Clare’s News

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towns and counties in 1845.[6]  The publication of these directories carried on until the 1970s when they were superseded by telephone directories.[7]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.


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.


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 (

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.

[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.


Futurelearn course on Irish history

I have just completed a free online course facilitated by Trinity College Dublin on Irish lives in War and Revolution: exploring Irish history 1912-23.

Using video tutorials , newsreels, articles, posters, diaries and songs, it takes you through the material that is availble on this period which is fascinating especially for those with Irish ancestry.  I have discovered many more sources of information that I will use to try and find out more on the O’Gradys.

Futurelearn do all kinds of courses for free including one on genealogy.  To find out more go to their website.

Alfred Watkins Collection of Historic Photographs

Have you ever heard of Alfred Watkins?  If not then you are missing out on some wonderful historical photographs of Herefordshire and its people.

Alfred Watkins (27th January 1855 – 15th April 1935) was a Herefordian businessman, photographer, author, self-taught amateur archaeologist, antiquarian and authority on beekeeping as well as founder member of the Woolhope Naturalist Field Club. He is famous for his work on ley lines.

He travelled extensively around Herefordshire, and took over 3000 photographs of rural life and surroundings.  At the moment there are 919 images aviable to view for free online.

Herefordshire Newspapers Online

I have just discovered this great free resource online.

Herefordshire newspapers from around the county from the year 1832 where available.

Titles include:

  • Hereford Times
  • Hereford Journal
  • Kington Reporter
  • Kington Times
  • Ledbury Guardian
  • Leominster News
  • Ross Gazette

They are not searchable at the moment but are fascinating to broswe through – you can easily lose a day!

New Herefordshire Wills index search

This wills index compiled by HARC comprises over 45,000 entries taken from the Hereford Diocese Probate Act Books 1700-1858 and Hereford Deanery Probate Act Books 1660-1858.

These books contain a summary record of each grant, including:

  • the names of the testator and executor (s)
  • the parish they were from
  • the value of each estate
  • date of the probate grant.

In some cases, all of the original documents have been lost and the Act Book holds the only surviving record of a will.

When the index entry is found, you can then order a copy of the Will from HARC for £12.  This includes the microfilm copy and postage.

Historically Hereford Diocese included most of the modern county of Herefordshire, southern Shropshire and some bordering parishes in Powys, Monmouthshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. Visit the Diocese of Hereford website for coverage of the Diocese of Hereford and Deanery of Hereford.

To access the index click here

Using Description of Prisoners Books

For the greater part of the 19th century it was in some cases impossible to identify new prisoners with any certainty just from the prison registers[i] but one of the measures used was the Description of Prisoners book. Prison staff took physical descriptions for each prisoner as they arrived at the gaol and recorded them in books that are arranged in alphabetcial order by surname.

The 1902 Convict Prison Standing Orders gave detailed instructions on how to measure convicts and how to record their physical condition and items such as tattoos, birthmarks and moles.[ii]

The Description of Prisoners Books for Dorset available online through Ancestry range from 1858 – 1879 and are fascinating reading.   When the entries were completed they included stature, complexion, hair, eyes, remarks (i.e. tattoos etc.) and number of children. These details, especially occupation and parish can help to confirm the identity of the prisoner listed in the prison registers.  Later books also included photographs of teh offender.

A page from a Dorset Description of Prisoners book courtesy of


Unfortunately, for some reason, in the Dorset books women are listed but the columns are left blank. Also, if a man was convicted more than once during this period his details would only be entered on the first conviction but usually this is indicted in subsequent entries.

Findmypast and Ancestry hold some books but the majority are to be found in local archives.  There is also a good range of Australian books available.

[i] Priestley, Phillip. (1985) Victorian Prison Lives. London: Methuen. P. 121.


[ii] Ibid. P. 12.


Using English Prison Registers

Prior to the 1877 nationalisation of prisons in England and Wales, local prisons kept their own registers and as a result they vary between county and indeed between individual gaol. The number and time-span of registers available also varies from place to place as well as the number of registers that have been digitised. Normally, local prison registers are kept by the corresponding local records centre and are not indexed so you would need to have a very good idea of when your ancestor was convicted before you start searching.

In the case of Dorset, each volume is then sub-divided into type of conviction so again a knowledge of the type of crime committed would be useful. One of the main advantages of digitisation is that on the whole, prison registers are indexed and therefore searchable by name and by date.

Information given in prison registers from the 1850s onwards include the offender’s name and age, the crime they were accused of, place of offence,  where and when they were tried, sentence, religion and degree of education.

Earlier registers will also give a description of the prisoner. The information given by the prison registers on their own is useful but limited. There are no details of the offence itself and if the prisoner has a common name, they are lacking identifiers such as occupation and place of residence that will confirm that you have the right person. The next stage in the research process will be the description of prisoners book which will be the subject of my next blog.

Ancestry has a wide range of criminal records but sometimes this just involves a name, date, offence and sentence.  Findmypast also has a wide range including Home Office calendars of prisoners 1868-1929, after-trial calendars of prisoners 1855-1931 and  Irish prison registers.  Several indexes of prisoners at individual gaols are available at Black sheep ancestry