From tracing people on the move, to uncovering details of your ancestors at work, trade directories are a vital tool in any genealogist’s research kit.
Directories of traders were originally compiled to assist businessmen and merchants. The earliest known is probably a list of London merchants published by Samuel Lee in 1677 and available for free from the Internet Archive.
During the late 18th century, town directories like Gore’s Liverpool Directory (1766) and Elizabeth Raffald’s Directory of Manchester and Salford (1772) contained alphabetical lists of principal citizens and traders.
Around this time, local guidebooks for travellers were also published for spa towns such as Bath. These guides included local history and topographical information, medical practitioners, lodging-house proprietors and so on. Local nobility, gentry, clergymen, charities, hospitals and schools were often listed too.
Court directories (for the poshest inhabitants!) were published c1790 onwards, and basic street directories were printed from the 1820s.
As the Industrial Revolution accelerated, directories grew more sophisticated and covered whole counties.
For example, Stephen Glover’s History and Directory of the Borough of Derby (1843) still listed businessmen, but now had a classified trades section. Bankers, excise-men, grocers, shops, mill owners etc are listed with their addresses under the appropriate heading. Maps and advertisements were included too.
Specialist directories limited to one trade were also published for brewers, builders and so on. Publishers updated their directories every few years.
The most useful directories for family historians are those by Pigot and William White (both 1820s onwards), and Slater’s (1840s onwards).
Pigot & Co. produced a Scottish directory in 1828. Early directories omitted smaller shopkeepers and ordinary residents because you had to pay a fee to be listed, but by late Victorian times most householders were included in directories.
One of the most famous publications, the Post Office London Directory, was taken over in 1836 by Frederic Festus Kelly, government inspector-general of letter-carriers.
Kelly used postmen to update the directory’s listings, and made it so profitable that he bought it from the Post Office.
Kelly now paid canvassers to visit each street and ensure that names and addresses were up to date.
He began publishing county titles in the 1840s, and a Manufacturers and Merchants Directory from the late 1880s.
Kelly’s directories in various formats remained in print well into the 20th century.
The first telephone directories appeared in late Victorian times, but few early volumes survive.
Fewer directories were printed during the Second World War because of concerns that they could help the enemy.
After the war, telephone directories gradually superseded trade directories, but at least until the 1950s telephones were a luxury so only businesses and better-off residents are listed.
The British Library, the National Library of Scotland, reference libraries and county archives all have collections of trade and telephone directories. However, not every volume has survived for a particular directory.
Top websites for finding trade directories online
The National Library of Scotland has a collection of Scottish Post Office directories
The NLS website has more than 700 digitised Post Office directories covering Scotland from 1773 to 1911. Search by place, year and surname, or view page by page.
The University of Leicester’s digitised Historical Directories of England & Wales (c1760-c1910) collection is free to search, although cumbersome to use.
Ancestry subscribers can find many of the same directories as the University of Leicester collection in a more easily searchable format. It has also digitised phone books from the BT Archives dating from 1880 to 1984.
Findmypast has digitised the Society of Genealogists’ collection of Robinson, Son & Pike trade directories, dating back to the 1890s. It also has collections of Scottish Post Office directories and Irish directories.
5. BT Archives
BT holds the national collection of telephone directories at Holborn Telephone Exchange.
6. Guildhall Library
The Guildhall Library, London, has an important collection of historical directories, while the libraries of the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies and the Society of Genealogists hold some London and county directories.
TheGenealogist also has searchable, indexed images of trade directories.
The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland website has searchable images of street directories (1819–1900).