Discover London's Secret History With 20 Million Newspaper Pages

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Discover London's Secret History With 20 Million Newspaper Pages

This article is written in partnership with the British Newspaper Archive.

Illustrated Police News, 9 October 1897. Image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved.

Imagine you could search through 22 million pages of historic newspapers for any name, location or keyword you liked. What forgotten stories from London's past are just waiting to be discovered?

That's the British Newspaper Archive. This online resource contains hundreds of newspaper titles, from the 18th to the 21st century, scanned in partnership with the British Library. All are fully searchable, and 100,000 pages are added each week.

We use the British Newspaper Archive almost every day at Londonist, and we've found some absolute gems over the years. What will you uncover? Try the Archive for free.

Make new discoveries about London

Sometimes, the Archive reveals information that nobody has seen for decades or even centuries. Here are just four of the stories we discovered, which you can find in the Londonist archive.

* A would-be Batman leapt from a hot air balloon over Chelsea in 1874. It didn't end well.

Illustrated Police News. 18 July 1874. Image (c) The British Library Board. All rights reserved.

* In 1930, a fake lion caused a stampede of elephants on the Embankment.

Illustrated London News, 15 November 1930. (c) Illustrated London News Group.

* There used to be a 'secret tunnel' in the base of the Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus.

The Sphere, 11 March 1925. (c) Illustrated London News Group.

* The Victorians had a plan to hexagonalise London.

Illustrated London News, 4 March 1899, artificially coloured for clarity. (c) Illustrated London News Group.

The curious case of the Illustrated Police News

One of the great joys of the BNA is that you can search for illustrations and photographs by the keywords in the captions. One of the richest sources is the Illustrated Police News. Once voted the 'worst newspaper in England', this periodical is full of ghastly tales and nasty crimes, brought to life with artist's impressions. Some are truly bizarre, including a man bitten by a skeleton, and the naked lady who stole and crashed a train.

Illustrated Police News, 27 June 1874. (c) The British Library Board. All rights reserved.
Illustrated Police News, 14 May 1925. (c) The British Library Board. All rights reserved.

Brilliant for local history

Norton Folgate.

We were amazed, while searching the Archive, to uncover a long-forgotten miniature zoo near Bishopsgate. Lions, bears, wolves: all once lived in the area known as Norton Folgate. Tragically, the menagerie burnt down in 1884 — an event captured in grisly detail in the Archive. The story had been all but lost to history. We were the first to rescue it from obscurity, thanks to the British Newspaper Archive.

The Archive is at its most powerful when used for local history. You can type in the name of your street and find every incident of note that ever occurred there — from bankruptcies to fires to murders. Try it with your own street or area.

Even the adverts can be a bit special

The BNA doesn't just compile together news stories, you also get all the adverts. Many offer fascinating insights into London's past. We used the Archive to draw together some vintage ads from Selfridge's, then the 'newest and most interesting Shopping centre in Europe'.

The Bystander, 10 March 1909. Image © The British Library Board.

Old adverts can offer a window onto the peculiarities of the past. We had no idea that Londoners once bought each other nuclear isotopes for Christmas, for example (1903):

Dundee Evening Post, 10 December 1903. (c) The British Library Board. All rights reserved.

And we have absolutely no idea what's going on in the cartoon below, a 1922 advert for the household polish Vim.

Southern Reporter, 21 December 1922. (c) Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of the British Library Board.

Recent history, too

Most of the Archive spans the 19th and early 20th century, but there are also treasures to be found from living memory. The Illustrated London News, for example, is digitised from 1842 right up to its demise in 2003. We've found many wonders in this more recent part of the Archive, including an opinion poll from 1987 on which of London's buildings should be demolished, and a fascinating look at the future of transport from 1988.

Illustrated London News, 1 October 1988. (c) Illustrated London News Group.

You might even discover a long-lost rhyme

The real beauty of the British Newspaper Archive is that you never know what you might find just a few clicks away. Serendipity will lead you to forgotten gems. We've all heard of the Great Stink — the summer of 1858 when the Thames smelled so strongly of sewage that the Houses of Parliament were evacuated. Poking around in the BNA, we found a contemporary ditty, which had never been reproduced.

Sherborne Mercury, 3 August 1852. (c) The British Library Board. All rights reserved.

Family history

The British Newspaper Archive is indispensable for anyone interested in family history. From a few minutes' research, one Londonist writer discovered several of his ancestors' addresses, and the reason why his grandfather had a scar he never talked about. You'll also find obituaries, notices of birth, marriage and death, bankruptcies, legal cases and everything from local sporting results to coroner's reports.

Try the Archive for free

You can get digging right away. Try the Archive for free. What will you find about London's people, streets, buildings, neighbourhoods and boroughs? Please do tell us! You can also follow the British Newspaper Archive blog for more rescued treasures from history.

The British Newspaper Archive is the result of a groundbreaking initiative between the British Library and leading British family history company Findmypast to digitise up to 40 million newspaper pages from the British Library's vast collection over the next 10 years.

Last Updated 17 November 2017