British Library puts 19th-century news archive online

The British Library has today launched an online archive of two million pages from 19th-century national and regional newspapers.

Readers can peruse reports from the Battle of Trafalgar, the very first FA Cup final and the original grisly coverage of Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror.

The service allows users to search the pages of newspapers from 49 national and regional titles, some of which – such as the Western Mail, Northern Echo and Glasgow Herald – are still familiar names on the newsstands.

Searches of the site are free and downloads of full-text articles are available by purchasing either a 24-hour or seven-day pass.

Users can buy a 24-hour pass for 100 downloads at £6.99 or a seven-day pass for 200 downloads at £9.99. Access to The Graphic and The Penny Illustrated Paper is free.

The melodramatic Illustrated Police News reported the Whitechapel murders – perpetrated by the enigmatic and elusive Jack the Ripper – in bloody detail, describing how the murderer sent half of one victim’s kidney to investigators.

The front page of the paper on 22 September 1888 was given over to dramatic hand-drawn images of one of the victims – one before her death and the other after, showing her head almost severed from the neck.

Other images include the detectives working on the case and a “paper on which the murderer wiped his hands”.

Another picture, captioned: “Ready for the Whitechapel fiend, women secretly armed”, shows ladies in Victorian dress brandishing – none too secretly – knives and pistols for self-defence.

The Ripper’s crimes came at a time of growing literacy among the general public, when the press was beginning to become an effective force for social change, and they caused what we would now recognise as a media frenzy.

Earlier that month, as Ripper fever gripped the newspapers, the Pall Mall Gazette launched a stinging attack on the police.

Reporting a fourth grisly attack under the headline “Another Murder – and more to Follow?”, the paper said the investigation had been a “complete failure”, and had no prospect of finding the culprit.

Simon Bell, the British Library’s head of product development, said: “There’s a huge appetite for wider online access to this kind of resource, which is already well-used by readers at the British Library and by people in higher and further education.

“The new pay-as-you-go service will enable users across the UK who don’t wish to travel to our reading rooms in London or Yorkshire to delve into this unrivalled online resource.”

Children as young as nine smoking and drinking, the music hall star Vesta Tilley in an X Factor-style contest, and the banking collapse of 1878 are also among the stories.

Simon Fowler, editor of Ancestors Magazine, said: “This new service really does open up a major new resource for family historians.

“Realistically, for the first time it is possible to use newspapers to complement other records to build up a rounder portrait of our ancestors, with information that would not be possible to obtain elsewhere.”

The British Library worked in partnership with the Joint Information Systems Committee and Gale, part of Cengage Learning, to create the service.

The new site can be accessed at http://newspapers.bl.uk/blcs.

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