Category Archives: Research process

A Tour of The British Newspaper Library

Today I was privileged enough to be taken on a tour of the British Newspaper Library, which is based in Colindale, North West London. Every newspaper owner in the UK and Republic of Ireland are obliged to deposit a copy with the library as part of its legal deposit.

The earliest items in the library date from the seventeenth century. The library holds 750 million pages of newspapers, journals, newsletters and even football programmes, of which the latter is stored away in a secure part of the library buildings, with the other items considered precious. I have regularly made to the trip up the Northern Line to visit the place since 1992 to research football’s history, but this was the first time I had ventured into the inner workings of what I regard as one of the finest archives in the UK, if not the World.

Bound volumes on a stack in the repository.


The British Library bought the land in the Edwardian period to relieve stock overcrowding at its London base. Horse and cart delivered requests for newspapers to London from Colindale. It was not until 1932 that the building was first opened to the public. The Second World War was disastrous for the library, a German bomb exploded in October 1940, destroying 6,000 bound volumes, which were lost forever. Subsequent extensions to the library bring it to its current size.


The collection is stored on several floors. The items located nearest to the reading rooms – behind the double doors marked “staff only” are the catalogue collection marked “MLD”, which relates to London-based periodicals. Now I know why my microfilm copies of The Sportsman or The Sporting Life always arrive quicker than requests for Scottish or Irish newspapers, which are located further away in the Library’s holdings. My tour guide told me that readers must make sufficient requests from a certain part of the building before they will retrieve material. This is why it can take up to an hour for a paper to arrive after its original request.


Having seen the racks of bound newspapers, we were taken through to the Microfilm Department, which turns paper copies into microfilm for viewing. A row of men and women were diligently making microfilm copies of new and old newspapers. All acquisitions received after 1986 are now archived in this manner to preserve the originals. These are now not bound but placed flat into acid-free boxes. The Bath Journal from 1888 was one such newspaper I spotted getting microfilmed – no doubt saving the original from further deterioration. We turned a corner to see more staff with their irons – not for their clothes – but carefully flattening newspapers ready for microfilming. It must be hard to keep concentration in this windowless environment but their service and reputation is second to none. Most are local employees and live within a couple of miles of the library. After the microfilm negative master is created, library staff checks every frame by human eye to ensure there has been no mistakes or pages missing, a pain-staking task. The master is then stored in the basement.

A staff member ironing a newspaper ready for microfiliming.

I asked a question on items unfit for use, such as damaged newspapers, and what was the programme of repair to get them back in the catalogue? Unfortunately, there is no systematic plan to get the unfit items back into use. A bound volume costs around £500 to repair, compared with £50 to microfilm the contents. Given the impending move, I don’t expect the situation to change. It seems if you want something repaired in order to view it, be prepared to lobby vigourously in order to get it.

“Football banned”

Before we returned to the reading rooms, an office adjacent has two big signs on its windows proclaiming “All football talk is banned in here”. I’d like to see the chances of this being adhered to with the forthcoming World Cup in South Africa…

Last Days

The Newspaper Library’s days are numbered at Colindale. They have simply run out of space and the lease on some of the buildings is at an end. Therefore, the majority of the library’s holdings are to be transferred to a new purpose built storage facility in Boston Spa, near Wetherby in Yorkshire. The microfilm stock – a staggering 400,000 reels – will be located at the British Library in St. Pancras.

I was informed at the end of the tour that the library has plans to digitise 4 million pages a year for the next ten years in partnership with a private company to supplement its current digital holdings website. Because of copyright issues, the vast majority will be newspapers published before 1900. It sounds an impressive total but when you think that will only cover around 5 percent of its present holdings it’s a very poor return. Funding, as ever, stunts the growth of the digitisation programme. The current cost to digitise newspapers is estimated at one pound per page so 750 million pounds for the entire collection in this economic climate is out of the question.

This has repercussions for the 2012 move. If you wish to consult regional newspapers from the twentieth century after the library leaves Colindale, you will almost certainly receive a worse service than at present. It’s not even guaranteed that readers will able to view bound copies at Boston Spa so lobby your local MP to make sure it does.

Free tours are conducted every two months or so and are strongly recommended before its contents disappear to Yorkshire (the process starts later this year) and the building shut. It is not listed and its likely replacement is a housing development or University campus.

Whilst the longer opening hours in the new Central London base will be welcomed, one has become fond of the slow pace of life at the Newspaper Library, with staff bringing the volumes in barrows. It has a sleepy 1950s feel to the place that will be sorely missed.

Bound volumes on a stack in the repository.

Bill Whittaker

Bill Whittaker has remained an enigma to myself as a Brentford F.C. historian and it’s pleasing after all these years to think this mystery is probably solved. Bill played for The Bees in their F.A. Cup campaign in 1945-46, and was the only post-war player that I didn’t have a date of birth for, but this may be solved thanks to some Kingstonian fans.

