Using historic directories in genealogy research

Have you ever used historic trade and local directories to help with your family research?

History
The first directory of London merchants was published in 1677, and from 1734 London directories were published annually. Directories for the rest of the country started to appear from around 1760 in the cities and big towns, a little later in more rural areas and small towns. Some of the directories covered a county, a wider region, or perhaps a collection of adjacent towns. These ones may include quite small towns.

Original purpose
The primary purpose of these earlier directories was commercial, and it’s no coincidence that their appearance coincided with the Industrial Revolution. They facilitated the trade and distribution of goods, including raw materials used by manufacturers. These earlier editions were aimed at commercial travellers. They therefore included distances from each town included to the others, distances from London, the location of the Post Office, plus carriers, stagecoach connections and later, railway connections. Places of worship and important public offices are also often included.

Layout
Originally only the chief inhabitants are included: principal landowners (‘gentry and clergy’ or ‘private residents’), more substantial tradesmen and professional classes. The listings of traders followed the local worthies, laid out by trade, and in alphabetical order within each trade. Over time, directories grew to include heads of households, with alphabetical listings of individuals as well as listings by trade. Some also include alphabetical listings of streets.

As an example, Pigot’s Directory of Kent, 1824, commences with a description of the county followed by distances between the various towns in the county, and from each town to London. There then follows a separate directory for each town, the towns appearing in alphabetical order. Within each town business types are arranged in alphabetical order. For example, Chatham has Academies, Attorneys, Auctioneers, Bakers, Bankers, and so on; and within each category, individual tradesmen/businessmen are listed alphabetically, with first and last name and street. You’ll find it [here].

I find it useful to start at the beginning of the directory, get a feel for the layout, and then use the index and page number links to flip about through the books, gradually homing in on towns, surnames and trades of interest.

Where to find them
There are various ways to access the directories.

First of all, the local and family history library covering your area of interest may have original copies for you to browse – possibly even a full collection of every historic directory published for the area if you’re lucky.

Next, there is a brilliant resource available online: the University of Leicester Special Collections Online. This includes 689 directories, ranging from the 1760s right up to the 1910s.
The collection is available [here].
The example used above (Kent and Chatham) is taken from this website.

Ancestry have a good selection that is searchable by clicking on ‘Search’ on the top toolbar, then selecting ‘Schools, Directories and Church Histories’.

FindMyPast also have a good selection. Click on ‘Search’ and then ‘Directories & Social History’ to start your search.

You may also find directories relevant to your needs in the relevant town/ parish on GENUKI.
I found transcriptions of three directories for Huntington, including my 4x great grandfather Thomas Cass, who was victualler at the White Horse inn, in the (very short!) 1823 Baines Directory for that parish

You may also find directories online by Googling, or by searching directly on Internet Archive with terms “directory” + name of town. As an example, Googling ‘internet archive York directory’ led me to the 1822 Baines Directory for the whole county of Yorkshire. Within its pages I can see that my 4x great grandfather John Wade is already at his woollen draper and tailoring business at Stonegate, York. I also found two members of my Bumby family, both blacksmiths, along with their addresses in Thirsk.

There may also be transcripts available from the family history society relevant to your area of interest.

That’s a lot of possibilities to work through!

How can directories help us as family historians?

  • First, from a local history perspective, it’s interesting to note what businesses were needed in the various towns, how these might vary from town to town according to location, and how this changed over time.
  • After 1841, they are a useful check-in for the years between the census, alongside addresses and occupations given on Births/ Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths/ Burials/ Cemetery records. Any one of these might add just a little more information that the others don’t have.
  • They can also be used to help locate people in the census if they are elusive. You might be able to search by address rather than name, or even find the correct Enumeration District and virtually ‘walk the route’ until you find your people.
  • Before 1841, they provide valuable information about trade and actual address. Usually, the abode on parish registers is the name of a village or area of town, rather than a specific address.
  • You may be able to use this new information in conjunction with contemporary maps to locate your ancestor physically within the town and its facilities.
  • If the individuals are in a town or city with Guilds and apprenticeship records, these should tie in with the trade being practised. I found that one of my 4x great uncles in York had changed his occupation. Having been apprenticed as a printer, he went on to become a bank clerk.
  • Here’s an interesting one: I recently read that many of our female ancestors were recorded in the census as doing ‘Unpaid domestic duties’ in the censuses not because it was the reality, but because census enumerators only enquired about the waged occupations of male heads of households. As an example, the 1851 census for Keswick recorded no landladies, whereas the Directory listed sixty-nine. (Steinbach, 2004, p10). Prior to the censuses, and once more using the Chatham Directory (above) as an example, I found a good number of women traders. If the business owner is a female of the finer sort her first name may not be included. So we see Mrs Bagster, the Misses Burr, Miss Omer and Mrs Russell all run Academies. However, Ann Chidwick is listed as a Boot & Shoemaker, Sarah Clark as a corn chandler, and so on. This information about the women’s businesses would be difficult, even impossible, to obtain via other means, even after the commencement of the census, but certainly before it.

I hope this has given you some new ideas for expanding your research.

Source
Susie Steinbach: Women in England 1760-1914: A Social History, 2004, Phoenix/ Orion Books, London.

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