Using UK Historical Directories for Family History

Did you know that a Herring Curer operated in Herefordshire in 1913?  Or that in St. Owen’s street Hereford you could find an artificial arm & leg manufacturer in 1890?  Fascinating details like this can be found in historical directories which as well as helping to identify individuals can also give a context to the life of your ancestor.

Historical directories comprise of two distinct types of publication: Trade directories and postal directories.  As the 19th century progressed these types of directories became identical in format but there are significant differences especially when the first trade directories were produced.

The first directory of London merchants was published in 1677 and London directories were published annually from 1734.[1]  A directory for Birmingham was produced in 1763 and the first county directory (for Hampshire) was published in 1784.[2]

Early directories were usually aimed at commercial travellers and typically contained general descriptions of a city, town or village and its communications (stagecoach and later, railway connections).  An entry for a place then listed its churches, inns, prominent residents, farmers, shopkeepers and other traders.  These trade directories included only the wealthier (or notable) residents.  Research has shown that a typical early 19th century trade directory contained only about 6% of the population of the area.[3]  As the 19th century progressed trade directories began to include more names and addresses of private residents whether or not they were wealthy.

The names in many early directories were obtained by personal visits or through local agents paid for the task.[4]  Those involved were often local printers and booksellers, tax and post office officials and agents for insurance companies.[5]  The number of directories increased greatly in the 19th century due to the abolition of the paper tax and a rise in general literacy, covering a county, a range of counties or a city.

Directories with names and addresses of private citizens also helped with the addressing of post and Kelly & Co started to produce Post Office directories of provincial towns and counties in 1845.[6]  The publication of these directories carried on until the 1970s when they were superseded by telephone directories.[7]

 

Directories and the Census Returns

Directories were published more frequently than the census and so they can be used to complement census information.  Information that can be found includes:

  • 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
  • A series of directories can show changes in the name of the business, perhaps when it was formed and indeed when it was dissolved. This could lead onto a search in the London or Edinburgh Gazette for either bankruptcy or dissolution of a partnership.
  • An advert in a directory may give details about the actual business, sometimes even picturing the premises and examples of its products
  • A directory’s description of cities, towns or large villages can provide context for the lives of your ancestors. It can provide details about local industries, population, charities, postal deliveries, transport links and schools.[8]

By 1850 the directories were becoming larger and larger and were usually divided into the following sections:[9]

  • Alphabetical lists for particular trades or businesses.
  • Lists of tradesmen and residents arranged by streets.
  • Listing local government and court officials or dignitaries.

Otherwise the entries are usually listed alphabetically by name of settlement.

Beware!

It would be wrong to think of directories as either precise or wholly accurate.  Directories could be out of date usually by about a year by the time they were published.[10]  Added to this some publishers reprinted information from the previous year’s directory without checking it first.  Some even found their entries from other firm’s directories so mistakes could be compounded over time.

In the early directories 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 also 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.

 

Accessing Directories

Herefordshire libraries have a range of directories both to borrow and to use as reference.  These range from the beginning of the 19th century to approximately the end of the 1930’s and can include Herefordshire as its own volume or as a combination with other counties such as Shropshire and Gloucestershire.  Ledbury library also has a range of Tilley’s almanacs that were produced just for Ledbury and its surroundings.  Herefordshire Archive and Record centre also has a good range of directories on its open shelves that can be accessed freely.

Online

Although the University of Leicester’s wonderful Historical Directories website was withdrawn in March 2014, the information is still available for free as part of their Special Collections online. The directories cover England and Wales from the 1760s to the 1910s and although a little cumbersome to use, are still a great resource.  The directories can be browsed by location and either viewed online one page at a time or downloaded and accessed via a PDF viewer such as Adobe Reader.  You can also search the directories for  names, towns, villages and occupations but if you are looking for a common name it is much easier to look at the actual directories themselves.

Ancestry also has a number of City and County Directories available from 1766 – 1946 including a limited number from the Channel Islands, Wales and Scotland.  Individual Herefordshire directories on Ancestry begin in 1830 and are available at regular intervals until 1913.  There is also a 1934 directory available.  However caution must be used when searching these directories as the index was created using text recognition software. i.e. the records were not transcribed.  This can sometimes give interesting returns to a search especially on some of the earlier directories.

Scottish Post Office directories

Scottish Post Office directories are available for free from the National Library of Scotland’s website.    Online you can now access 694 directories for the period 1773 to 1911, covering 28 of Scotland’s towns and counties.

In each directory you can:

  • View page by page
  • View a PDF of the complete book
  • Search the full PDF text
  • Download files for free within our copyright regulations

Irish Post Office Directories

Street directories for Ulster begin to appear in the early 19th century and are available to search and browse for free on the website of the PRONI (http://www.proni.gov.uk).

FindmyPast has a wide range of Irish directories for the other provinces from the early 19th century onwards.

 

[1] Herber, Mark. ( 2004) Ancestral Trails. P.159. Sutton Publishing.

[2] Ibid. P.163.

[3] Ibid.. P.159

[4] FamilySearch. Directories in England & Wales. https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Directories_in_England_and_Wales

[5] Ibid.

[6] Herber, Mark. ( 2004) Ancestral Trails. P.163. Sutton Publishing.

[7] Ibid. P.159.

[8] Ibid. P.165.

[9] Herber, Mark. ( 2004) Ancestral Trails. P.160. Sutton Publishing.

[10] Ibid. P.163.

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