Historical newspapers; column after column of minute and unimposing text interspersed with what, presumably, were meant to be images. Until recent times searching old news for something specific was like searching for a proverbial needle in a hay stack. In Wales that all changed in 2013 when the National Library of Wales launched a beta version of its free Welsh Newspapers Online website. Using the latest technology the text of hundreds of newspaper titles were thrust into the digital sphere. Long forgotten tit-bits and obituaries, headlines and controversies were made fully searchable, unlocking a vast vault of knowledge.
Now the National Library has replaced the beta version with a slick new interface with plenty of new features and an additional 400,000 pages, bringing the total to over 1 million. To test the power of this immense archive I performed a simple search for one of my Victorian ancestors. The little I knew about him came from my Grandmother who recalls childhood stories of her great grandfather, the son of an Irish immigrant, a watchman on Barry Docks who whistled whilst he worked, and a man she claimed hung himself on the back of his bedroom door, because he thought God had forgotten him. What could all this technology tell me about dear old Tom Foley?
I searched for ‘Thomas Foley’ and limited my search to Glamorgan papers and found myself with hundreds of possible hits. Some were not relevant but I had definitely found my Great Great Great Grandfather. Working through the results chronologically the earliest record I found was 1890. He was a rigger living in Penarth, and a member of the Cardiff Riggers and Boatman Union. In a letter to the Western Mail he bemoaned that a recent meeting was ‘more like a bedlam than a meeting of sane men’
But quarrelsome men were soon the least of Foley’s problems. On April 3rd 1891 the Barry Dock news reported a ‘Serious accident to a rigger at Barry Dock’. Some months later Foley gave his own account of the accident;
‘On the day after Good Friday I was working on the SS. Emilie in Barry Dock, when I accidentally fell from a ventilator backwards down the empty bunker hatch, from the top to the bottom…When I recovered consciousness I found myself on the deck with a number of men around me’
Foley had survived his fall but would never work as a rigger again. He was taken at once to Cardiff infirmary where he was diagnosed with a fractured hip. Then, he complains;
‘I lay there for a fortnight without any further examination, or even a lotion or liniment, or anything whatever to alleviate my pain, although I was complaining daily’.
The poor man was then discharged and lay bed-bound for several months with one of his legs ‘two inches longer than the other’. Thankfully for us, his affliction gave him even more time to write, as his letters to the Barry Dock News come thick and fast. Following the horrors he faced at the Cardiff Infirmary he began to campaign for a local hospital to serve the busy and dangerous docks.
He wrote to thank the manager of the SS. Emile who presented him with £25 to start him in some kind of business. But instead he found work as a Watchman, just like my Grandmother recalled. I figure he spent the money on books, as he soon begins quoting Greek history and Shakespeare in his prolific contributions to the local press. He even donated antique books to Barry Library – all diligently reported in the local papers. In December 1891 he even composed a poem following news that a collection had been raised to support the widows of two friends lost at sea.
In 1895 a report on the ‘Grand Eisteddfod at Barry’ describes the occasion that Foley won a ‘special prize’ in the short hand competition, having taught himself just two months earlier. ‘Mr Foley was enthusiastically greeted as he ascended the platform….and the president remarked that Mr Foley had….emulated some of the most famous scholars of Greece and Rome (Cheers)’. He certainly possessed the Greeks passion for politics. Following his attendance of a political debate Foley lambasted the politicians in a lively open letter. ‘If I am to judge from the observations of the three speakers the conservatives are a most contemptible class, and the liberal unionists is the lowest animal in the scale of creation’ He goes on, in as plain a tongue as you could imagine, to describe the Tories as ‘a very naughty lot of people’.
My search revealed so much material that I could probably write a small book about the trials and tribulations of Mr Foley, and it pains me to omit so much, but every story must have its ending. Everything points to a passionate and driven man. I see him, through my rose tinted specs, as a working class hero, a self-educated immigrant breaking down long established social barriers. So would such a man have taken his own life? Did he really hang from his bedroom door?
In fact, he did not, but the truth is sadly very near to the mark. On Boxing Day 1910, reports the Barry Dock News, Foley hanged himself from his bedpost with a handkerchief. But that is not all. His son, my Great Great Grandfather found his body, and fearing the shame a suicide would bring on the family, cut him down and, with his friend, put him to bed and suggested his father’s ‘weak heart’ was to blame for his demise. The very words spoken in the inquest are recorded in the paper, and the Coroner warned the son that his ‘foolish behavior’ could well see him stand trial for murder. Thankfully though he was eventually cleared and went on to become the Dock Master for Great Western Railways at Barry Docks – another story for another day.
I recon there must be tens if not hundreds of thousands of stories waiting to be discovered amongst metadata and algorithms of one of Wales’ richest and most diverse digital archives. Search for your story today at Newspapers.library.wales
Wikipedian in Residence, National Library of Wales