By Dr Ashley Borrett, University of Hull
When I started my PhD back in 2013, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to research but had limited knowledge of just exactly what resources were out there and what information they would yield.
The focus of my research was the interwar period of British history, and I was aiming to conduct a detailed examination of what was happening in Hull and East Yorkshire during this period with regards to attitudes and reactions to crime and criminality. The local angle meant that my obvious starting point for archival material was the Hull History Centre and the Beverley Treasure House.
The items I discovered at both sites proved invaluable to my research into crime. These included Magistrates’ court records; prison and juvenile court registers; chief constables’ orders and memoranda; Hull Watch Committee minutes; and reports and information compiled by local charity organisations. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, and you can find many more items depending on the time period under analysis
But arguably the most valuable resources for my own research, and no doubt for many other historians investigating the criminal past of notable figures, friends or relatives, are the daily and weekly newspapers. These publications are indeed a treasure trove for the crime historian or anyone interested in social history. They can offer some of the best information about crime for a particular period. After all, stories about crime and criminality have been a staple element in newspapers for most of their history.
As well as providing information about individual criminals, newspapers can reveal a lot about the prevailing attitudes in a given period, which in turn can give us a better understanding of what people felt about the various aspects of crime, such as punishment or rehabilitation.
Of course, newspapers are commercial enterprises so have to attract as many readers as possible. This means that they are susceptible to sensationalism, often exaggerating stories to entice additional readers. But while all newspapers are guilty of sensationalising stories, this was arguably less so for the provincial press of the past. That is not to say that they didn’t feature a disproportionate number of articles about murder and manslaughter or those covering local scandals. As was the case with the national newspapers, they were still commercial operations and needed to sell advertising along with copies of their publications to survive.
However, the local newspaper did have a much closer relationship with the communities they serve (and still does) and, consequently, can reflect more accurately local opinion on a range of subjects and issues. They may also be more trusted than the nationals, especially when it comes to crime reporting. Reports of cases at local magistrates were often dealt with in a factual manner, without additional commentary and devoid of the kind of emotive language now found in the national press. The articles would often simply provide details of the name of the defendant, the crime and the outcome, sometimes with verbatim quotes from the magistrates, solicitors and the person charged. Many other crime-related articles were dealt with in this manner.
As the local newspaper may be the only place where you kind find this kind of information, I decided to use them as a key source for more research into crime in Hull and East Yorkshire. The publication I chose was the only one that covered the whole period under investigation – the Hull Daily Mail.
Searching though newspapers can be an arduous task, especially if you are examining publications on microfilm. So it helps that many local newspapers have now been digitised by the British Library, with access available via local archives or through a personal subscription. This means that finding individuals or specific events and incidents has become so much easier. You are now able to carry out keyword searches for specific names, places, events etc., limiting your searches to yield to the most relevant results, and avoiding the painful trawl through pages and pages of extraneous information. Of course, using the most appropriate search terminology is crucial in this process. But through trial and error you can work out which words and phrases will produce the most useful information for your specific research.
For my own study I found a range of crime-related articles and items in the Hull Daily Mail, many of which provided a wealth of information pertinent to my research. These included articles covering:
- Local and national crime incidents
- Police campaigns – regional and national
- Contemporary crime levels using official statistics
- Court reports – magistrates, police courts and quarter sessions
- The work of the probation service
- Reports of the meetings of local charities, such as prisoners’ aids societies
Editorials discussing various aspects of crime, which included everything from local policing numbers and perceived crime levels to specific areas of concern such as juvenile delinquency and motor vehicle crime, were also of crucial importance to my research. Moreover, the opinions offered by regular columnists were illuminating, and so too were those from members of the public, found on the ‘letters to the editor’ pages.
Of course, you have to be aware that these types of articles are subject to bias, and they are unlikely to provide a true account of actual crime. They do, however, offer an interesting insight into attitudes about criminality.
Utilising all the information gathered from the local newspapers, along with research findings from the sources detailed earlier, I was able to fashion what I believe to be an accurate account of the prevailing perceptions of, and reactions to, crime and criminality in Hull and East Yorkshire during the interwar period.
But whatever your research – be it the history of a family member, the nefarious activities of an infamous individual or an examination of local attitudes to crime and criminality – then the pages of the press can provide you with an invaluable source of information.
All you have to do now is go and ‘read all about it!’