Australian, New Zealand and Canadian newspapers as resources for research in modern British and Irish history

This note draws attention to Australian, New Zealand and Canadian online newspaper archives as resources that can support research in modern British and Irish history. The note concentrates on websites available free in February 2020.

 Australian and New Zealand Newspapers

The two principal collections are the National Library of Australia's Trove (https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/?q=) and the National Library of New Zealand's PapersPast (https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers). PapersPast cuts off in 1950, while Trove continues to the present. Both websites have a text facility, allowing researchers to copy and paste quotations. Trove also allows text correction, and is supported by a devoted amateur army of correctors, one of whom is approaching six million interventions. PapersPast has yet to enable such a process. However, text versions are generally fairly accurate, except of course where there are problems in the microfilming.   Both sites can be searched by date or within set periods. Newspapers can be consulted either through individual targeted stories, or as full pages. PapersPast allows the elimination of advertisements and illustrations. Trove goes further, with 21 sub-categories: Articles, Letters, News and Editorial generally cover news and comment from Britain and Ireland. It is possible to search for an exact phrase on both sites. Trove also allows for the exclusion of terms. Thus a search for "Gladstone" between 1831 and 1898 produces 796,515 results. Unluckily Australia had a town named in honour of his brief term as colonial secretary, and all seven capital cities have thoroughfares named after him. Removal of the terms "Queensland" and "Street" reduces the hits to 370,801, while confining the search to Articles, Letters, News and Editorial produces a mere 305,498. Clearly, anyone seeking information on the Grand Old Man from the Australian press needs to search for specific episodes in short periods. "Gladstone" and "anecdote" between 1831 and 1930 produces 9,094 returns. By default, Trove organises results by relevance, and only the first few pages seem to generate worthwhile nuggets. Both Trove and PapersPast allow reorganisation of hits in date order.

By 1850, the six Australian colonies had a European population of around 400,000. This would rise to over 3 million by the time of federation in 1901. Colonisation began later in New Zealand: the settler population of 26,000 in 1850 rose to nearly one million by the end of the century. Most immigrants were both ambitious and literate: by the second half of the nineteenth century, every sizeable colonial town supported at least one broadsheet-style newspaper, often reflecting lively journalism. Nor were these all small-scale ventures. In 1854, the Sydney Morning Herald claimed that only two London newspapers exceeded its circulation.[1] Its Melbourne counterpart, the Age, is generally credited with having converted the colony of Victoria to a protectionist policy.[2]

With most politicians either recent arrivals or the children of immigrants, it is not surprising that Australians and New Zealanders felt very conscious of forming part of what is now called 'the British World'. In 1851, Great Britain was home to almost 22 million people, and Ireland, despite the disaster of the Famine, still contained six and a half million. In other words, there were about seventy times as many people in the United Kingdom as in the southern hemisphere colonies. By 1901, with 37 million people in Great Britain and four and a half million remaining in Ireland, the ratio was still around ten to one. It is not surprising that Australian and New Zealand editors regarded London as the centre of their imperial universe, nor that they scanned newspapers from "Home" for interesting and entertaining stories. Newspapers harnessed reader interest by satisfying their natural interest in the imperial power and metropolitan society combined with nostalgia and homesickness that made them welcome news from the Old Country. Britain's role as the cultural hub of the English-speaking world was underpinned by the practice of publishing novels in instalments: legend claims that Sydneysiders rowed small boats out into the harbour to intercept incoming ships, shouting to passengers to know whether Little Nell was dead.[3] To this may be added the embarrassing fact that there was not always much of interest to report locally.

Unfortunately, if Britain was spiritually close, it was geographically a long way away. New South Wales learned of the fall of the Bastille almost eleven months after the outbreak of the French Revolution. Communications were gradually improved, by steamships and use of the Suez route: an express link sped mail across the isthmus before the canal opened in 1869. In 1854, news arrived in Sydney that was "only 65 days old".[4] Australia was linked to Europe by cable in 1872; New Zealand four years later. Initially, messages were expensive, with newspapers printing bulletins of about fifty words. This added to the challenge of making the full stories interesting when the British and Irish newspapers eventually arrived by sea. A combination of political pressure and public subsidies gradually reduced telegraph costs. One downside of the telegraph for the historian is that even small-town newspapers subscribed to news agency services, Reuters and the Press Association, so that the same report may recur many times. Trove allows the searcher to concentrate upon articles over 1,000 words (there are in fact four length categories), which excludes most wire service reports.[5]

