Provincial newspapers contain a source of information on a district or a local community which cannot be found elsewhere. They contain feature articles on topics not to be found in books or official papers, with full accounts of local social and political activities, of the religious and sporting life of the community; the problems of crime, unemployment, and housing. In fact, they give a window on to the local scene which is unmatched by any other means. It is a day by day, year to year diary of town, city and county. Furthermore, when as at Worcester, there was at a vital period of democratic growth (such as in the 1840s with the agitation for universal suffrage), three differing political newspapers, gave a panoramic view of the great issues of those times, which no other medium of information can possibly provide.
From the days of more leisured reading, there are long accounts of local firms activities (as in 1903, in 'Worcester at Work'), or in the horrifying reporting og the Hunt Ball, the social event of 1896, and the horrifying account of the sanitary conditions in the courts around Bridport, and the squalor of the back-to-back in the mid-19th century, or of the ever continuing problem of traffic congestion over Worcester Bridge.
More vivid in bring the past to life are the small items of local news: the noise of the electric trams that drove the Bishop Of Worcester from his house at the junction of Bath Road and London Road, the sale of Lord Coventry's silver in 1937, the quarrel between the squire and the parson at Cotheridge in 1908, the escapades of such local characters as Thirsty Martha, who drank eight pints of ale in 15 minutes and complained that she was still thirsty, of the eccentricities of that forgetful Dean of Worcester, Dean Gott ( 'Forgott'); of Nobby Guy who led every procession in the 1920s, or the man who lived in a tree in the 1950s; and of the great flood which wrecked the Three Counties Show in 1924. In no other way can the forgotten aspects of a community be so clearly be brought to life than through the pages of the local newspaper.
We in Worcester have the oldest continuing newspaper in the world, Berrow's Journal, but the early newspapers contained little local news in proportion to the national and international news coverage. The advertisements are of far more local significance however, containing the claims of dentists and quak doctors, the theatre bills of travelling companies; announcements of the Turnpike Trusts, of Acts of Enclosure, of the new stage coach routes and fares, and of the financial promotions of the canal companies.
It was not until about 1850 that local newspapers evolved a series of headlines, or had a policy of listing village news under the names of a parish with small sub-headings. By the end of the 19th century the features were well classified, and make for easy perusal. Certain pages were devoted to international news, or to national news. The centre page included the editorial, and contained local topics, with columns headed by subtitles such as County and Society News, Distant News, City and County Topics, Ladie's Letters, etc. It became easier to exploit the news content of local papers, especially on a datable happenings (as at Queen Victoria's Jubilee, or the laying of a foundation stone); just turn to the date and find the story.
More important to the serious local historian was the fact that until the early 1920s, the local papers catered for a highly literate public. (The so-called 'Popular papers' began in the mid-20s). Editors even included transcripts of lectures on local topics, never published elsewhere. Feature articles were written by local experts who were leaders in their field of studies. Often these brought letters from learned societies which contained valuable, and reliable information. Such features as 'Peeps into the Past', 'Notes on the Glove Trade', 'Inland Navigation', and articles by Canon Wilson, Willis Bund, John Bradley, and the like; all the acknowledged experts in their subjects at that time.
From about 1909, photographs in newspapers provide a valuable pictorial record of local events, public transport, political and social gatherings, and a gallery of local leaders and personalities. Berrow's Worcester Journal, for about 20 years produced a weekly pictorial supplement on art paper, from which excellent copies can be made, but as screen blocks came to be used in the newsheets, the pictures, though numerous, were of very poor quality, and difficult to reproduce, and not to be compared to the present day off-set illustrations.
The Worcester Public Libary is rich in its collection of local newspapers. Earlier libarians took copies and bound them for our use today, though not all were aware of the rich source of history that the local newspapers contained. In the 1890s, two bound volumes of the Worcester Postman in good condition were offered to the Library Committee by Mrs.R Berkeley, but they did not feel justified in paying £20 for them. In the 1930s, although copies of the Worcester Evening News papers, The Worcester Daily Times, and the Worcester Daily Echo were taken by the Library, no copies were kept, and none are available today. As late as the 1950s, Bill Gwillaim, protested that copies of the Worcester Evening News and Times (later the Worcester Evening News) were not being kept - and from that date the Library Committee gave orders for a copie to be kept.
Today the Library staff are well aware of the treasures they hold, and are always ready to provide the reseacher with the papers he or she needs and to assist the student in their studies. The problem has been one of the storage and conservation, for newsprint is fragile, and great damage can be done by those handling the massive volumes.
Thankfully now with the aid of technology the papers are placed on micro-film.