England Directories and Telephone Books (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Directories[edit | edit source]

Trade and commercial directories are important sources of personal, commercial, mercantile and political information in a similar fashion to the yellow pages of today. They were produced in both towns and rural areas in Victorian and Edwardian England, and in a few places from the late 17th century. They are certainly the most accessible sources of community information and are at their best from about 1840 to 1940. After WWII directories tended to be published only for urban areas.

History of Directories[edit | edit source]

The earliest directories, which were for single cities, are listed in below. The London Directory was taken over by Kent who published a new revision each year until 1771.

Chart: Early Directories

1677 Samuel Lee City of London Merchants
1734 Brown and Kent London Directory
1763 Sketchley Birmingham
1772 Raffald Manchester
1774 Sketchley Sheffield

In the late 18th century attempts were made to issue directories covering wider areas, for example William Bailey’s Northern Directory (1781-1787) and John Wilkes The Universal British Directory (1790-1799 in 5 volumes). These were later discontinued as it was found that a detailed local directory was of more value and thus sold better.

Several publishers produced a national series of such local directories, the first being James Pigot from 1814-1853. His business was taken over by Francis Kelly who had started with a London directory in 1799 and had expanded into southern England in 1845. He now had a national series and this became the most popular directory, lasting until 1939. The series of Post Office Directories started in 1800 but from 1837 were published by Frederick Kelly and his successors. The last directories were published in 1992. The Universal British Directory covered most large towns in Britain and is not the easiest to use, but contains much information not obtainable elsewhere and is the earliest national one. Holden’s Annual Directory, from 1816, gives information for 480 towns in Britain. Even more useful for the detail and illustrations that they offer on individual businesses are the dozens of late 19th century Progress, Commerce and kindred publications noted in two articles by Titford (2002).

There were several other publishers, most of whom did not survive very long, exceptions being William White (Hey) and Hutchings and Crowsley’sBuff Books of individual London suburbs from 1861 (Harvey). Other compilers include Andrews, Axon, Banck, Barrett, Drake, Gore, Green, Harrod, Lowndes, Melville, Pike, Robson, Simpson, Slater, Stapleton, Tunnicliff, and Underhill and many others. Coverage varied from one city and its suburbs to one or more counties and bibliographies of directories have been written by Atkins, Norton, and Shaw and Tipper.

Contents Useful for Family History[edit | edit source]

Everything in them has potential! Early directories were simple alphabetical lists of tradesmen plying each trade, and details of coaches, carriers and postal services. The 19th century publications contained a much greater variety of information and formatting, for example the 1846 Post Office London Directory had Official, Commercial, Court, Parliamentary and Postal sections and a street map. Dennis R. Mills (Rural Community History from Trade Directories), provides valuable sources for understanding rural directories, and recommends the work of Gareth Shaw regarding usage of urban directories.

Chart: 1846 Post Office London Directory Commercial Section (Alphabetical)

Tomlinson, Chas bricklayer, 6 Laura Place, Kensington
Tomlinson, James, wholesale laceman, 3 Pancras Lane [City]
Tompkins, coal and potato dealer, 25 High St., Camden Town
Toms, Robert, tripeman, 146 Edgeware Road, Marylebone
Tomsey, Mary (Mrs), lodging house, 13 Arundel St., Strand
Tonks and Taylor, ladies school, Bridge Road, Battersea
Tookey, Wm, undertaker and parish clerk, 48 High St., Marylebone
Topham, William, barrister, 7 Figtree Court, Temple
Topper, Samuel, hoop bender, 27 White Street, Borough
Topping, Charles M., preparer of microscope objects, 1 York Place, Pentonville Road
Torond, Henry, pattern drawer and designer for every description of needlework, 1 Providence Row, Finsbury Square
Tottie, Charles and Son, merchants, 2 Crosby Square
Tottie, Charles, consul general for Sweden and Norway, 2 Crosby Square
Tovey, Jane (Miss), milliner and dressmaker, 81 Albany Street
Tow, John, lunatic asylum, Battersea
Towell, Henry, horse slaughterer, 1 Bowling St., Clerkenwell