Seaborne reports generally appeared about six weeks after the telegraph summaries. The Melbourne Age, for instance, published a London Letter every two to three weeks, their frequency dictated by ship movements. Often these missives largely recycled news from the English press, but they can be useful in conveying atmosphere and detail. It is not always clear whether 'background' articles were written especially for the Australian press or simply transcribed from unidentified sources: editors were not respectful of copyright. The Age (6 December 1890), for instance, carried a long feature on Parnell by the British socialist H.H. Champion, which included an account with an interview with the Irish leader. The article was evidently aimed at an Australian readership and, as Champion emigrated to Melbourne soon afterwards and became a leader writer for the Age, it may have been a commissioned contribution. (A search for "London Letter" in PapersPast produces thousands of headlines-only hits. The reader has to go the top of the screen, link to the full page and then isolate the article to access text. It is a simple ritual.)

Both Trove and PapersPast allow researchers either to exclude or to focus upon advertisements. These may be a useful resource for measuring the export outreach of British companies. My home town of Romford was famous, if at all, for its brewery, and I was aware that the firm received additional investment when two new partners joined in 1845. I only became aware of the scale of this reorganisation when I picked up a blizzard of advertisements for Romford ale in Australian newspapers from 1847.

I offer some examples from my own work of information culled from Trove and PapersPast. Studies of the writer A.C. Benson, and of the fourth Earl of Carnarvon, a maverick Conservative politician, have benefited from reports in the Australian and New Zealand press which originated in British newspapers to which I did not have access. In the case of A.C. Benson, I found that his initials tended to bemuse search engines, but good results were found by linking his surname to the institutions with which he was associated ("Eton" / "Cambridge"). Carnarvon yielded some useful nuggets partly because he visited Australia. Journalism from thousands of miles away might not seem an obvious source for an interest in the history of my native county of Essex, but in fact the antipodean papers were useful filters, only likely to report some episode if it had unusual or challenging features. Take, for example, the village of Blackmore, near Chelmsford. Popular local histories (of the Look Back in Ongar variety) have nothing to say about the place after Henry VIII, who supposedly used it as a love nest. After excluding all reports about Lorna Doone, the novel by R.D. Blackmore, I came across the following incident, reported in a Tasmanian (Van Diemen's Land) newspaper in 1850:

"Refusal to Perform the Burial Service over the Unbaptised

A correspondent of the Essex Herald says 'A case, as above, occurred on Sunday, Jan. 7, at the little village of Blackmore. The minister, Mr. Hodges, refused to bury the body of a girl, the daughter of a labourer, because she had not been christened. The parents being members of the Baptist church in the village, and herself an approved candidate for membership two months previously, her remains were taken into the chapel, where a short service was held in the presence of nearly a hundred persons. The school children, teachers, and friends followed to the grave in the churchyard, at which a hymn was given out to be sung, which was not permitted, as the clerk informed us, by special order of the clergyman.'"[6]

No doubt the story could be tracked down in the English press, although I have not located it elsewhere. Colonial populations were generally hostile to Anglican pretensions, and this cameo would have appealed to Nonconformists. It can also be located by searching Trove for "Baptists" and "burial". This suggests that anyone wishing to study the background to the Burials Act of 1880 would find the Australian press a useful 'way in' to the subject.

A similar search turned up a chilling statement about social conditions in Britain. I sought information about the Cornwall, a reformatory ship for male juvenile offenders, moored at Purfleet on the Thames – and did indeed locate several informative reports. But the Cornwall was also mentioned in connection with a controversy over the use of corporal punishment at an Australian reformatory in 1919. A "Disgusted Englishwoman" was deeply shocked by the proposal to abandon the use of the cane, writing that "there isn't an eight-year-old boy in one of Dr. Barna[r]do's Homes in England who wouldn't be utterly ashamed of himself to admit he'd had a canning [sic] for some misbehaviour which, no doubt, he richly deserved, and hadn't the pluck in him to take his punishment without whining."[7] Perhaps there are similar statements in British sources, but it is tempting to suspect that this degree of contemptuous frankness was only possible because the contributor was 12,000 miles away.

Occasionally, a comment appeared in an Australian or New Zealand newspaper which almost certainly would not have been published in Britain. Dignitaries attending an investiture at Windsor late in 1886 were alarmed by the appearance of the Queen. "Her Majesty looked painfully ill and worried, so much so indeed that on the way back in the train, many fears were expressed less she should not live to see her jubilee."[8] Perhaps similar rumours appeared in the British press, but I do not know of them.

