The session I’d like to pitch for UKGovCamp 2018 – but can’t due to doctors’ orders.


Wanting to do a talk about the impact of digitising archives on local research all over the country…but having to stay at home instead until the medics find out what caused me to spend the festive season in hospital

For those of you that missed it, I spent Christmas on a hospital bed. A suspected heart attack – the cause of which we still do not yet know. I have further tests lined up in February. So between now and then I have a chemistry-lab’s worth of medication to take until the further tests show what I need to continue taking and what I can stop. It also means missing out on UKGovCamp for the second year in a row.

This post stems in part from Steph Gray’s post below.

It got me thinking about what session I would have pitched (if at all) – mindful that I’ve been out of the loop on government digital for a few years now.

The British Newspaper Archive’s partnership with the British Library

Followers of my LostCambridge blog will be familiar with the British Newspaper Archive online – they are about 20million pages into scanning their archive of over 700million newspaper pages. And what their work reveals is utterly mindblowing in the grand scheme of things. Imagine being able to do a keyword search of such an archive instantaneously.

“But…we do that every day with the internet!”

We do – but the difference here is that the content – the knowledge, was written in times pre-dating not just the internet, but with some of the content in there, pre-dating the industrial revolution. The text below from I think the Cambridge Chronicle of 1840 is particularly powerful.

Here, the writer is imagining the future based upon his observations of the very early railways. The transport revolution he predicted would reduce overcrowding, allow people to live further away from their work places, make it much more efficient to get goods to market. He concludes saying that the railways will make the UK as an island an impregnable fortress because wherever an enemy lands on the coast, within the time it takes them to disembark, the entire forces of the country could be assembled fresh – not exhausted by a long march, ready to repel them.

The point above is about applying the technology readily available to search the internet, and applying it to manuscript and typescript content from yesteryear to unlock and re-reveal long-forgotten events.

Unlocking and re-revealing long-forgotten things

With something like a newspaper archive, there are a number of things to be aware of – not least the lack of advertising standards in the early days!

130228 Zambuk advert ailments

A screengrab from the wonderful British Newspaper Archive – not sure I’d believe the claims for ‘Zam Buk’ though! 

‘News’ becomes ‘Old’ very quickly – especially in this day and age. Twitter is at its best in the first five minutes of an incident breaking, and then at it’s worst for the next 24-48 hours.

Incredibly extensive newspaper reports

In the days before TV and radio, newspapers were the primary means of finding out what was happening – or had happened, in a town or city. That or at public meetings. In those days – certainly in Cambridge, meetings were happening all over the place. Furthermore, reporters were invited into many of them – even ones that today we’d think of as being private and for members only. For example candidate selection meetings for future elections.

This example from the local history goldmine that is the Cambridge Independent Press, then run by former Mayor of Cambridge Alfred Tillyard (we named a road after him and his wife – the legend that is Catherine Tillyard (more on her in a bit)), is from the first large meeting of the new Liberal candidate for Cambridge with his local party membership.

900201 Snapshot example of full page article in CambIndy

“That’s not a newspaper report, that’s part of a Ph.D thesis!”

Re the above, I mean, I know political meetings go on and on – I spent over 3 hours filming the Greater Cambridge Assembly today, but how can one person speak for so long and fill up ***all of those paragraphs of text?!?***

If that page of text is an incredibly detailed report of a one-off event that you are searching for an account of, such a page is historical gold dust. And the British Newspaper Archive is part-way through digitising all of this.

Catherine Tillyard and the Votes for Women centenary.

This is the wonderful Catherine, as portrayed by the Museum of Cambridge.

Catherine’s weekly columns covered social and political issues that women were campaigning on in the late 1800s/early 1900s. As the board above shows, Catherine wrote these columns weekly for the best part of nearly a quarter of a century. Very few other local newspapers would have had the equivalents of Catherine. Thus we have over a thousand newspaper columns covering the rise of the Votes for Women movement. Now think of all of these columns digitised with keyword searches. As a local historian, Catherine has made my job so much easier because she wrote about all of these things that were going on – things easily missed out by male journalists and writers.

