found in scrapbooks or loose among the old photographs with no note of which paper they came from or on what date. It is very satisfying, to me anyway, to have a photocopy of the relevant page in a newspaper that shows the name and date of the newspaper as well as the small portion that was cut out in which my ancester was mentioned.

Further information, including available indexes, can be found in Cora Num’s excellent Websites for Genealogists.

Further reading

Vine Hall, N. Tracing Your Family in New South Wales, 5th Edition, Adelaide: Gould Genealogy, 2006.

As well as the chapter in this book on newspapers I suggest following the many links to websites inserted through the text.

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