Canadian Newspapers

Canadian newspapers also reported British and Irish events and issues, but the United Kingdom was probably less newsworthy than in the southern hemisphere. Although immigrants continued to lay a major role in public life at least until the end of the nineteenth century, the overall culture was more North American. Confederation in 1867 generated two levels of politics, Dominion and provincial, with concomitant additional politicking to report. The United States was as important to Canadians as Britain, and their neighbours south of the border generated an endless supply of page-filling lunacies and abominations, all available without the time-lag of transatlantic communications.

There are also far fewer resources available for free consultation: for instance, Canada's most assertively controversial newspaper, the Toronto Globe, is a subscription site, while other titles appear on PaperofRecord. One available and potentially useful resource is the British Colonist, from Victoria, British Columbia (http://www.britishcolonist.ca/), a project organised by the University of Victoria. It runs from its foundation, in 1858, to 1980. Vancouver Island attracted a motley collection of half-pay officers and remittance men who endowed it with a largely phoney veneer of Englishness, and the Colonist (it appeared under various titles) catered for their nostalgia. It carried extensive news reports from Britain (for instance, its 10 April 1886 edition carried a digest of London press comment on Gladstone's speech introducing the Home Rule Bill) and also London Letters. These reflected the sometimes idiosyncratic interests of the correspondent. For instance, on 18 January 1862, it carried a despatch dated 23 November 1861, which began with the thrilling news: "By far the most absorbing topic of conversation during the past fortnight has been the financial crisis in France." However, the Colonist made up for this with an account, dated 7 December 1861 and published on 22 February 1862, of the impact in London of the Trent crisis, which naturally could be expected to interest readers in Victoria who would find themselves on the front line of any war with the United States. (Prior to the construction of North American transcontinental railways, Vancouver Island was functionally further away from Britain than either Australia or New Zealand: hence the long time lag.) Keyword searches will bring up the page and will usually highlight the term itself. It is not possible to isolate individual articles (not, at least, with my level of computer skill) and the site currently has no a text facility. Whole issues can be downloaded.

The University of Alberta has placed on line an extensive collection of newspapers from the Peel's Prairie Provinces archive (http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/newspapers/), which covers Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Most of the newspapers are small-town news-sheets which focused on local news. In the pioneer years of the late-nineteenth century, typeface quality was often poor. The collection can be searched by years or groups of years, and hits can be arranged in date order. Advertisements can be removed. Individual articles are identified. There is no text facility, but a printable version of the original is available for each item. Placing search terms within inverted commas limits hits to the exact phrase: there are 50 for "Home Rule" in 1886. One Calgary newspaper claimed that "our very distance from the scene of action although it may not lessen the eagerness with which we follow the course of events, must in any case increase our capability of viewing them more dispassionately than those more immediately affected by them."[9] In fact, it seems more likely that the Peel's Prairie Provinces collection is more useful in illustrating the simplification of received arguments on major metropolitan issues. Although an important resource in Canadian history, for historians of Britain and Ireland, it probably functions best as a quick and accessible way of sampling the impact overseas of some major event or personality.[10] Simon Fraser University also has an online collection of newspaper archives. The titles largely relate to British Columbia radical groups, and to minority ethnic communities. (https://newspapers.lib.sfu.ca/)

As with Peel's Prairie Provinces collection, most of the Canadian newspapers in the Google News Archive are from small towns. (https://news.google.com/newspapers) However, there are some runs of big city newspapers which were more likely to report (and comment upon) overseas news. The Montreal Gazette rivalled the Toronto Globe in stature. It is available in very broken runs from 1878 to 1880, and from 1894 to 1986. The Toronto Mail, founded as a rival to the Globe (with which it merged in 1935) is available in fits and starts between 1881 and 1895. There are some short runs of other Montreal newspapers on Google News Archive: Le Devoir, the voice of intellectual nationalisme, is best represented after 1940, but a signed front-page article on the Abdication ("Un Roi s'en va...") by its editor, Omer Héroux, is a gem, not least for its deft allusion to Louis XVI.[11] The Vancouver Sun appears in sporadic bursts between 1920 and 1959.

