A Treasure Trove of Newspapers

When I was a child growing up during the 1950s and 60s, a stamp, a phone call, and a newspaper all cost about the same. A local letter was four pence for so many years that the stamp is very common, and despised by collectors accordingly.


A local newspaper was about 6d, and a phone call much the same – though long distance calls cost much more. Then, during the inflation of the 1970s, these prices started to diverge. Phone calls got cheaper, thanks to new technology which cut out the cost of labour, while postage kept pace with inflation, thanks to innovations like post codes that made postal workers more efficient.

But the price of newspapers went through the roof. Newspapers depend on labour at every stage of production, and the arrival of a new, quality newspaper, The Australian, [ha!] in 1964, raised the bar for good, and therefore well-paid, journalists. Besides, newspapers rely on a non-renewable resource – wood pulp – which until appallingly recently was sourced from old growth forests.

Since then, of course, the internet has come along to change our ways of communicating, but the relative prices of phone calls, postage and newspapers were already diverging long before. I first used email in 1988, and surfed my first web in 1993 – but only because I had access to these systems through the university. It took another decade before these activities were commonplace in the wider community.

A hundred years of habit meant that most middle class suburban households still had a paper delivered until relatively recently, but not now, and people seem to have stopped writing letters altogether. Meanwhile the mobile phone is ubiquitous – and cheaper still, there’s Skype. What will we historians be doing in a hundred years?

Letters and newspapers were never cheap. We rarely think about the cost or means of distribution of private letters, concentrating on their content instead, but of course posting a letter always involved a cost, both in time and money. Jane Austen’s heroines are always absenting themselves from the action because they ‘have some letters to write’, and the physical effort of writing long, newsy letters must have consumed a good deal of time. Writing paper was expensive, quill pens needed constant mending, and then there was the cost of postage. Before the penny post (1840) postage was calculated on distance, so Emma Woodhouse’s letters from Highbury to London cost much less than my Walter Davidson’s letters from London to his brother-in-law William Leslie outside Aberdeen. That, in turn, was a trivial cost compared with the letters his nephew Patrick Leslie sent them from New South Wales.

Newspapers were expensive too. The first Australian newspaper, the Sydney Gazette, began in 1803 on a hand press brought out from England. It came out once a week, occasionally vanishing for months at a time when the supply of newsprint ran out. When the editor, ex-convict George Howe, was supplied with poor quality paper, the ink ran, and for weeks or months the print would be blurred.

First edition of the Sydney Gazette

By the 1830s, newspapers were proliferating. They seem to have reached a peak about 1843, around the time of the first election for the Legislative Council, when I once counted about a dozen papers in Sydney. Each of these papers had private backers and a political agenda – narrowcasting is not new – and most were ephemeral.

It’s often hard to work out how much these newspapers cost, because they were sold on subscription, usually 3 months ahead, rather than over the counter. It’s hard to know how widely they were read, because then as now, newspapers had a vested interest in exaggerating their circulation figures so they could charge more for advertising. On the other hand, many readers often seized a chance to read them for free in pubs and clubs, just as today we check out the papers at a coffee shop. They weren’t cheap, and only rarely made a profit. Shadowy proprietors lurked in the background, propping them up for political purposes, while the editor made his money from advertising and other printing jobs.

As a historian, the public newspaper and the private letter are my bread and butter. Which brings me to Trove Newspapers, the jewel in the crown – jam in the sandwich? – for all Australian researchers.

Trove runs out of the National Library of Australia. For years now, it has been digitizing Australian newspapers and making them freely available in searchable form online. Many countries are similarly digitizing newspapers, but not many are free. Trove has also introduced a unique feature that makes researching with Trove a cooperative effort. Anyone can register with Trove, and once registered we can contribute by correcting text, and leaving searchable hashtags – for personal use, or for others who come along later. It is a system based on trust and cooperation, and the sense of shared community, and it has worked very well. (For those who haven’t tried it, correcting text is also a strangely soothing addiction.)

Newspapers today may be entering a death spiral of rising prices and falling circulation, but we rely on newspapers from the past all the time. Now Trove is under threat, because the Federal Government has cut the National Library’s funding. In response a Twitter campaign began last week, under the hashtag #fundTrove, and directed at the Minister responsible, Senator Mitch Fifield. In 140 words or less, people told their stories about the ways in which they use Trove, and the stories they have found. The campaign has flushed out so many researchers, from family historians to PhD students to best selling writers. Some of my favourite stories come from people who are using Trove in innovative ways, such as Jodi Frawley’s investigation of Aboriginal fish traps, and the former range of endangered animals like the Murray perch.tweets about fundTrove

Then there is the story of how a boy in South Africa received a 3D-printed prosthetic hand based on a design mentioned in an Adelaide newspaper in 1844. My own example was a tiny advertisement I found in the pages of the Sydney Gazette from 1808, from the important early colonial artist John Lewin, seeking carmine paint.

sydney gazette 11-9-1808 advert

Digital projects are taking place all over the world, transforming the way we do history – but only a few of them are free. Trove and New Zealand’s Papers Past are amongst those that are – for now. Yes, there is a cost in making this material available, but the benefits are huge, not just for Australians, but for our place in the world. Whatever happened to soft diplomacy?


