I went to the new Reference Library in Swansea to do a bit of research. It is situated in the Civic Centre and it is very smart indeed. Comfortable and bright. But it wasn’t the modern developments that drew me there, smart as they are. Rather it was the past, as always.
The contemporary newspapers are such an excellent source of otherwise unconsidered detail for any story that I write and they are so very evocative. They speak of an entirely different time and of completely different priorities.
I have been working on the Mumbles Lifeboat Disaster of 1947 and the relevant papers were easy to find. Naturally it was all over the front page – and the back – and dominated the paper for a number of days. I have already written my account but I need the details that only a newspaper would carry. One of the crew Richard Smith was due to be married three days later. “His fiancée is not a Mumbles woman , but lives in the village.” The first to contribute to the Mayor’s Distress fund were the officers and members of the Bristol Channel Yacht Club who contributed £205. The picture on the front page of the South Wales Evening Post shows “the boiling spume of the wind-lashed sea.” It is only a little over 60 years ago but you wouldn’t get a caption like that in a newspaper today.
Once I start, I can’t stop.
Soon I was a microfiche slave, navigating my way through the sometimes imprecise images on the screen.
I was drawn further into the past.
There is always an excitement in looking at old newspapers because I always believe that there is a fascinating story just waiting to be uncovered. The process is entirely unpredictable and I never achieve as much as I hope because I am so easily side tracked. I mean, how can I resist a headline from 1896 which reads “Disgraceful scene at Swansea. Husband attacked at wife’s funeral. Attempts at lynching.” I mean, what tragedy and tensions lie behind that particular family spat? Will I ever know the whole story? What possessed a journalist to write “Why doesn’t Swansea emulate Blackpool?” And then of course there is a review of “Lunacy in Glamorgan in 1895” which, as you can imagine, has extensive column inches.
You realise that all these words were once more than a curiosity. They meant something to the people who bought the paper and poured over the tiny print that was sometimes blurred in these huge nineteenth century broadsheets.
Soon my eyes got tired so I went home. But I shall be back. I can’t get the idea of a lynching at a funeral out of my head.