The main limitation of the Google News Archive is that it is not searchable. It is possible to zoom in on pages, but not to isolate individual stories. Accordingly, it is a resource best used by targeting a specific date. It does, however, contain one unexpected title of use to historians of modern Britain. Most of its newspapers come from the United States and Canada, which makes it something of a surprise to encounter over 48,000 issues of the Glasgow Herald, spanning the years from 1806 to 1990. There are gaps in the earlier decades, but the run appears to be complete at least from its transition to daily publication in 1859.[12]

A note on Ireland

News from or about Ireland was extensively reported, especially in the Australian press, but some publications took a special interest in Irish affairs. In Sydney, the Freeman's Journal took its name from a prominent Dublin nationalist newspaper, and sometimes also appropriated its reports. Trove has files from 1850 to 1934. The Freeman's Journal did not always identify its sources, but I cite as an example a report from 5 January 1867 which it attributed to the Cork Examiner:

"Within a few miles' ranges of Youghal there are no less than six clergymen to look after the spiritual wants of from sixty to seventy souls, and for so doing they receive in the aggregate not less than £1,700 per annum. In Clonpriest there are perhaps a dozen Protestants, and from that parish the Rev. Mr. Hartley, late of Tamworth, receives a salary of £600 a year. The Rev. Mr. Shaw receives a yearly salary of £180 for attending on Sundays at the church near Ferry Point. The congregation of the district may amount to ten or twelve. Contiguous to that church resides the Rev. Mr. Woods, rector of Grange, a parish without church or congregation, but which, nevertheless, pays the rev. gentleman a yearly stipend of £280. In addition he receives one guinea every Sunday he attends the vacant place of the absent rector of Clashmore, a parish of few souls and many pounds. The Rev. Mr. Bagge receives £180 per annum for attending the church of Templemichael, where three families sometimes meet. Finally, the Rev. Mr. Fitzgerald, rector of Ardagh, receives, I believe, £480, though his congregation consists chiefly of his own family. Can men with a sense of common justice look on such a state of things and not cry shame on those who uphold it? Shall the day ever come when Protestant clergymen will have the spirit to refuse the fruits of a frightful injustice? Shall the day ever come when a spirit of religious fervour will urge them to go where work is to be done, instead of remaining at home to eat the bread of palpable injustice in undignified idleness? I have heard that in the town of Youghal there are no less than seven Protestant clergymen, four of whom, at least, have no connection with that parish, and little to do in their own."

The report appeals because I live near Youghal, and can see what is left of one these churches from my study window. Five of the six are now in ruins; the sixth serves as a deconsecrated community centre.

A recent reorganisation of PapersPast has moved the New Zealand Tablet into a separate periodical section (https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/periodicals). The Tablet was founded as a weekly publication by Bishop Patrick Moran of Dunedin in 1873. A note on the PapersPast website says that "there are indications that he sometimes regarded Irish issues as more important than Catholic ones". Intriguingly, Moran was a native of Rathdrum, the County Wicklow town close to Parnell's estate at Avondale. Although the bishop took an active role in the production of the Tablet, he does not seem to have contributed any personal testimony about the Irish leader or his family. In 1902, after Moran's death, the Tablet complained about the accuracy and fairness of news from Ireland submitted through the cable services. "The gentleman who manipulates the cable news at the 'other end' [i.e. Britain] for the delectation and information of colonial readers is absolutely irrepressible. He goes serenely on his jocund way, absolutely oblivious to the fact that his unreliability, particularly where Irish or Catholic affairs are concerned, is almost self-evident. He has been corrected so often that the task has become wearisome yet he never seems to improve." On this occasion, a report had been circulated of a riot in Waterford, carrying the unstated but clear message that the Irish were an irrational and violent people. In fact, the disturbance had occurred in Watford, where ruffians had objected to the postponement of Coronation festivities – Edward VII had gone down with appendicitis – and had shown their disappointment at the loss of a free banquet by smashing the windows of a local politician. It was, in short, "a vulgar English riot", but no apology was offered for the slur against the ancient city of Waterford: "the gentleman who manipulates the cables had not the grace to make the correction. He never does. And the mischief of it is that his statements are accepted as gospel, and pass current for facts."[13]

