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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Perfecting newspaper searches: Birth notices–Part 1

In order to search effectively, you really do have to know what you are looking for! You might know that you are looking for the birth notice for John Doe and the search seems pretty straightforward. Enter the words “John Doe” and narrow down the year range. Unfortunately, that may not be enough to find John Doe’s birth notice (assuming he has one) even one if the entry is transcribed correctly.

What you need to know as you enter your search terms is not the name “John Doe”, but the unique combination of words that are used in John Doe’s birth notice. If you are looking for a historical notice it’s entirely possible, even likely, that the notice will not contain his name at all.

Over the past few days I’ve been compiling information about the information included in birth notices in The Argus (Victoria, Australia on the Trove website), from 1850 to 1955. I selected Family Notices articles spread across the years. I aimed to choose articles with multiple notices in order to process them in batches, and did not reject any batch once I had clicked on it. I stopped searching for additional birth notices within each decade when I had reviewed at least 30.

In total, I reviewed 447 birth notice items from The Argus. I also spot-checked other newspapers and states, and looked more carefully at an extra 162 birth notices for other states in order to test if the results I found are generally applicable for Australian newspapers.

I this post I will describe what I found. In my next, I hope you will join me in a discussion of what the results means for constructing birth notice searches in Trove.

The birth notices had three common features:

  • They were quite short, most were 30 words or less (newspapers would charge extra to insert a longer than standard notice).
  • They all included the surname of the person.
  • They all included the words “son” or “daughter”.

You will notice that I have not listed “they included the child’s name” or “they included the mother’s name” as common features. Before the 1950s, these were quite uncommon features!

Person’s surname

Every birth notice included the surname. The surname was usually given in capital letters at the start of each notice, and would also often appear in the middle of the notice when the parents’ names were mentioned. However, early birth notices did not start with the surname. The position of the surname relative to other search terms we might want to use becomes relevant when we consider how we might search Trove.

Child’s name

No birth notices prior to 1910 (in my Argus sample) included the child’s name. Inclusion of the child’s name was above 60% in the 1920s and 1950s. Still, even in those years more than 30% of birth notices did not name the person who had been born!

When the name of the child was given, it was almost always in brackets at the end of the notice.

Chart 1:  Proportion of birth notices that included the child’s name


Mother’s name

In the earlier papers, the mother was almost always referred to as “wife of …” or “Mrs husband’s name”. Almost always. Occasionally she wasn’t referred to at all.

The first instance of including the mother’s maiden name in my sample occurred in the 1900s. This practice had become more popular in the 1920s and by the ‘40s I found that more than 60% of sampled birth notices included the mother’s maiden name.

Where the maiden name was included, it was almost always placed in brackets immediately following the child’s surname at the start of the notice. There were some variations in the detail – use of the word “nee”, or inclusion of the given name.

    • SURNAME (mother’s surname)
    • SURNAME (nee mother’s surname)
    • SURNAME (nee mother’s full name)

Inclusion of the mother’s given name, either with the surname as above or in the text of the notice, also started taking off in the 1920s. In the 1950s over 80% of birth notices would include the mother’s given name.

Although I did not make a tally, it was my impression that in most cases the name the mother went by was included, rather than her full name. That is, “Dot”, rather than “Dorothy Jane”. Her name was often paired with her husband’s name in the text ie “Dot and Wal”.

Chart 2:  Proportion of birth notices that included the mother’s name


Father’s name

The father’s name was almost always included in some form. This would either be his full name or his initials. I did not tally whether “Mr. J. W. Doe” or “Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Doe” were more common - both were frequently used.

In the earlier time periods, the father’s name was more often spelled out in full. In later time periods, when inclusion of the father’s given name again became the norm it was more often included paired with the wife’s name eg “Dot and Wal”.

Chart 3:  Proportion of birth notices that included the father’s name


Other information

While there was very occasional reference to occupations (usually in the earlier notices) or sibling names (only in the later notices) these were quite rare.

I saw quite a lot of notices that included the word “twins” and sadly even more that included the word “stillborn”. In the later years I also saw the word “caesarean” in a few notices. These words might be useful if you already knew a bit about the birth.

The only other information frequently included was place names. Almost every birth notice included a place name, either the residence or place of birth. Not all of these would be useful when construction a search. In tallying inclusion of place names, I made a completely subjective judgement in each case as to whether the place name was one that a researcher would be likely to know was connected to the family, and sufficiently unusual that it wouldn’t bring up too many false positive results.  For example, if the place was a hospital (without mention of a suburb), I did not suppose the researcher would have information that would lead them to search on that term.

While most birth notices through most of the time period included potentially “searchable” places, this dropped of in the 1950s. Two things seemed to be happening:

  • A shift to including information about the immediate family instead of place of residence.
  • Possibly, more births were occurring in hospital. I generally did not include a hospital name without a suburb as a “searchable place”.

Chart 4:  Proportion of birth notices that included a searchable place


Other States

A spot-check of other newspapers and other States suggested that the patterns I saw in the Argus were generally relevant. I was not keen on replicating the whole exercise across every State… but I did want a bit more information to reassure myself on this point. The decade starting 1910 seemed to be a turning point for inclusion of mother and child names in the Argus and that is the decade I chose for comparison.

For each State, I chose items from the newspaper with the most “Family Notice” articles in that State. Apologies to Tasmania and the Northern Territory. You were not forgotten. It was just that the small number of birth notices per article made the data extraction task more onerous. I’m doing this in my spare time, remember!

Results were reasonably consistent. Victoria was perhaps a little ahead in including details of the mother and child.


Of course, I only looked at a few hundred out of potentially millions of birth notices in total (as at the time of writing there are 1,543,548 “Family Notices” articles in Trove, many of which would contain multiple birth notices). Local newspapers especially may have entirely different patterns. It would always be worthwhile to look at some birth notices for the paper and era you are searching, to make sure that the terms you are searching for were used at that time and place.



Copyright 2015 Shelley Crawford


  1. What a fascinating study! Your analysis will certainly help us (as family historians) to do better newspaper searches. It's interesting that you found notices for stillbirths. In Queensland, stillbirths were not required to be registered as either births or deaths until May 1989. Cemetery burial registers often mention them, but I had not thought of looking in newspapers.

    1. Thanks Judy, I'm so pleased if anyone finds this useful! It's certainly made me rethink how I search for birth notices. One of the thoughts that lead me to do this was the idea that I know what's in the birth notices I've found... but what's in the birth notices I haven't found?

    2. Yes indeed! I need to make a checklist so I can systematically search for the ones I haven't found (or haven't tried to find).

  2. A worthy piece of research from a genie with a bent for analtsis. Great stuff, Shelley.

    1. Thanks Jill, I'm glad you found it useful. The next step is applying it.

  3. Thanks for this really useful info. Looking forward now to my next dig into Trove

  4. What an interesting post, thank you

  5. Excellent post, thank you! I agree that we need to look at the individual newspapers to see what terms are used in that time and place. I should be keeping a checklist of findings (e.g which newspapers use "Marriages" and which use "Married" as their headers) but I usually forget to make a note of it.