Newspapers are my favourite sources. They put flesh on the bones of our ancestors, turning dry and dusty genealogy into living, breathing family history. They cover all aspects of society and all areas of the globe and you are as likely to find a dustman as a duke in their pages.
Newspapers find their stories wherever there is human interest. With far less access to information than today, newspapers in the past frequently copied material from each other, and this practice crossed international boundaries. So although my family history is focused on the British Isles, I have found gems of information in papers in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. In the case of newspapers, it really does pay to "search outside the box" - and this is where Google comes in.
In 2008 Google launched an initiative to digitise historic news archives and make them searchable and accessible online. Content is drawn from global media such as the BBC, Guardian, Time Magazine and the New York Times but also from hundreds of small local publications. The period covered by each news archive varies - some only cover recent years, whilst the New York Times goes all the way back to 1851 - but all this information can be accessed in one place using Google News Archive Search.
I have had particularly good results when searching for my policeman great grandfather, John McCarthy. His promotion to be head of the CID got a good deal of coverage. My favourite is this article from a Newfoundland newspaper, the Harbor Grace Standard, dated 21 August 1912. The details are delightful:
Nobody who has met John McCarthy grudges him his promotion. He is a man without enemies, unless they be some of those desperate international criminals whom he has tracked down and arrested ... this jolly looking man with something of the farmer squire about his appearance ... Tall and broad shouldered he is built on a generous frame above the average in physique. He has the twinkling blue eyes of the Irishman ... Latterly he was busy with the suffragette agitations, and such was his charm of manner and courtesy that the women agreed that it was a pleasure to be arrested by Mr McCarthy.
But I learned from another newspaper that John had been tempted to jump ship at an earlier stage in his career. The St John Sun of New Brunswick reported on 1 April 1907:
During a visit to England, King Alfonso XIII was apparently so impressed by Scotland Yard detectives that he decided to revolutionise Spanish police methods. John McCarthy was offered the job of heading the new CID in Madrid, on a salary of $5,000 a year plus expenses. According to the newspaper, he was reluctantly obliged to decline the offer because he had been specially chosen to protect King Edward VII.
Of course, these articles concern a man in a prominent position in public life but I have had equal success finding information about more obscure family members. My great grandfather's brother, Clement Lawrence Scott Davis, disappears from the English records after the 1871 census. A handwritten family tree records that he ended up in the Nokomai region of New Zealand, prospecting for gold. The Google News Archive includes material from Papers Past in New Zealand and a search on Davis and Nokomai turned up an article he had written for the Otago Witness in 1886, describing a prospecting expedition:
Shortly after writing this, Clement disappeared on another prospecting trip in the mountains. A young man in his 30s, he left no family, no photographs and few details of his life have come down to us. This lengthy newspaper article is the only link we have to the man and his personality.