Google News Archive has runs of three Irish newspapers from Canada. The Irish Vindicator was published in Montreal at the time of Catholic Emancipation: the years 1828 to 1831 are covered. A handful of issues survive for the Irish Sentinel, published in Quebec City in 1872, with the motto: "Faithful to the old land; loyal to the new." The most substantial Ireland-related publication on Google News Archive is the Irish Canadian, spanning 1863 to 1892, with some small glitches and a few longer gaps, e.g. 1867, 1876 and February 1890 to May 1891. The Irish Canadian seems to have aimed at providing an informative weekly commentary mainly on Canadian politics, combined with digests of news, by county, and some comment about Ireland. Its account of the execution of Patrick Whelan, convicted of the murder of D'Arcy McGee, is chilling. "We cannot say that he suffered innocently; we will not assert that he died guilty." Of the return at a by-election in County Meath in 1875 of an unknown Home Rule candidate called Parnell, it reported that "the joy of the people knew no bounds", and described the victor as "the favourite of priests and people."[14] Such reports are evidently derivative, and can function at most as signposts back to the Irish press.

Conclusion

It will perhaps be objected that using the overseas press as a source for British and Irish news is a roundabout way of proceeding. Both the Cork Examiner and the Essex Herald, quoted above, are available through subscription sites. In most cases, reports picked up from Australia or New Zealand would need to be tracked back to their original metropolitan source, which might make the antipodean excursion seem irrelevant. But overseas newspapers can be useful in identifying episodes to be followed up, and there can be no guarantee that a story reported in the colonies can still be traced in Britain or Ireland. In addition, as suggested from some of the examples quoted, overseas newspapers may have felt less inhibited in their coverage of personalities and issues back 'Home', while their correspondents sometimes supplied 'atmosphere' to add an extra dimension to the description of events already briefly reported by telegraph. As the example of Gladstone indicates, much depends upon the precision of keyword terms, and the pin-pointing of dates.

The free availability of the websites mentioned will naturally encourage the assumption that they are there to be used, and there are usually no restrictions upon private study or scholarly quotation. However, both Trove and PapersPast are National Library-led consortium projects in their respective countries, which have drawn upon other libraries or publishers. As always, responsibility for checking copyright rests with the user.

ENDNOTES   Websites were consulted in February 2020. I am grateful to Philip Williamson for drawing to my attention a website from Bowling Green State University which lists online newspaper collections from around the world. Some of the sites focus on specific issues, and many are available only through subscription. The site has not been updated since June 2019. (https://libguides.bgsu.edu/c.php?g=227439&p=1507123)

[1] K.S. Inglis, The Australian Colonists: an Exploration of Social History (Melbourne, 1974), 221.

[2] C.E. Sayers, "Syme, David", Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 6: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/syme-david-4679.

[3] J. Ritchie, Australia as Once We Were (Melbourne, 1975), 69. Overseas editors seem to have ignored author copyright in reprinting novels from Britain.

[4] Inglis, The Australian Colonists: an Exploration of Social History, 35.

[5] Thus the career of Harold Davidson, rector of Stiffkey in Norfolk, provides around 1,000 reports in Trove, but most seem to be from news agencies. Davidson devoted himself to saving young maidens from sin. After being defrocked, he joined a travelling menagerie, preaching at seaside resorts from within a cage of wild animals. He has a claim to be considered the last Christian to be killed in the line of duty by a lion. By concentrating upon articles of over 1,000 words, Trove throws up a handful which claim to constitute original material. Sydney Truth, 8 May 1832, carried a long report of the case against Davidson described as being from its "Special London Correspondent", and see also the Adelaide Chronicle, 15 December 1932. The Daily News (Perth), 28 May 1932, noted that the village was pronounced "Stooky".

[6] Colonial Times (Hobart), 25 June 1850.

[7] Sydney Sunday Times, 4 May 1919.

[8] Christchurch Star, 7 January 1887.

[9] Calgary Weekly Herald, 19 June 1886. The rest of the article does not necessarily bear out this Olympian claim. The editorial writer concluded that the Home Rule campaign was the work of "foreign gold", that the Irish people cared more about the land than about self-government, and that there was no solution to the objections of Ulster. "It is a small wonder that even the eloquence and subtlety of a Gladstone could not persuade the English [sic] parliament to assent to such a bill."

[10] "A Pen Picture of Parnell" in the Brandon [Manitoba] Daily Mail, 5 February 1891, was probably purloined (without acknowledgement of source) from some British or Irish newspaper, but is an example of the kind of nugget that occasionally turns up in even an unlikely source.

[11] Le Devoir, 11 décembre 1936.

[12] Google News Archive also includes the Guernsey Times from 1860 to 1915.

[13] New Zealand Tablet, 21 August 1902.

[14] Irish Canadian, 17 February 1869, 19 May 1875.

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