This is a really splendid new resource!

For many years the Devon Record Office has held manually compiled paper indexes to the “Exeter Flying Post” and the “North Devon Journal”, and these have been useful to me. The “British Newspaper Archive” is a big step forward, and I have already made a large number of new discoveries in my areas of interest. I am sure that many members of the DFHS will do likewise.

This new national archive not only covers the “Flying Post” and the “North Devon Journal”, but also the “Western Times”, the “Exeter and Plymouth Gazette” and other West-of-England newspapers. Not all individual issues were included in early March 2012 (when I wrote this), but the coverage is increasing day-by-day. Every issue (or multiple issues) in the data base is fully searchable for words, phrases, or combinations of words. There are significant shortcomings because the “ocr” conversion of the original pages into searchable text is not always perfect, especially with poor originals, but nevertheless the performance is impressive.

So how can one use it? The actual down-loading of pages is a charged-for service, but the preliminary searching is free and unlimited. But it is wise to create an account as soon as you can, since this creates a “My Research” record which is extremely useful. You can start with a two-day package for £6.95 allowing the download of up to 100 pages. At the end of the two day period, your “My Research” area remains available, and you can then study the pages at your leisure.

Let's assume that you have done this. It is then tempting to rush on, making exciting discoveries, but it pays to plan a structure for your “My Research” records. Then each useful page can be bookmarked into an appropriate folder, and notes attached about the item itself – and about the whereabouts on the downloaded page.

When looking for a named person, the best starting point is often to enter the name as a phrase in the Advanced Search page with no initial filters set. So, for example, entering “Ellen Cawsey” (my great-grandmother) returns 6 items, 3 from the “Western Times”, 2 from the “North Devon Journal” and one from the “Flying Post”. There's enough information to conclude that 4 of the 6 items are relevant - candidates for down-loading (and spending download units). Downloading an item then gives a screen giving the original page, with the search-text highlighted, and a sidebar with menu options. Clicking “Edit Article Text”, then “Show Article Text” brings up a new window where it is easy to find the following 1871 item:

A SCENE AT DERBY. Ellrn Cawsey, a shopkeeper at Derby, was summoned for using obscene language towards Ann Webster, contrary to the 36th bye-law. Mr. Bromham appeared for the complainant, and Mr. R. I. Bencraft for the defeudant. Mr. Bromham said his client's father unfortunately happened to be in prison for committing an assault, and ever since the defendant had annoyed complainant about it, and had also accused her of stealing a tea-caddy.......(and more follows)

You can then cut-and-paste this text into your own file – and make any necessary corrections. In this case there are just two very obvious errors (“Ellen” and “defendant”), but in other cases the “ocr” text quality may be so poor that you need to scrutinise the scan of the original page in order to get the correct text.

Now that was easy – since there are not very many “Ellen Cawsey”s to be found. Let's explore a little further. In the story there is a reference to the “unfortunate” father, probably named “Webster”, a common name – and his christian name is unknown. To find out his part, we need to search for “Webster” with search filters set to reduce the number of hits - “North Devon Journal” over a limited period (1869 – 1871). And this immediately brings up reports of two incidents involving Charles Webster, barber: in 1870 he was in court for assaulting his wife, and in 1871 he was imprisoned for assaulting a policeman.

It's been fairly easy for me to find over 30 articles referring to my Cawsey great-grandparents and their immediate family. But that's the advantage of having an unusual surname – and an unruly Barnstaple family!

Because of the imperfections in the “ocr” conversion, the search process may fail to find items, as I have established. I previously had a list of nine “Cawsey” references in the North Devon Journal – but searching on “cawsey” in the British Newspaper Archive only found three of these. Of the missing six, three are from issues not yet in the archive (1839, 1860, 1876); the other three are not found because of garbled transcription of poor quality originals. ( “cowsry”, “causes” instead of “cawsey”. So it can be worth trying an alternative search string if there is one.

I've now got a lot of material to digest. As well as the “Cawsey (Barnstaple)” items , I have also located and downloaded a number of “Eveleigh (Exeter)” items relating to my mother's family. And I am collecting more stories about the “Parkhurst boys”. (I wrote about these “juvenile delinquents” who were transported to Australia in Family Historian, Vol 129 , 2009, pp 14-18 . )

I hope this gives an idea of what can be achieved – and of the limitations. The coming months will see increased coverage – and maybe improved transcription, and further developed search options.

David Cawsey