Jayne Dowle: Trawl that reveals nothing was rosy about the past

WE reckon we’ve got it tough these days. Broken homes. Child neglect. Domestic violence. Addiction to drugs and alcohol. Debt. Gambling. You name the social problem, we think we invented it. How many times have you heard people complain that it wasn’t like this in the so-called good old days when everything was rosy?

Which ‘olden days’ exactly? I’ve been spending some time in the British Newspaper Archives recently. Not literally in them. One of the wonders of this, our modern age, is that we have access to billions of words of newsprint online. For the modest sum of £9.95, I have bought myself a month’s access. I have to say that it is the best tenner I have spent for ages.

Let me tell you this for nothing though. There was nothing rosy about the past. Just five minutes delving into the 10 million pages in this archive brings up hair-raising stories about wives and children deserted, infants burnt to death when their parents were “insensible” with drink, and a shocking amount of violence, detailed with grisly relish.

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Two things stand out: the sheer amount of policing required to keep society functioning in the 19th and 20th century, and the spiral of decline which we still see happening today. All too often, a man or a woman would get into trouble with the police, borrow money from a loan shark to pay the fine and end up losing their job, home, children and reputation in rapid order. In those days, there was no safety net. The workhouse or tramping the road was the last resort. When we look at our dependency culture today, how much of a hangover do we still suffer?

I’ve subscribed ostensibly because I’m doing a book for a local history group in Kexbrough, a village in Barnsley. I thought it would be useful to acquire some background context and so on.

Never did I imagine what I would find here though. The sheer amount of tragedy and crimes committed on a daily basis are astounding to witness. I can’t help myself delving in at every spare moment. It’s becoming as addictive as Facebook and a lot more interesting. I really do wish there was an app for my phone.

Even a quick search of my own family names throws up some worrying traits in my DNA. My great-great uncle Reuben Batty, already notorious for the mysterious death of a gamekeeper on the Wentworth estate, turns out to have started his criminal career at the tender age of eight. In October 1876, he was found guilty, along with another boy, of stealing four pigeons from a man in Worsbro Bridge: “Defendants pleaded guilty, and were ordered to receive eight strokes with a birch rod, and be imprisoned for 48 hours.”

You should have seen my son’s face when I showed him this. He loves history at school, but he has never seen it actually laid out before him like this in black and white. Imprisoned for 48 hours? At the age of eight? Can you imagine what today’s campaigners for youth justice would make of that?

I have been researching my family tree for years. However nothing can match the thrill of seeing an ancestor come alive before your very eyes. Here’s Reuben again, up before the magistrate for fighting another man – one Thomas Logan – kicking him to the ground, attempting to strangle him, and knocking him out with a stone. And in this report, we actually read the words he spoke, because the dedicated journalist has taken the care to detail all the “thees”and “thous”. In another contemporary court report, the magistrate is reported diligently as complaining about the influx of “Hibernians” in the town causing problems with locals. They didn’t mince their words in those days, and every single one was noted.

Oh yes, the dedicated journalist. When you see a page from The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer from say, 1897, the first thing that strikes you is the sheer amount of words on the page. Bear in mind though that newspapers were the only form of mass communication: no radio news bulletins, no television, and the concept of the internet entirely unimaginable to all except perhaps H.G. Wells.

Without newspapers, no-one would have ever found out anything. On a macro scale, the reporting of poverty and deprivation, of the sheer numbers of men killed in dangerous occupations such as mining, and myriad other social matters, helped to influence the hearts and minds of the political class and brought about changes in legislation which made life fairer for everyone. On a micro scale though, newspapers provided information about everything from a remedy for the common cold to job opportunities at the other end of the country, or even the world – “5,000 good workmen required for Queensland and Canada: steamers sailing April, immediate employment, highest wages” from The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, March 1884.

An advertisement such as this determined the course of a life. These newspapers chronicled millions of such lives. Although the world has changed beyond measure, what we learn from reading these archive editions today is that people and their problems have not.