Chart: Topographical (Street-by-Street) Directory for Leyton, London (Kelly’s 1894-5)

Rutland Terrace
4 JACKSON, Charles
3 NORRIS, William
PIGOTT, F.O. undertaker (Osborne House)
…here is Osborne Road
Market Place
11 GILL, Richard Silvanus, baker and confectioner
10 SIMKINS, G.J., coffee rooms
9 MATTERFACE, John, stationer and newsagent
8 HARRISON, T. H. tobacconist
7 & DICKSON and HEAD, lead and glass merchants

Chart: Rural Directory for Wilmslow Area Cheshire (Pigot’s 1834)

POST OFFICE, Wilmslow Joseph Dean, Post Master
NATIONAL SCHOOL, Wilmslow John Taylor, master
PARRY, John, Handforth
SUTHERLAND, James Rose (classical), Wilmslow
HEMSHALL, John, Wilmslow
YARWOOD, Samuel, Wilmslow
ANTROBUS, Elizabeth, Wilmslow
BLOWER, William, Wilmslow

It is best to consult several different directories as no one company lists all the types of information. There could be descriptions of:

  • History and topography of the settlement.
  • Geology, nature of the soil, chief crops.
  • Chief industries and recent economic developments.
  • Land ownership and tenures.
  • Parish and ward boundaries in relation to street numbers in cities.
  • Arrangement of parishes in pre-1860 rural directories (except Kelly’s) was by the old county subdivisions of hundreds, sokes, wapentakes, lathes and rapes. Descriptions of these divisions were included. After about 1860 there was increasing use of the alphabetical arrangement pioneered by Kelly but the index will still be needed for tiny villages and hamlets.
  • One or more large scale maps or town plans.
  • Illustrations of various kinds.
  • Market and fair days.
  • Transportation facilities, depots or staging posts, and schedules. Your ancestors will have used these in their daily lives.
  • Carriers.
  • Stage coaches, horse-drawn omnibuses, and motor buses from 1920s and 1930s.
  • Train services from 1830s.
  • Vehicles that met trains, usually provided by nearby inns.
  • Postal services and mail coaches, including other services provided by post offices in England: money orders (1850s), savings bank (1870s), telegraph (1880s), telephone (at least 1920s) and payment of old-age pensions (just before WWI).
  • Marine, river and canal vessels, routes, wharves & quays.
  • Emigration agents.
  • Newspaper offices, thus you can find out what was published at certain dates.

There could be lists of all kinds of persons and institutions which had an impact on everyday life:

  • Professionals, business, farmers, tradesmen and craftsmen under their different occupations usually give type of trade and addresses, most useful for finding people in the census, and distinguishing between two of the same name in civil registration. Successful professionals may have had a country residence as well as ‘living over the shop’ in the city. Shaw (quoted by Camp 1999) did a comparison of 1871 census and directory entries and found that 98% of Exeter’s main street households, and 75% of the smaller street ones, appeared in the directory.
  • Principal residents and officials, for example in the court guides of the fashionable districts in London (the first being Boyle’s in 1792), and the gentry and their seats in the country.
  • Some directories are arranged to show the residents street-by-street. This is most useful to compare with a contemporary large scale map to find the nature of your ancestor’s surroundings. Observation of the names of neighbours, employers, ministers and landowners can often resolve the nature of the relationship of a witness on a family document. A topographical directory can also be used as a substitute for a missing nominal census return, at least as far as the head of the family is concerned, confirming where they resided. Similarly such directories are useful before or after available census returns.
  • Administration addresses and names of officers
  • Parliament.
  • County Officials including justices of the peace.
  • Mayors and Aldermen, and later town and rural
  • district councils.
  • Manors.
  • Courts including assizes, quarter and petty
  • sessions venues and dates.
  • Police.
  • Customs and Excise.
  • Agents for land owners, giving an entrée into estate records; also head gardeners, bailiffs and gamekeepers of estates.
  • Registrars of birth, marriage and death.
  • Urban and rural sanitary authorities.
  • Institutions such as hospitals, asylums, workhouses, prisons, schools, and armed forces establishments with addresses and names of officials.
  • Business institutions such as banks and fire insurance offices with addresses and names of officials. Church and chapel addresses and officials, thus you can find out which denominational buildings existed at a given date and who the ministers were. If your relatives can’t be found in the Established Church but they lived opposite the Baptist Chapel, where might their children have gone to Sunday School and their births be noted?
  • Hotels, inns, public houses and some named beer houses.
  • Larger farms.
  • Undertakers and burial grounds.
  • Law offices.
  • Fraternal and political societies or lodges.
  • Library, scientific and agricultural societies.
  • Local employers, employment offices and other businesses.
  • Friendly and Co-operative societies.
  • Charitable institutions and benevolent societies.
  • Lists of principal foreign merchants in Europe.

