Using Directories for Family History

Historical directories are among the most important sources for research into family history. They often focus upon a particular town, city or county and include the names, addresses and occupations of the local inhabitants.

Look out for the following in trade directories:

  • lists of trades and professions
  • names arranged street by street
  • lists arranged by surname, as in a telephone directory
  • advertisements for trades and professions

Directories and the Census Returns

Directories were published more frequently than the census, which was taken once every ten years. Here are some other features you may be able to discover in a directory, thus supplementing your research of the census returns:

  • Confirmation of a person’s address
  • Additional details relating to craftsmen, traders and businessmen who had set up a business on their own account
  • The fortunes of an individual family through several generations
  • Lists of secondary occupations of male householders, such as part-time or seasonal work
  • Relatively comprehensive records of male householders in directories from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The format of the directories was established with the first 18th Century publications and remained fairly standard until the 20th century.

Entries for a town usually start with a description of where it is in the landscape and often its historical background. They may well describe the local industries and include details of the local markets and transport facilities as well. Directories can provide a wealth of background information about an area, and you can find descriptions of churches, schools, charities, lists of people involved in local government, population statistics, details of local newspapers, advertising and sometimes maps too. Directories produced in the 20th century have often lost the historical and topographical content in favour of advertising, which was even added to the outside covers and the page edges.

The general introduction to each town is then followed by listings of the local bigwigs – landowners and gentry; clergy; doctors and lawyers and possibly their widows. Only then do you get the lists of people in trade. Unless your ancestors fit into one of these categories their names are unlikely to appear in the early directories, as they don’t include any labourers, servants, shop assistants, clerks or other employees. As you move through the 19th century however, directories start to include street directories and surname listings for heads of households and so gradually included a much wider section of the population.

Villages and hamlets had limited coverage in early directories, often receiving only a brief mention with one or two names, attached to the entry for the nearest sizeable town. However by the end of the 19th century many directories contained not only extensive listings of the professional and trades people, but also listed the heads of households, often with their professions, ordered into both street and surname indexes.


Some directories provide more detailed coverage than others. Many skilled traders will be listed in the earlier directories, but labourers or factory hands may be omitted. However, street coverage in town directories tends to be very detailed from the late nineteenth century onwards.

It is also worth remembering that the agents took some time to compile a directory. Thus, a directory published in 1871 may well have been compiled anything up to a year before that date.

Trade directories were not always accurate or complete, so always try to corroborate the information you find. There are errors and spelling mistakes and new editions were sometimes based on old ones or even other publications. Some people would not want to be included, and it’s not clear, especially with the early directories, whether or not you would have to be a subscriber to be included in the listings.