In the century before radios and televisions, to say nothing of the internet, the newspaper was the place to get all the latest local, national and international news, local notices and gossip.
In the nineteenth century newspapers were often just four pages long and the front page was given over to announcements and advertisements, and contained little of what we would consider news. This is excellent for us as family historians as it means that a lot of the content relates to local personal events and businesses rather than anonymous international news.
The variety of stories in the newspapers make them endlessly fascinating. We settled down with the earliest edition we have of each of the six newspapers we recently added to findmypast, and had a read. We'll be posting a selection of items from each of the six newspapers in the coming weeks.
Our first selection comes from The Belfast Morning News. First published in 1855 it was Ireland’s first one penny newspaper. This exceptionally affordable price brought the newspaper to a wider audience than its competitors. Other Irish newspapers of the time ranged between four and six pence in price, or were available by subscription at £3 per year.
The earliest edition of The Belfast Morning News on findmypast at the moment dates to November 1857 (just two years after the paper first launched) and it proved to be packed full of items of interest to those researching their family history, as well as lots of material of general historical interest.
It was with great excitement that we spotted the Landed Estate Court Rentals, or Encumbered Estates on the front page of the newspaper. As regular readers will know the Court Rentals are catalogues for the sale of distressed estates. Seeing the sale of one of the estates in the newspaper made us think about the sales in a new way, did curious locals go along to for a viewing? What sort of effect did the sale of these lands have on the community? We can have no doubt that people must have worried about the temperament of their new landlord after a sale.
Also on the front page are a series of advertisements with direct links to our records: passenger lists. The emigration advertisements feature cute little sketches of sailing ships and list the name of the captain and tonnage of the ship, as well as departure date of the voyage. Prices for tickets are not mentioned, although one reassures customers that they will “be found very moderate”. Could it have been one of these advertisements that your ancestor saw in the newspaper before heading off on the Yorkshire or Sea Flower?
We then turned our attention to some of the smaller notices on the front page and spotted, tucked in the bottom right corner, below advertisements for guns, tea and cheese, an intriguing notice from John MacKay living in Magherally, County Down. John is giving notice that he will not be liable for any of his wife’s debts. This small snippet conjures up all sorts of scenarios. Jane’s numerous aliases are intriguing, do they point to several marriages or a life of crime? This notice is a great example of the quirky, and very personal sorts of notices that regularly appeared in early newspapers.
Turning to page two there were even more genealogical treats among the advertisements and notices: announcements of births, marriages and deaths. Despite the name of the newspaper, these notices were not confined to people from Antrim; Donegal, Cavan and Cork were all mentioned and the death notices included two people born in Ballymena and Londonderry whose deaths in Cincinnati, America were reported.
On page three we discovered an extensive report from the Newtownards, County Down Petty Session sitting. The transcription of the proceedings includes a detailed account of the arguments and counter arguments of the solicitors and magistrates on a point of law. Transcriptions of the debates and additional details regarding cases found in the Petty Sessions Order Books are a frequent feature of the newspapers. Details of inquests and hearings from the sittings of the Quarter Sessions and Assizes can also be found.
The back page of the newspaper contained some snippets of poetry and literature among the news and further court reports. In the nineteenth century fiction was often serialised in newspapers – this brought them to a much broader audience than publishing in book form, which could cost as much as 21 shillings, far too expensive for most people. Charles Dickens’ books were first published as newspaper serials. The short pieces were suited to being read aloud, even acted out, to an audience, and would encourage people to buy the next edition of the newspaper. We weren't able to track down the full novel being serialised in The Belfast Morning News: Sophia May so perhaps like our ancestors we'll read it in serialised form!
We were quite staggered by the amount of material packed into just four pages, and we haven't got space to mention them all in full here: there were reports of recent military promotions, trade & market reports, a note on the ending of the fishing season, and international news relating to the Indian Mutiny and financial news from America.
We cannot wait to continue exploring this collection in the coming weeks.
Check back later in the week for a round-up of our earliest edition of The Freeman's Journal Ireland's longest running national newspaper.