Nineteenth Century Directories

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The aim of this article is to provide some information about a nineteenth century primary source that I believe to be one of the most useful available to family historians, and to indicate where you may be able to use it. The information is most likely to be useful to people who are fairly new to our hobby, but hopefully there may be something in these lines that may interest more experienced researchers.

Directories are population listings, which started to be published in the eighteenth century. The early publications were nearly all relevant to London . However, during the nineteenth century more and more directories were published, and by the 1890s there were very many available, providing coverage of most of England and Wales .

Local directories offer us a view of the area in which our ancestors lived, thus providing a context for our research. Usually, they include a description of the town or village in question, plus other useful information, such as local population statistics and local services that were available.

The individuals recorded in directories were listed in three possible ways:

Commercial – Listing people in trades and professions

Alphabetical – Listing people by surname

Streets – Listing tradesmen and residents street by street

The people listed were mainly men, and up to the mid-nineteenth century the majority of them were men who were in business. This means that directories of that vintage tend to include only the Commercial listings. As time went by, however, the scope of these publications widened. By the end of the nineteenth century it is probably true to say that most males were listed, and the directories tended to include all three types of listing.

If you cannot trace your ancestor on a census, try looking for him or her in a directory that was published in a similar year. Once you have found an address in the directory you can look for the address on the census with reasonable hope of success. When doing this, bear in mind that the information in the directory will have been collected before the year of publication.

As directories were typically published annually, they can be used to locate our forebears in the years between censuses, thus enabling you to ascertain addresses or occupations. In the nineteenth century it was not uncommon for a man to have more than one occupation, and quite often his entry in a directory will reveal this, whereas in my experience, a census entry is less likely to do so.

If you are interested in working on a one-name study, alphabetical listings in directories can be a useful way of finding instances of a given surname, and pinning down its location.

One other positive aspect of local directories that I must mention before ending this article is the advertisements. These may promote local businesses, or goods and services that were available nationally. They can be extremely informative about the type of goods and services that our forebears may have used in their everyday lives, and are often quite entertaining.

Having thus extolled the usefulness of this source, it is only right that I should add a couple of caveats.

Unlike a census, a directory will not list members of the household other than the head. Also unlike the census, directories were published for commercial, rather than statistical, reasons. The information they give us cannot, therefore, be expected to have similar levels of consistency to that given in a census.

Directories are usually to be found on the shelves of most large libraries, and in record offices. Shropshire Archives have a collection on their shelves, which is freely available for use. They also have a selection of Shropshire directories dating from 1822 – 1941 which are available for purchase on microfiche.

There are a number of internet websites offering information from directories, but I have no doubt that the best currently available is The Digital Library of Historical Directories , which is run by the University of Leicester at the following web address:

I really cannot praise this site too highly. It provides a superb range of directories, dating from the second half of the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century, and providing extensive coverage of England and Wales . The Shropshire content currently ranges from Pigot’s National Commercial Directory for 1829-9 , which would offer limited coverage of our county, to Kelly’s Directory of Shropshire for 1913, which offers much fuller coverage.

Having selected the directory that attracts your interest, all you need to do is enter the name you wish to search for in the appropriate box on the screen, and set the search in motion. Hey Presto! In a trice, your search has been carried out; by repeatedly clicking on an arrow you are taken directly to each point in the text where “your” name features. If you wish you can then print each relevant page. What could be simpler?

The Historical Directories website is so very easy to use, and so full of valuable material. Why not you give it a try today?

Published in Shropshire Family History Society Journal, December 2005, pp 165-167

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  • This page was last updated on Saturday July 2nd, 2011.