Then there will be paid advertisements, often with drawings of the businesses themselves or articles for sale (below is a 1857 examples from Billing’s Directory for Devon).
Thus one can see that the value of a directory to a family historian is by no means contingent upon an ancestor’s appearing in it! (Thomson).

Chart: Billings Directory for Devon 1857

Billings Directory for Devon 1857.jpg

(From the personal collection of Dr. Penelope Christensen)

Cautions[edit | edit source]

  • Directories do not list employees such as journeymen, labourers, domestic servants and factory workers, let alone their wives! However, there were far more home-based businesses in former times, each tradesman having his own little workshop-cum-retail outlet.
  • No one directory is comprehensive.
  • The information was slightly out-date (even a year or more), by the time of publication.
  • Dual occupations were common especially in rural areas and these are not always obvious from either census or directories. Only the main one, or that in season when the enumerator visited, may have been given. Commonly a craft was combined with farming; a carpenter and joiner may have made coffins and also acted as undertaker; or a man listed as a carrier may have also sold coal and animal feed. Mills discusses this subject in detail.
  • Do not ignore the former administrative jurisdictions as these frequently determine how the documents were organized, and thus where and how they may be accessed today.

Specialised Directories[edit | edit source]

A number of 18th century directories of various kinds from the British Library and elsewhere have been digitised by Thomson Gale and were available as a demonstration online in May 2004.

A similar publication, popular from the 17th century onwards, was the annualalmanac—essentially a calendar and mini encyclopaedia. This was a mix of information on markets, fairs, roads, posts, farming advice, historical and scientific knowledge, charities, religious and political commentary, astrological predictions and sensational news (Hey). Local almanacs typically contained some directory-type information as well, particularly the listings of trades, officials and institutions. The Society of Genealogists has a good collection (Newington-Irving) and Frank Hardy has written about their contents in his article, Almanacs in the SoG Library. Genealogists’ Magazine Vol 27 #1, page 18-20. The principal almanacs with their overall date ranges, as given by Hardy, are:

  • Almanach de Gotha (1763-2004) especially for European royal lines.
  • Angliae Notitia (1674-1723).
  • Boyle’s Court Guide (1808-1885).
  • East India Register (1803-1857).
  • Gentlemans and Citizens Almanack (1740-1792).
  • Kelly’s Handbook to the Titled, Landed and Official Classes (1880-1968).
  • Magnae Notitia (1737-1755).
  • Royal Kalendar (1769-1886).
  • Treble Almanack (1793-1846).
  • Whitaker’s Almanac (from 1903).

There is also overlap with gazetteers in the treatment of places, institutions and services, (but not individuals) .

Telephone Books[edit | edit source]

Bell patented his telephone in 1876 and Edison in 1877 and the first London telephone directory was published in 1880 but this contained few private subscribers, most of whom would also appear in the court section of the Post Office directory. By the beginning of the Great War (WWI) many upper middle class not in the court section had telephones. There was a great decline in the publishing of traditional directories after WWII and phone books replaced them as an alphabetical finding aid and online indexes are now commonplace.

Additional Information
[edit | edit source]

See: Directories in England and Wales


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.