Toolkit: Directories

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Trade Directories are an early form of Yellow Pages, providing names of tradespeople, and also giving a brief summary of each town and village. They were published from the late 18th to mid 20th centuries.

Guide to resources inside and outside your collection

Trade and street directories are well-used sources of information by family and local historians. They can be used to find out where someone lived and what they did for a living. Their strong commercial focus means that they are an important source for the economic and business history of towns or regions. Their topographical information provide important clues on the built environment and geography of the past.

The first directories were published in the late 18th century. As Britain’s economy and urban areas grew in the 19th century, so did the publication of directories. They remained an important genre of reference information into the mid- 20th century. The best-known trade directory is Kelly’s, a London publisher who issued county directories from the late 1830s. They also published the Post Office Directories. Pigot and Slater, based in Manchester, were Kelly’s main national rivals until they were taken over in 1853.

Some publishers produced directories for particular professions or industries e.g. Jones’s Mercantile Directory of the Iron District of South Staffordshire and East Worcestershire … [1865]. The focus on commercial information means that many directories carried advertising (usually in a section towards the back), and they are a great source for images and illustrations.

There were also many regional publishers and some towns had their own directories. These provide even greater detail on local people and institutions. For instance, some will list the head of household at each address in the town.

The need for timely commercial information meant that directories were regularly updated. If you have a run of directories in your collection, then you can document changing information over many decades.

Trade Directories are usually arranged by town/village, with a section arranged by trade and one by tradesperson in alphabetical order sometimes included. There are normally useful classified indexes at the back of each volume too.

The town/village summary will list all the different administrative areas the location is part of (helpful for guiding where to look for other sources), brief history/summary of church and manor, key crops and industries, soil, population and key landowners. Public institutions are listed with the contact name. Private residents are listed, although just the wealthy ones, and then tradespeople.

(above, extract from Kelly’s Directory of Buckinghamshire, 1887)

Town directories will provide the same information, but with more detail. However, as the name suggests, they only cover some towns rather than a more thorough survey provided by the County directories. Some have a street directory with the head of household listed. They will go in house order, indicating side streets, so can be helpful for pinpointing a property if you think numbering has changed. The detail of the building and street information has made directories an invaluable source for investigating how pub names have changed over time!

(Section from the Kelly’s Directory to Slough, 1932 edition)

Telephone directories, including Yellow Pages, are also available. They get bigger as more people get telephones.

Online collections

Some trade directories can be found on Ancestry and Find My Past. Ancestry also took part in a project to digitise British Phone Books from 1880-1984, however the indexing is very poor. Often it is worth searching for a common name and then scrolling through pages until you reach the appropriate page.

Back in 2002, the University of Leicester digitised over 600 English and Welsh directories in a searchable format. There is at least one directory for every English and Welsh county for the 1850s, 1890s and 1910s. The current version can be accessed:

The background pages and online bibliography are good starting points for general contextual information. The collection has been added to Ancestry and family historians may find this version easier to search. For further guidance on using the website, watch the video below:

The National Library of Scotland has digitised over 700 directories dating from 1773 to 1911. Again the background pages are a very useful starting point. The collection is available here:

Preservation and storage

Trade directories are books, so preservation and storage should be the same as other books. Some have maps folded in the back or other extras which may need extra care or storing separately. They can be very thick so that can cause problem with the spine.

Directories can be valuable, collectable and irreplaceable so may need extra security. Early examples from the 18th and early 19th centuries should not be on open shelves.

Physical arrangement and cataloguing

Trade Directories can be stored on the bookshelves of Local Studies collections, although as mentioned they can be valuable, so some choose to have them in locked cabinets or on demand.

Most directories can be added to library catalogues along with other books.

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