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A century of British newspapers goes online

June 19, 2009 |  3:53 pm

Charlesdickens_papers More than 2 million pages of newspapers go online today, courtesy of the British Library. Dating from 1800 to 1900 and including lushly illustrated papers like the Graphic, the database includes 39 media outlets and is easily searchable. Many of the newspapers can be viewed for free.

I found an account of a banquet held in Charles Dickens' honor as he left for a trip to America -- but while I could see that many sentences were interrupted by cheers, the best parts were too illegible to decipher. Who knows -- maybe the newspaper smudged, a copier got jittery, a microfilm camera was tricked by a big black image on the pages' reverse side. It's impossible to tell exactly where the technology went wrong, but not everything online is perfect.

But what I did find is Dickens' farewell speech in New York, given as his American trip was concluding, which was printed in the Penny Illustrated paper on May 9, 1868. He spoke at Delmonico's to members of the press.

When I received an invitation from a private association of working members of the press of New York to dine with them to-day, I accepted that compliment in grateful remembrance of a calling that was once my own and in loyal sympathy towards a brotherhood which, in the spirit, I have never quitted ('Good! Good! and applause). ...

I have for upwards of four hard winter months so contended against what I have been sometimes quite admiringly assured was 'a true American catarrh [gob of phlegm]' (Laughter) -- a possession of which I have throughout highly appreciated (Renewed laughter), though I might have preferred to have been naturalized by any other outward and visible signs (Shouts of laughter). ...

Even the press, being human (laughter), may be sometimes mistaken or misinformed, and I rather think that I have, in one or two rare instances, known its information to be not perfectly accurate with reference to myself (Laughter and applause). Indeed, I have now and again been more surprised by printed news that I have read of myself than by any printed news that I have ever read in my present state of existence (Laughter). Thus, the vigour and perseverence with which I have been for some months past been collecting materials for and hammering away at a new book on America have much astonished me (Renewed laughter). ...

What Dickens thought of America ... after the jump.

Finally, gentlemen, and I say this subject to your correction, I do believe that from the great majority of honest minds on both sides [England and America] there cannot be absent the conviction that it woud be better for this globe to be riven by an earthquake, fired by a comet, overrun by an iceberg, and abandoned to the Arctic fox and bear, than that it should present the spectacle of these two great nations, each of which has, in its own way and hour, striven so hard and so successfully for freedom, ever again being arrayed the one against the other (Tumultuous applause, the company rising to their feet and greeting the sentiment with enthusiasm). Gentlemen, I cannot thank your president enough or you enough for your kind reception of my health and of my poor remarks, but, believe me, I do that you with the utmost fervor of which my soul is capable (Great applause).

There is much more of Dickens -- speeches and writing -- to be found in the new online pages at the British Library, including a letter about making public executions private.

But if what you're hoping for is something even grittier, you might try checking into the Illustrated Police News around 1888 -- when it was covering the Jack the Ripper murders.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Illustration: Aaron Thomas Roth / For The Times