01 July 2022
Family history is so much more than a list of names on your tree. Newspapers, directories & books can help fill in the gaps
Family history is so much more than a list of names on your tree. If you’re anything like us here at Family Tree magazine, you’ll love delving deeper into the lives of your ancestors, adding colour to their stories and bringing them to life.
Filling in the gaps between the official records is a fun and fascinating part of our hobby, and printed historical sources such as newspapers, trade directories and books can provide fantastic leads to further your research. Being a family history newshound isn’t as difficult as you may think - you can start by reading our great guide to these useful resources:
Just as in newspapers today, reports of our ancestors’ births, marriages and deaths may have appeared in local newspapers in the past - perhaps even in national newspapers, if they were prominent people. Other newsworthy events that happened in their lives, such as appearing in court or winning a local football match, may have been reported in the press. Or perhaps you will find an advert for an ancestor’s trade or business. But whether you unearth a family hero or a skeleton in the cupboard, it all adds wonderful depth to your family’s story. So where do you start?
Find The Irish Newspaper Archive, 1700s to the present-day, at www.irishnewsarchive.com.
The Times Archive(1785-1985) is at www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/archive/.
Most UK libraries give free online access to The Times Digital Archive (1785-2006), so enquire next time you go in. See http://gale.cengage.co.uk/times.aspx/.
Have fun exploring the free website, The London Gazette, at www.gazette.co.uk. This official ‘newspaper of record’ for the UK has digitised editions dating back to 1665. You could find official notices of bankrupts and changes of name by deed poll or perhaps civil service appointments and military honours. There are Edinburgh and Belfast editions too.
Access Welsh newspapers 1844-1910 via this new and expanding project from the National Library of Wales at http://papuraunewyddcymru.llgc.org.uk/en.
The British Library newspaper collection in North London has moved to a purpose-built storage building in Boston Spa, West Yorkshire. Access is via digital and microfilm copies at the newspaper Reading Room at the library’s main site in St Pancras – see www.bl.uk/reshelp/findhelprestype/news/newspapermoves.
Find details of Scottish newspapers archives at www.nls.uk/family-history/newspapers.
Don’t forget to ask whether relatives have kept newspaper cuttings from the past about family members - and request copies!
Trade directories are hugely useful for pinpointing ancestors’ addresses and occupations in-between the censuses. Luckily, there are lots of free websites available to help you in your search:
Delve into free directories for England and Wales (1750-1919) at specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16445coll4.
Discover free Scottish Post Office directories (1773-1911) at digital.nls.uk/directories.
Freely search Irish street directories (1819-1900) at www.proni.gov.uk/index/search_the_archives/street_directories.htm.
Most of the commercial websites, such as Ancestry.co.uk, findmypast.co.uk, TheGenealogist.co.uk and FamilyRelatives.com, have trade directories as part of their collections too, so are well worth a look.
Free online books
Online libraries featuring out-of-print books are a fantastic family history resource. Gems can include parish registers or historical books featuring your ancestors’ home town. Extend your researches by exploring some of our favourites:
- Internet Archive: http://archive.org
- Google Books: http://books.google.co.uk
- Project Gutenberg: www.gutenberg.org
- British History Online: www.british-history.ac.uk
- Hathi Trust: www.hathitrust.org
- Europeana: www.europeana.eu
What else is there?
Try phone books and electoral registers for size - the commercial website www.192.com is a good place to start.
Did your ancestor appear at the infamous Old Bailey? Search court records (1674-1913) for free at www.oldbaileyonline.org.
Newspapers, trade directories & books in 3 easy steps:
- Email relatives worldwide to see if they have any newspaper reports about family members.
- Keep checking online archives such as the British Newspaper Archive and the Wales Newspapers Online project for new additions - more digitised pages are added every day!
- Make sure you keep a careful record of the sources you locate online - it’s easy to lose track and go over old ground.
Don't forget, you can read the other getting started guides on Family Tree's website, and for more detailed expert advice, read Family Tree magazine every issue! You can download our latest issue right now! Family Tree is available as a digital edition – visit www.pocketmags.com, the App Store, Google Play or Amazon Appstore. Single issues, back issues and subscriptions are available for PC, Mac, eReaders, smartphones and tablets. A free sample is also available for all devices.
More bitesize family history
- How to start your family tree
- Birth, marriage and death records
- Parish registers
- The census
- Research online
- Passenger lists
- Army records for family history
Image credit: Inside the Library of Birmingham © Elliott Brown, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Originally published February 2015. Reviewed July 2022.