Handwritten newspapers

December 13th, 2010 By Gordon Paynter

One of the distinguishing features of a newspaper is that it is printed (on newsprint). So you may be surprised then to learn that two out of 300,000 newspaper issues in Papers Past are in fact handwritten.

The Victoria Times of 15 September 1841

Many of you will know that five hundred copies of the first issue of the Victoria Times were published in Wellington on 15 September 1841. These were lithographed, rather than letter-pressed like most newspapers.

The first three pages are handwritten text, and the last is a fascinating plan of Wellington in 1841. Note that Lambton Quay is actually a quay (i.e. constructed along the edge of a body of water) and that Basin Reserve is a "proposed basin" linked to the water by a "proposed canal". In some issues (but not ours) the map was hand-coloured. This was not an economical way to run a newspaper, apparently, as the first issue was also the last.

It is such an interesting issue, however, that we scanned it in colour to make the handwriting more legible. In Papers Past, it is one of two publications displayed in shades of grey rather than simple black and white (the other is Kai Tiaki: the Journal of the Nurses of New Zealand). You can't OCR a handwritten document, but Planman (our OCR vendor) were able to transcribe it for us in a format we can load into Papers Past. We've provided the full issue PDF file in colour (pdf, 6MB): the map on page four in particular looks fantastic.

The Oamaru Times and Waitaki Reporter (a.k.a. North Otago Times) of 21 April 1864

Our other handwritten newspaper has an even more unusual provenance. A few years ago when we checked a batch digitised of newspapers we found one issue where the OCR accuracy was basically zero. This was unusual, so we took a look, and found that the 21 April 1864 issue of the North Otago Times (which was known as the Oamaru Times and Waitaki Reporter at the time) is a carefully-created collage, reconstructing what the original issue must have looked like. Take a look at page 1 for example:

Handwritten front page of the Oamaru Times and Waitaki Reporter, entirely handwritten and primarily in cursive.
Front page of the Oamaru Times and Waitaki Reporter, 21 April 1864.

We didn't know what to make of this, so we went back to the original scans, and found that this really is what the pages look like on the preservation microfilm. So we went back to the source: Dunedin Public Library. Here's what they reported:

I have just taken a good look at that 21 April 1864 issue of the "Otago Times".

Yes, it is a transcription but with some bits (part of title, etc., coats of arms, picture of ship, picture of Singer sewing machine) meticulously cut from another issue and pasted in.

On the front of the cover of the original binding for the 1864 issues it is noted that No. 9 (i.e. 21 April) is missing. The person who has made the transcription and who gave us all the 1864 copies was W.H.S. (William Henry Sherwood) Roberts. He must have located another copy of No. 9 and transcribed it. There is a pencil note on the inside of the original cover stating that No. 1 was given to Roberts on Nov 8 1908 and the other 11 (i.e. 2-8, 10-13) numbers on 4 April 1901.

We have a lot of material that came from W.H.S. Roberts, including many scrapbooks and this is undoubtedly in his hand. One thing that won't show up on the microfilm is that on the last page of the transcription he has used red ink to make an x in two places - to indicate where he had omitted some text in the first instance and where he was noting a mistake in the original in the second instance (though he has copied the original complete with mistake). He was very exact in his copying and has clearly tried to maintain the layout as it was printed.

Mystery solved.

The Nokomai Herald of 1871

These handwrittewn newspapers were brought back to mind earlier this month when our friends at New Zealand Micrographic Services pointed out an article in the Mataura Ensign of 18 May 1897 about the handwritten 'Nokomai Herald' of 1871 in Papers Past:

Article from the Mataura Ensign about a handwritten newspaper called the Nokomai Herald, which it calls 'an interesting relic of old-time journalism'.
"Old time journalism", Mataura Ensign, 18 May 1897, Page 3.

Ironically, the Nokomai Herald was apparently published for about a year (1871-1872). We have no plans to add this paper to Papers Past, but there are apparently a few paper copies around, and you can see a scan of the first page of the first issue on rootschat.

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