Eglantyne Jebb – founder of Save the Children: Newspaper archives revealed a very political side to her

There are many descriptors one could give for Eglantyne – who I just adore. Most people are familiar with the charity “Save the Children” – which she founded.

Eglantyne Jebb in Cambridge (L) and in Oxford as an undergraduate (R).

Those familiar with her know that she spent around 15 years in Cambridge – turning to social and political work after having her heart broken in the very early 1900s. Eglantyne researched and wrote the first social scientific study of poverty and multiple deprivation in Cambridge in our town’s history. This is it digitised. But what the newspaper archives revealed was that between completing that work and founding Save The Children after the First World War, she got involved…in politics.


From the Liberal-supporting Cambridge Independent Press.

The article that accompanies the photo above (featured in this blogpost) describes Eglantyne’s transition from a soft Conservative to a hard Liberal of the day. What we also find is that the Liberal candidate for Cambridge, Stanley Buckmaster KC (who would serve as Lord Chancellor and got the law society to scrap its ban on women members), she basically ran his election campaign in the run up to the 1910 December snap election. Thus what we find is that Eglantyne was far more active in party politics than perhaps modern day readers and admirers of her charitable work are aware of.

Back to the Votes for Women centenary


We’re celebrating it here in Cambridge

What the digitisation of the newspaper archives allows local historians and activists to do is to search for their local heroes who drove the case for women’s, and then equal suffrage – amongst other important campaigns. One of the things that is clear from the newspapers is that the suffragists and suffragettes (former were the peaceful ones, latter were the ones that smashed up stuff) were involved in a whole host of other social justice campaigns. How fearless were the suffragettes in Cambridge? Think of one of the toughest group of men in town…men not really known for their progressive views.

130516 Suffragettes firebomb Cambridge Uni Rugby club

…they went along and firebombed their HQ.

This sort of anger doesn’t rear its head overnight. But given that Millicent Garrett Fawcett had been speaking publicly about Votes for Women in the 40 years preceding that firebombing, and not succeeding, you can see why Mrs Pankhurst decided on a change of tactics. How do we know that Millicent Garrett Fawcett (who resided in Cambridge with her husband Henry Fawcett, a Cambridge professor, former MP for Brighton, and ex-Paymaster General who blinded himself in a shooting accident) was speaking out so early and so publicly? The British Newspaper Archive have a scanned copy of Millicent’s speech in 1873 to the Cambridge Reform Club on Votes for Women. I’ve transcribed that speech here.

To give you an idea of just how much courage Millicent needed to make such a public intervention, the local Conservatives in Cambridge were anything but tolerant to such ideas – or to Liberals in general in those days. Ironic given the very strong speeches quite rightly deploring threats and acts of violence against politicians today. Because in 1885, twelve years after Millicent’s speech, Cambridge Conservative’s, celebrating winning the borough seat in the election that year, incited a riot! How do we know this?

851128 Tories smash up Cambridge Reform Club postelection_1

The Cambridge Independent Press wrote about it – and the British Newspaper Archive digitised it.

The offices of the Press were also vandalised by the mob – I’ve transcribed the account here. Also in this and the following week’s newspaper are the transcripts of the court trial of the accused. The Press in an Op Ed complained that those who had incited the riot had not been apprehended. Because what the newspaper alleges is that Conservatives went around town buying booze for every other drunkard, rogue, street urchin and ruffian going, before directing them to the targets of their choice and inviting them to smash the places up.

The impact of all of this digitisation?

For me, it has transformed my understanding of the history of Cambridge the town. Through social media I have been able to share that learning with many others locally. The biggest finding is that Cambridge would not be the modern city that it is today had it not been for the Women of Cambridge who campaigned patiently, passionately, persistently and often at great risk, to get the social and political changes that many of us today take for granted. My role over the next few years is to bring their stories back into the public domain.


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