Using newspapers for family research

The online availablity of core genealogy material such as census returns, births, marriages and deaths records, emigration/immigration lists, military service records etc can prove such an attractive lure to family history researchers that they often overlook the wealth of information that can be gleaned from newspapers. Although census returns and BMD data can provide the bread and butter facts needed to compile a family tree, newspapers can provide the details that flesh out a person's life story. The most obvious source for family information within a newspaper can be the obituary column and the personal announcements column (marraiges, births, coming of age etc), but newspaper can also provide information about criminal prosecutions, court cases, accidents etc that your ancestor may have been involved in.

Below is an editorial written about my GGG-Grandfather, Robert Xavier Murphy, which I recently found in the Bombay Times (now The Times of India - the world's best selling English language newspaper). It is overly long and does not include any paragraphs, but it provides some fascinating insights into the life my ancestor lived in 19th Century India:

The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce Nov 3, 1855

Mr. R.X.Murphy – The withdrawal permanently from amongst us, of one of our most accomplished English writers and Oriental scholars, demands a more emphatic and extended notice than is furnished by the intimation, that the late Chief Translator of the Supreme Court has been permitted to retire on his pension. It is now upwards of thirty years ago, since Mr. Murphy arrived in Bombay as a non-commissioned officer of Artillery. We are not acquainted with his previous history; the intellectual accomplishments he almost immediately afterwards exhibited made it plain, that his antecedents had been very different from those usually “enlisted in the line,” while his unimpeachable moral character throughout his protracted career amongst us, proved that whatever might have been his motive for quitting the path of life originally prescribed for him, it could not be supposed connected with any of those follies or delinquencies which for the most part convert the gentleman into the private soldier. We have no right to pry into a matter of personal history on which the subject of it has not seen meet to throw light. In 1826 we find Mr. Murphy in the employment of the Native Education Society as the first of their English teachers, and it would have been difficult for them to have made a more distinguished selection. In this appointment he seems to have continued till 1831, having in the interval been a frequent contributor to the local newspapers, the only media of publication then amongst us. About that time he was appointed Editor of the Bombay Gazette, and shortly afterwards became assistant Translator in the Supreme Court. At this period the Bombay Literary Society, since then transformed into a branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, was the favourite place of resort for the exclusives of the Presidency. Members were admitted, more in regard to their place in Society, than their literary tastes or pursuits; no native had up to this date found admission within its room, when in 1834 Manackjee Cursetjee, the present acting Second Judge in the Small Cause Court, desired to become a member and was rejected. The incident drew forth some indignant remarks from Mr. Murphy, which were replied to by Colonel Vans Kennedy, then Secretary to the Society, in a series of letters subscribed “Observator,” a portion of which appeared in the Bombay Courier, the others in the Gazette. The expressions contained in the last of these were so offensive, that Mr. Murphy sent the gallant Colonel and learned Secretary a challenge, which was declined on the score that he refused to fight with a man who had a few years before been a private soldier, and who could not be acknowledged as entitled to the privileges of a gentleman. Upon this, Mr. Murphy placarded his adversary as a coward and a slanderer, and was prosecuted by him in the Supreme Court, where he was sentenced to a payment of five hundred rupees, and compelled to give security to keep the peace. The following year we find the Editor again in trouble, having incautiously promulgated a report, imputing ??? cruelties towards a servant by a Mrs ??? (impossible to read original but this concerns Murphy being sued for libel after publishing an article in which he called for justice for a servant who died in suspicious circumstances, having accidentally broken a chandelier owned by the wife of Mr T.H.Baber) …to the reputation of the Editor for ???, and as contrasting singularly with the subsequent placability of his character, and peacefulness of his other pursuits. Rash and impetuous by temperament, and intolerant of superciliousness, oppression, or wrong, he acted on these occasions with an unguardedness and inconsideration which led him into trouble more cautious men would have avoided. In 1836, a very valuable paper was published by him in the Transactions of the Bombay geographical Society, on the races first known as inhabiting the island of Bombay – another originally published at the lithographic press, on Maharatta literature, will be found reprinted in the first volume of the Transactions of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. The press of India had been liberated by the ordinance of Sir Charles Metcalfe of April 1835, but Bombay journals of the day seemed to have failed to avail themselves of their new borne privileges. Those then existing not being considered to furnish organs of sufficient power or dignity for the exigencies of the occasion, the same enterprising body of men who brought the Chamber of Commerce and Bombay Bank into existence, resolved on establishing a newspaper of their own, when Mr. Murphy was summoned to their councils, and under his auspices and by his instructions, were made all the preliminary arrangements for the publication of the Bombay Times. Dr. Brennan, apparently an old friend, a successful Medical lecturer in Dublin, but whose constitution required a warmer climate, was recommended as Editor, and arrived in Bombay in the beginning of the rainy season of 1838. He was elected Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, the duties of which were not considered incompatible with those of Editor of a newspaper published under the same roof which covered the rooms of the Chamber. The Times was commenced in November 1838 – within a twelvemonth its first editor was no more. Mr. Murphy succeeded Dr. Brennan in the Secretaryship, and was one of the ablest of the writers who contributed to the paper during the interregnum which closed in May 1840. The overland communication had in 1838 been fully established, and the London Daily papers began to perceive the value of having special correspondents of their own. The Morning Post was singularly enough first in the field, and its selection fell to the lot of the Editor of the Journal of Commerce, while the Morning Chronicle determined on engaging the services of the Editor of the Times itself. By a lucky accident, the first despatch of the Journal first named, contained the tidings of the fall of Ghuznee in July 1839. The Chronicle correspondentship descended from Dr. Brennan on his demise to Mr. Murphy. At this time, a young man of retiring habits and appearance but fine literary tastes, happened to reside with his uncle, Capt. Scott, close by the dwelling of Mr. Murphy in Colaba, and was almost immediately employed by him as a clerk. Some effusions from his pen were forwarded by Mr. Murphy in June 1840 to the Bombay Times, which gave sure promise of the good things to come. The bashful clerk of 1839 was soon, as Mr. T. A. Scott, acting Editor of the Bombay Times in the monsoon of 1841, and from about this date Correspondent of the Morning Chronicle, four years afterwards Editor of the Journal and Secretary to the Chamber of Commerce, Editor of the Telegraph and the telegraph and Courier from 1846 to 1849, when he became Secretary to the Railway Company, a brilliant local literary career having been prematurely cut off by death in 1853. Mr. Murphy had now become stricken with severe sickness, and fallen into habits of such extreme seclusion as to have been nearly lost sight of even by the intellectual portion of our community. In 1846, when at home on sick leave, a series of papers of the utmost interest were published by him in the Dublin University Magazine on the subject of Demonical Possession as believed in India. He had long contemplated the publication of his poems, translations, and essays in collected form, but the limited sales of works in India alarmed him at the risk of loss – we trust that a task still in abeyance may yet be accomplished, at home. While in Bombay, Mr. Murphy was by universal acknowledgement, considered one of the most accomplished oriental scholars and elegant writers of English of whom Western India could boast.

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Tags: Asia, Diaspora History, Genealogy, Intellect, Literature

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