Newspapers – false news or valuable background?

I wasn’t planning on using newspapers for my letter N posting, but have just been reminded how useful they can be for adding detail to family stories.

The man I was looking at this week was the son of a second marriage – his father’s first wife having died at a young age, and the widower, John, remarried (he had a family of small children to look after, this was probably something of a necessity for him if he was to be able to work to support his family.)  John had several more children with his second wife, and sadly died himself at the relatively young age of 59.

In itself this isn’t an unusual story when looking at family histories. Having treated myself to a month’s subscription to the British Newspaper Archive, I thought I’d do a quick search, and came up with a real treasure trove of information, which revealed an incredibly sad story.

The first thing I found was a report about the death of John’s first wife –  Eliza. She died aged 34 leaving John with 5 surviving children of the eight she had borne. The newspaper report gave detail about John’s occupation and detailed where the family lived, adding that she ‘fell down dead yesterday after dinner.’  John’s announcement of her death adds that she died ‘suddenly while waiting on her children.’ The fact that John could afford the cost of a personal announcement also tells us that the family was far from destitute.

I then found a report from the previous year describing a serious accident, when John was knocked down and injured early one winter evening. Another man had left his horse and trap outside the Post Office, but something had startled the horse and he bolted, the trap colliding with a tramcar from which John was just alighting.  John was taken to the chemist shop, and the hand ambulance was brought from the local police station to take John to the hospital. It appears that his injuries were not so severe as first thought, and he was allowed home after three days.

John remarried and had a further four children with his second wife, Mary, before he died some 16 years later.

The last thing in this part of the story which really underlines  John’s struggles is the report of his own death. The initial report said the he had cut his throat with fatal effect after a long period of ill health.  He had been depressed, suffering debilitating headaches for many months, which didn’t improve despite medical treatment. He had been unable to work for over two years, and it was reported that his headaches had been agonising in recent days.  The report then went on to describe the accident which had befallen John so many years previously, reporting that his head had been badly damaged.  On the day that he died John had eaten breakfast as normal, and Mary left him to dress. When she went back to check on him, he had locked himself in an upstairs room and had pushed a note under the door saying ‘Do not come in this room. I can stand it no longer.’

There followed a detailed account of what the police found when the door was broken down, which really doesn’t need repeating here, but it just goes to show that what can seem like a sad story as you first piece it together, can soon become something so much more personal when you know some of the background.

The children’s story didn’t get any happier, but that’s a tale for another day.


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