He is of interest to the project as he played once for the England amateur international side, a 5-2 victory over Wales at Whaddon Road in Cheltenham on 28 January 1939. The side that day was:

Whitehead G.K. (Bury Amateurs); Burchell G.S. (Romford); Ellis R. (Wealdstone); Lewis J.W. (Walthamstow Avenue); Whittaker W. (Kingstonian); Leek T.H. (Moor Green); Perkins G.E. (Cheltenham Town); Edelston M. (London University and Brentford); Clements B.A. (Barking); Gibbons A.H. (RAF and Brentford); Finch L.C. (Barnet).

In researching Bill’s background, I led myself up a blind alley in thinking Bill’s brother (also a Kingstonian player) was called George so knowing it was actually Geoff probably solved things in no more than 20 minutes flat on the internet.

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I discovered a couple of weeks ago by chance that both brothers played for the now-defunct Nunhead football Club prior their spell at Richmond Road. The history of Nunhead, published a few years ago by Mick Blackemore, gives both brothers initials as W.F. and G.J. It noted in the book that G.J. was a “first class cricketer with Surrey”.

Armed with the new knowledge on his first name, I looked up the CricInfo website and Geoff is listed in the link below:

I then checked, which is a free repository of births, marriages and deaths. The information is divided into quarters, i.e. January to March, April to June etc.

Geoff’s entry gives his mother’s maiden name of Tomblin. Searching all Whittakers with the maiden name Tomblin from 1912 onwards revealed the following:

Sep 1912 Robert L Northampton
Sep 1914 John P Exeter
Jun 1916 Geoffrey J Camberwell
Mar 1921 Florence F Camberwell

Now, the Kingstonian programme notes from the 1980s revealed that there was a third brother called Bob, who we can assume was christened Robert. The 1912 birth above seems to fit.

This website gives the maiden name for births after 1912, but I suspected William was older than Geoff. I now searched for “William Whittaker” born in Northampton prior to 1912 and we have one registered in 1911, called William Frederick (matching the initials in the Nunhead book).

A search of post 1984 deaths shows a William Frederick Whittaker, born 18 Apr 1911, and his death was registered in December 1992 in Andover. This, I believe, is our man. I will purchase the death certificate and try and find any close relatives from that to finally prove this mystery. I think there is a good chance Florence is still alive also.

Two books through the post

Two important books arrived in the post today, both by Colin Weir. They chart the history of Oxford and Cambridge Universities football teams respectively since their formation.

Younger followers of football may be interested to learn that both England’s full and amateur international sides were awash with players from both institutions, especially prior to the First World War.

These books will be an important secondary source for the project.

Disputed status of international matches at amateur level

Scholars of the game are advised to read Peter Young’s excellent article on England’s disputed games at full international level.

It’s interesting to note that when David Beckham played against Spain in the recent friendly international between the two countries, all the UK national press noted he equalled Booby Moore’s record of 108 caps.

Not so with FIFA, who has discounted Moore’s appearance for England at Wembley against the Rest of the World played in 1963. According to their records, he has 107 caps.

A similar situation arises at amateur international level too. A lot of old and new publications indicate that England’s amateur football team participated in the Olympic Games of 1908 and 1912, but this is incorrect. The FA’s website also declares “England” winners of the 1912 tournament.

The teams for 1908 and 1912 were in fact Great Britain, and photographic evidence in both tournaments show the team having Union Flag badges on their jerseys. It’s worth noting the 1956 Olympic campaign played as Great Britain – organised and funded by the Football Association – inlcuded only Englishmen due to the other home nations withdrew their support. History is destined to repeat itself for 2012.

In the book – England (1872 – 1940), Eire (1924 – 1940), England/Amateurs (1906 – 1940) – published by the IFFHS in 2000 – has followed the FIFA line. They also describe Great Britian’s Olympic games matches in 1920 and 1936 as “England amateur”, and to be afforded full international status although at the same time noting that Scots, Welsh and Irish nationals played in some of these matches.

Worse still, some of England’s amateur games played against France, Germany and selected European countries prior to 1950 have been given full international status by FIFA, and also in the IFFHS publication.

My book will not record the Olympic games under the England amateur banner and hopefully it will persuade the F.A. to alter their position on the Olympic games matches of 1912, which may be based on incorrect past publications in any case.

I am in complete agreement with Peter Young when he says in the aforementioned article that “The F.A. keeps the official records of the England team, not FIFA, and while FIFA may keep its own records in whatever manner it wants to, it has no authority or power to alter the F.A.’s own records of its own national team.

Put another way, the F.A. is entirely free to record the history of the England team and players according to its own view of that history, and FIFA has neither the authority nor the power to censor the F.A.’s view of its own national team’s history. “