HISTORIANS and curious householders can unlock thousands of pages of Reading's history at the click of a button.

More than two centuries of the town's rich heritage can now be examined, because every edition of The Reading Mercury, from 1789-1903, has been published on the British Library's website.

The borough's archives are among four million pages of regional and national newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries, which feature historic court cases, landmark decisions and hundreds of letters from soldiers in war zones, which were published in local papers to bring attention to their needs and inform people about life at war.

One letter, published in The Reading Mercury on January 27, 1855, was from a British soldier fighting in the Crimean War begging for food to be sent to him because supplies had fallen to record lows.

He wrote: "While you are struggling to collect for us tens and twenties of your young recruits, fifties and hundreds of your old soldiers are dying here. They are dying from starvation. I say it who know it - who know what amount of warmth and food are absolutely necessary to preserve strength and life in men exposed to the fatigues and hardships your soldiers before Sebastopol are exposed to - that they have been left to die from starvation." The archive is free to search, but there is a charge for accessing the pages themselves, and John Whitehead, publicity officer of the History of Reading Society, said the accessibility of The Reading Mercury's pages will help townspeople to understand their heritage.

Mr Whitehead said: "It is excellent news that these newspapers have been made so widely available. There will be loads of the town's history in those papers, for example all the floods in Reading when the Thames regularly overflowed its banks, tales of Reading's bad weather and of the closure of the town's businesses and banks in the 19th Century. It the younger generation can be prised away from video games and people begin to look into the history of the town, they would learn a lot about why they are where they are." Reading Library holds local newspapers dating back to the 18th century and during September's heritage weekend The Chronicle invited readers to our Portman Road office to inspect back copies of The Reading Mercury, The Berkshire Chronicle and The Berkshire Mercury dating back to 1742.

Ed King, the British Library's Head of Newspapers, said: "The launch of the British Newspaper Archive website opens up the British Library's newspaper collection as never before. Rather than having to view the items on-site at the Library, turning each page, people across the UK and around the world will be able to explore for themselves the gold-mine of stories and information contained in these pages - and the ability to search across millions of articles will yield results for each user, that might previously have been the work of weeks or months, in a matter of seconds and the click of a mouse."