What are historical trade directories used for in family history?

Historical trade directories are useful for finding out where your ancestors lived and worked, especially for the years between censuses or if you can't find them in census records. If your ancestor owned even a small business or shop, there's a good chance that they're listed in the historical trade directories for their town. Fortunately, there are plenty of collections of trade directories now available on family history websites. Earlier directories also listed notable people and professionals. As time went on, more and more ordinary people were listed and many directories are now online making them a great resource for family historians.


When were trade directories invented?

Historical trade directories were originally compiled to assist businessmen and merchants. The earliest known trade directory 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, historical trade 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, similar to historical trade directories, 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, historical trade directories grew more sophisticated and covered whole counties.

For example, the historical trade directory 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 historical trade 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 historical trade 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.

What are Kelly's trade directories?

One of the most famous historical trade directories, 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. He sent canvassers to visit each street and ensure that names and addresses were up to date.

Kelly used postmen to update the directory's listings, and made it so profitable that he bought it from the Post Office.

Kelly began publishing county titles in the 1840s, and a Manufacturers and Merchants Directory from the late 1880s.

Kelly's trade directories in various formats remained in print well into the 20th century.

When were phone directories invented?

The first phone directories appeared in late Victorian times, but few early volumes survive.

Fewer trade 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.

Where to find historical trade directories

The British Library, the National Library of Scotland, reference libraries and county archives all have collections of historical trade and telephone directories. However, not every volume has survived for a particular directory.

The following websites are all good sources for historical trade directories:

1. National Library of Scotland

The NLS website has more than 700 digitised Post Office trade directories covering Scotland from 1773 to 1911. Search by place, year and surname, or view page by page.

2. Historical Directories of England & Wales

The University of Leicester's digitised Historical Directories of England & Wales (c1760-c1910) collection of historical trade directories is free to search and boasts 689 directories with at least one for every English and Welsh county for the 1850s, 1890s and 1910s.

3. Ancestry

Ancestry subscribers can find many of the same historical trade directories as the University of Leicester collection in a more easily searchable format. The website also has digitised phone books from the BT Archives dating from 1880 to 1984. The site also has a large collection of London directories due to its partnership with the London Metropolitan Archives. Their London directories range from 1736-1943 and boast almost 20 million records. The site has various other collections of directories, including many for the West Midlands. Most of its directories can be searched via its collection UK, City and County Directories, 1766-1946.

4. Findmypast

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, Irish and Ulster trade directories. Finally, it has a collection of over 800 almanacs and directories covering most of the UK.

5. BT Archives

BT holds the national collection of historical phone directories at Holborn Telephone Exchange. Subscription website Ancestry also hosts telephone directories.

6. Guildhall Library

The Guildhall Library, London, has one of the largest collections of historical trade directories in the UK, while the libraries of the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies and the Society of Genealogists hold some London and county directories. Although these have not been digitised, the website gives some background to directories, the collection and how they can be used.

7. TheGenealogist

TheGenealogist also has a large collection of searchable, indexed images of historical trade directories covering most of the UK. The site has many directories not available digitally elsewhere, although, like Findmypast and Ancestry, you will need a subscription to the website to access them.

8. Northern Ireland Street Directories

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland website has searchable images of historical trade directories (1819–1900).

9. Midlands Historical Data

This website has 609 historical trade directories from Shropshire, Warwickshire, Birmingham, Staffordshire and Worcestershire.


Sue Wilkes is the author of Tracing Your Lancashire Ancestors and Tracing Your Manchester & Salford Ancestors