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Sam Plank update 32: March 2021

Roll the presses: the joys of a newspaper archive

As regular readers of these updates will know, I am addicted to research – sometimes I have to force myself to stop researching and start writing.  But a few weeks ago a rare treat landed in my lap from the gods of research: a free weekend pass to the archives of  I must have tried a sample search once upon a time and dropped into their database of hot leads, and this was the result: from Friday to Monday inclusive, I had free and unfettered access to “the largest online newspaper archive” of “20,400+ newspapers from the 1700s–2000s”.

As any research addict knows, the real nuggets come not from what you are looking for, but from what you read alongside it, or from the paper trail that you just cannot resist following.  I spent most of Thursday afternoon writing a list of search terms, going through the plot of “Plank 7” and the proposed plots of the five Gregory books to find topics to investigate, and ended up with a bizarre assortment ranging from “croupier” to “coroner” and from “dust-heap” to “drowning”.  If I am ever suspected of a crime and they download my search history, I’m in trouble.

I quickly found a couple of shortcomings with this particular archive – which is not their fault, but rather a reflection of my own very narrow sphere of interest (London and Cambridge, 1824-1830).  The main one is that many – perhaps most – of the newspapers are American.  And the second is that they do not include the “Cambridge Chronicle and Journal” (as it was called in the 1820s)  in their archive.  To be fair, it is only a provincial paper, and its stories are often reproduced in the “Bury and Norwich Post” and in various London papers which are in the archive, but for the Gregory books, it would be lovely to read the local rag.

Despite these shortcomings, I spent most of three days reading old newspapers, which gave me a good introduction to their style.  They are densely arranged – long sentences, long paragraphs, very little white space.  It is often hard to tell whether you are reading an article, an “infomercial” or a letter to the editor.  And so much detail!  I don’t know when the editor’s red pencil was invented, but it was certainly after 1830.  On the plus side, it was a hoot to read the blunt descriptions: “The prisoner was a young woman of a sullen and unhappy expression of countenance, and meanly dressed.”  And a high level of literacy was expected of those who could read: “Wanted immediately: a respectable young man in the linen drapery business. None need apply but those who can give the best testimonials as to character. Likewise wanted: a clever active youth as an apprentice.”  None need apply but those… can you imagine that in a job ad today?

And did it do the trick?  It most certainly did: I have come up with all sorts of interesting plot lines and details, and the more I have absorbed about the period, the better I am at writing confidently so that the reader feels comfortable in my company and trusts me to lead them.  And thanks to a gruesome/hilarious report of a woman doing away with her feckless husband, I have a doozy of a poisoning to work in somewhere…
The "Cambridge Chronicle and University Journal" - I shall have to track this down elsewhere and hide away for another weekend...
Advances in printing technology meant that newspapers could be printed on larger sheets - as mocked in this 1834 cartoon
An Albion printing press, which is the sort that was widely in operation in the 1820s
A copy of the "Police Gazette" from August 1831 - it might well have been read by Sam or Conant or Wontner
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