The Times Digital Archive

Imagine if you could pick up a newspaper from over 200 years ago and see what people were saying. Wouldn’t that be difficult? I mean, you would have to find a good reference library with a pretty decent collection of backdated copies… Surely, is there no other way?

Of course there is, the clue is in the title of this blog.

Last month, my colleague Francis talked about how addictive searching the Oxford Database of National Biography can be. While I do agree, I am going to say that The Times Digital Archive will give him a run for his money.

For the past few weeks I have been visiting libraries and talking with members of the public about some of our Digital Resources available to anyone with a RBKC Library Card. The Times Digital Archive is a fully searchable database containing facsimiles of all of the Times newspapers from 1785 to 2009. Here are three points I like to show members of the public while highlighting some useful features of the TDA.

Founding of the Newspaper:

The Daily Universal Register
The Daily Universal Register

I like to start at the very beginning. Not only does it make sense chronologically, it also shows how far back the Digital Archive goes. The Times was first released as The Daily Universal Register for 3 years until 1788 and would set you back 2½ pence for 4 very large pages of content (the very definition of a broadsheet newspaper).

The first entry in the TDA is actually the second edition of the paper, you can see under the left hand ‘Printed Logographically’ banner. I like to point it out when demonstrating the TDA as well as to show off this rambling explanation from the editor.

On Tuesday 4th 1785 the editor expands on what he intends to report in this fledgling newspaper. I’ve trimmed the text but you can read the whole paragraph in the image below:

Looking through modern day Times, I can’t decide if it is meeting its 250 year old aims or not.

Important Events of our Times:

While it is mildly useful to search through the rambles of the early editors and peruse the advertisements, I do enjoy showing people events that still resonate with us today. While we all know that Britain declared war on Germany on the 3rd of September 1939, it must have been curious to read about it as the events are unfolding.

Here is one of the headlines from Monday 4th:

Parliament News - Britain fights to save the World
Parliament News – Britain fights to save the World

Today – that would be the front page headline, but in 1939 before reading that the country was at war you had to skip past a couple of pages of advertisements, shipping news, sports results – association football, rugby, golf and racing all come first. Admittedly, the next several pages discussed it in depth, but I find it interesting that these front page headlines aren’t common place at this time.

The majority of the articles related to the war’s outbreak are either very short or very long, making it difficult to find good examples, but here are a few from the same edition that I find interesting.

Shall we go back a little further to another war and another battle that we know through hindsight – the Battle of Waterloo.

Downing Street, June 12 - News Article
Downing Street, June 12 – News Article

I won’t copy the whole text now, but the dispatch is fascinating and I encourage you to go look it up.
Each description of what the army is up to has this immediacy to it – slightly ironic that you are reading about it days after the event. For example, before the Battle of Waterloo was reported you had the reports coming in regarding the minor skirmishes taking place on the 16th June 1815 in the 21st June edition.

News article - Brussels, June 16
News article – Brussels, June 16

And it wasn’t until the 23rd of June that reports of the actual battle started coming in, along with lists of dead officers (the rank and file had not yet been accounted for) and a report from Wellington himself. Here are his closing remarks.

Wellington news article - War strategy
Wellington news article – War strategy

Change of Image:

The last point I want to show you is not about the content of the newspaper, but how the newspaper was presented – and I might have already given it away. If you look back at the font from the Battle of Waterloo reports, to the font for the WW2 War Declaration you might see where I am going with this.

By the 1930s the Times was a 28 page broadsheet, very popular but being accused of not adhering to the times (irony?) and still using an antiquated typeface. In 1931 a new type was commissioned that would sound very familiar to you if you have used a Microsoft computer in the past 3 decades. I am talking about, of course, Times Roman.

So there we have it. There is far too much to talk about in one blog post, but I hope I have whet your appetite for the Times Digital Archive and all the history that it contains.


If you have an event in history that you would like to look up, it is simple to do so yourself if you follow these steps:

Helpfully, the Browse by Date function is on the front page.

The times Digital Archive, 1785-2009 - Banner
The times Digital Archive, 1785-2009 – Banner

Happy searching!

by Shaun Condon
Reference Librarian, Chelsea Reference Library

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