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Directories are published lists of peoples' addresses and occupations, which in the 18th, 19th and early-mid-20th centuries fulfilled broadly the same role as telephone directories do today. They are useful for gaining a snapshot of the communities in which ancestors lived. By searching a series of directories, they can give an idea of when our forebears lived and died. Their main genealogical use, however, is to learn where ancestors lived so as to facilitate census searches.


With the exception of a merchant's directory for London published in 1677. Directories started to appear in the 18th century. Those for London were published annually from 1734; Dublin's first appeared in the mid-18th century: Birmingham's earliest directory appeared in1763; Edinburgh's in 1773 and Glasgow's in 1783. The earliest known English county directory was for Hampshire and was published in 1784. There were some national directories, such as the Universal British Directory 1793-98, although its coverage of people was limited to the most important residents and businessmen.

Directories started to appear in much more significant numbers for town and county alike in the early 19th century. They have produced by competing firms so some counties may have several directories for one year, but equally, there may be gaps in coverage with some years not covered at all. Directories generally listed tradesmen, craftsmen, merchants, professionals, farmers, clergy, gentry and nobility, but as the19th century progressed, the number of people listed increased directories included many private residents, rich and poor alike.


Directories provided short descriptions of the parishes, towns and cities they covered, combining practical details of population and geography: soil types and the main forms of agriculture and industry; schools and hospitals, with more antiquarian information on local history. These descriptions provide marvellous detail of the world our forebears inhabited. You may even find an advertisement placed by your ancestors to promote his business.

Directories can also help explain your family history. If an ancestor became a coal miner, a directory might tell you that a mine had been opened in his home parish about the same time. If he came from a poor background yet became highly literate, you might learn from a directory that a free school had been opened in their village.

Directories stated which poor law unions and thus which workhouses covered the place concerned. As poor law unions equated to General Registration Districts, you can use directories to establish the parameters for General Registration Index Searching. They also indicate which manors covered the parish, and where the local burial grounds and non-conformist chapels were.

Furthermore, directories provided details of roads, canals and railways and the whereabouts of local markets. When trying to work out where an ancestor came from, it is helpful to know the lines of communication on which their place of residence lay. Many couples met at the local market, so if you know where one ancestor came from and want to work out the origins of their spouse, find out which the local market town was and then work out which other villages were inits catchment area.


From the mid-19th century onwards, directories tended to be divided into the following sections:

· Commercial: traders, professionals, farmers and suchlike, in an alphabetical list.

· Trades: individual alphabetical lists of the foregoing arranged under each trade or profession.

· Streets: lists of tradesmen and private residents listed house by house, street by street.

· Court: originally these were the heads of wealthier households, but this rapidly became simply an alphabetical listing of the heads of all families saves the poor.

By following your ancestors forward through a series of directories, you may be able to watch their careers developing-opening a new shop, expanding an existing one, changing occupations and finally handing over to their children. Finding out when an ancestor disappears from directories can provide a clue to when they might have died.

Directories may also introduce you to other relatives you had not encountered before. If you cannot find your ancestor listed, but there were other people with the same surname in the area, look them up in census returns as you may find your ancestor was living with them.


· Directories were commercial ventures, usually compiled in the year prior to publication but not always fully updated between editions. It is best, therefore, to think of an entry for an ancestor in an 1874 directory as an indication of what their state of play may have been in 1873.

· The information provided was so scant-name, address and/ or trade that numerous possibilities exist for confusing people with the same name, so be very careful before making the assumption that you have definitely found the right person. The descriptions may be inaccurate; for example, a man with several occupations, such as farmer and butcher, may be listed under only one. Continuity of name and trade, such as listings each year for John Smith, butcher, may mask the death of John Smith senior and the succession of John Smith Junior to the business.

· Directories did not list the majority of the poor and were never intended to be in any sense complete, so if an ancestor is not listed where you expect them to be, this is no indication that they were not there. Obviously, however, if it is feasible, it is worth seeking them elsewhere, in other years or in neighbouring towns or counties.

· When searching in London, do not forget that the city grew so big that from 1799 separate directories were published for the sub-urbs.


Telephone directories date from the 1880s and eventually took over from trade and street directories after the Second World War. They can fulfil a similar role to that of the older directories but bear in mind for research purposes that they may be out of date as soon as they are published.

Be aware, too, that telephone directories are very incomplete in their coverage; only about 70% of households have telephones and directories usually only list the main householder. They exclude all those who wish to be ex-directory (about 70% in London) or who have opted for mobile phones rather than landlines.

Because of data protection, directory enquiries were very limited in the information they will supply.

Author: Navin Kumar Jaggi

Co-Author: Gurmeet Singh Jaggi


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