Update: In the comments, someone asked the following:

‘In the novels I read rich men are always offering to ‘frank’ the letters of their impoverished wards. Do you think the frank-er was running an account with the mail service, or he’d prepaid?’

There may be examples of pre-paid postage (there are a couple of philatelists who follow this blog who will know much more than I do), but before the penny post, it was one of the perks of being in Parliament. Members of both House of Lords and House of Commons had the privilege of free postage – and it had become a convention that they would also frank the letters of their friends and relatives (as well as impoverished wards).

It seems to have been an absolute rort. WSD used to get his cousin, an MP, to frank blank sheets of paper to lay in a supply of free letters for future use, and MPs made useful company directors because they cut down the cost of postage.

9 responses to “A Treasure Trove of Newspapers

  1. In the novels I read rich men are always offering to ‘frank’ the letters of their impoverished wards. Do you think the frank-er was running an account with the mail service, or he’d prepaid?
    And good luck with your campaign. If ever it could be said of someone he knew the price of everything and the value of nothing, it would be any of our current crop of ‘leaders’.

    • Hi Bill. I’ve dealt with your question in an update to the blog, because it’s probably something that a lot of people have encountered (certainly all of us who have enjoyed Georgette Heyer 🙂
      Actually, all that about parliamentarians rorting the postal system sounds very familiar – like you say, the price of everything and the value of nothing 😦

  2. I love Trove too and recognised exactly what you meant when you said it was ” a strangely soothing addiction”. I search Trove regularly for historical references when I’m writing, and when the words don’t flow, I often do a few hours of text corrections. The sense of a generous community through Trove’s portals is wonderful. There are so few things now that are free and operate like Trove. It relies on, and demonstrates, a trust in people – something that’s being whittled away by legislation and nanny state controls.
    Another great article, thanks Marion!

  3. Thanks Joanne. Yes, I love the trust and cooperation involved in Trove.

  4. Thanks Joanne, trust, value, free, Qualities worth fighting for and thanks for an enlightening article.

  5. Dr Neville Buch

    Indeed, an excellent article. I am still in awe of my former teacher from 30 years ago.

    I don’t know if you yourself made the link, but your comment about the challenge for future historians in the temporal nature in the records of online technology now is the very same challenge we have had to face with the records of paper-based letters and other hard-copy documents of the past. You hinted at it in the reference to the cost of producing and sending the letter. The point, though, needs articulating that written records from the poorly literate have less chance of surviving, and education for writing and reading have been, and still are, based on economic resources.

    Even though educational standards in writing and reading have risen, I think that the historians of the future will see that the same dynamic has plagued us in the retention of our records. Although we have a mass of the population in westernized countries who can read and write to function very well in today’s society, to produce the kind of letters seen in the hands of Jane Austen, Emma Woodhouse, Walter Davidson, and so forth, requires a much higher standard of writing and reading. It is from those of us who had the opportunity (and use it) to lift our own standard of writing and reading where the passion to preserve such documents arises. To access ‘a history from below’ has been more of archaeological exercise in digging into official documentations about those who had no disposition to produce their own writing records; at least, in any reasonable volume. Hence, that is what we are seeing today in the temporal nature of online technologies. There are those who can produce brilliantly-written blogs, and I have little fear that “Historians Are Past Caring” – what an insightful phrase – will be read by future historians. As for the rest, there is doubt.

  6. Thank you as always Neville. Technology always changes the nature of what survives, I guess. It sometimes worries me that we historians rely much too much on written documents, but we don’t have much choice, because the oral record hasn’t survived. It’s not only ‘history from below’ that suffers, too. Think of all those informal discussions in gentlemen’s clubs that drove the course of the British Empire, and which we know nothing about!

    • Dr Neville Buch

      Indeed, much of the issue is getting people to go on-record on the very day of fateful decisions. Think right now with the testimony of George Pell at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Written documents have the same problem as oral sources dependent on memory. People can intentionally or unwittingly make inaccurate accounts. However, creating a record at the moment (or close to it) provides the historian with one clear advantage. A snapshot is there for beliefs and attitudes expressed in time. I think it somewhat more revealing than memory, and I certainly don’t trust my own memory. The challenge then is encourage people generally to learn to write well, and to write. Or in some other way allow themselves to be placed on the record, and that provides an opportunity for oral historians.

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