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Keith Gregsonpays homage to the online British Newspaper Archive, which could hold the key to solving your family mysteries

SOLVING FAMILY HISTORY PROBLEMS

Using the British Newspaper Archive

Nearly every family has a mystery or two lurking in the branches of its tree – mysteries its family historians would love to solve. Our family has (or had) at least four or five such mysteries which both my parents spent many hours pondering on, with limited success. One of my father’s maternal uncles was suspected of coming to a sticky end, although the nature of that end had disappeared into the mists of time. He was a regular Army man but did he fall from his horse or was he beaten to death in a pub brawl? On the other side of Dad’s family lurked an uncle full of intriguing tales and anecdotes, but was there enough factual information to link one of these into the family history book or was it best left in delible pencil? Mother had a sea-going maternal grandfather who slipped mysteriously into mental institutions towards the end of Victoria’s reign and stayed there for 30 years. How had that come about? And finally, one of his Shetland-born elder brothers who also took to the sea simply disappeared from the face of the earth, leaving no evidence within the family of his fate.

For years I considered these mysteries to be insoluble – that is until the magnificent (if fee-paying) British Newspaper Archive (BNA) site thundered over the horizon at www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.ukand over a course of weeks mystery after mystery unravelled.

Case study 1

Uncle Clem – a brawl or fall?

My father’s Uncle Clem was one of a large number of maternal uncles. My father (born 1920) suspected that Clem had been a boy soldier at some point and may have served as a bugler or drummer boy in the Boer War. He was thought to be slightly older than my grandmother (born in 1887) and was not around by the time of my father’s birth soon after the First World War. Dad pondered on two rumours about his early death: as noted above, one acknowledged a fall from his horse when he was in the Army, the other that he died ‘as a result of a pub brawl’. Years of research took us no further on. More recently, and many years after my father’s death in 1994, I discovered that Clem was actually recorded on the birth index for 1887 as Daniel Clementine Greatorex (Daniel after his father). Though encouraging, this detail led to no more advances as the entry into search engines of either Clem or Clementine plus or minus the Daniel and surname produced blanks in all the major indexes. However, soon after signing up with the BNA and while researching my game-keeping great-grandfather in a little more detail, I came across a worrying article in the Montgomery Echodated 13 December 1902, beginning ‘Charge of Assault’ (see article 1).

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