London City Directories: Learn more about your ancestors’ neighbours, trades and business

Posted by Kristen Hyde on August 1, 2018 in Research, United Kingdom, Website
© UK, Historical Photographs and Prints, 1704-1989

What are the London City Directories and what value can they bring to your family history research? London Metropolitan Archive’s Public Services team explain the valuable detail to this collection, and how the London City Directories can be helpful for your exploring your ancestral connections to the London area. 

What are London City Directories and how do I find them on Ancestry?

The directories which have been digitised by Ancestry as ‘London, England, City Directories, 1736-1943‘ come from the large collections of London Metropolitan Archives and Guildhall Library. They include Post Office, trade, street, commercial and court directories (the differences are explained in the footer of the collection). Generally, the street and Post Office directories are most useful if you already know the street where your ancestor lived; trade directories can be very useful if you know the trade/profession and the rough area.

To locate ‘London, England, City Directories, 1736-1943‘ on the Ancestry website you will need to select ‘Search’ in the top menu bar then ‘Card Catalogue’ in the drop down menu. In the box titled, ‘Keyword(s)’ you will need to add the search term ‘London Metropolitan Archives’ and then select from the list of records held at the LMA, the category for ‘London, England, City Directories, 1736-1943’

Directories for years beginning in 0 and 5 have been indexed and can therefore be searched by name. Other years have not been indexed and so must be browsed. On the right hand side under ‘Browse this collection’, pick a type of directory and then select a ‘year’.

Geographical coverage

The Post Office London Directory, published by Frederick Kelly and therefore known as “Kelly’s directories” was the main directory for the London area from the mid 19th century but other directories were more important in the late 18th and early 19th century. From 1801 the area covered by the Post Office London Directory went out as far as Kensington-Hackney-Poplar-North Greenwich-North Lambeth. For areas further out from Central London, options include the Suburban and Home Counties Directories as well as the Kelly’s Local Directories, which certainly by 1901 cover most of what became the Greater London area but with a particular focus on the suburban areas of Middlesex and Surrey.

Extra tips

If you are browsing through a directory, there is a good deal of local information at the start of some directories which will give you useful details such as local churches (whose records may well also be held at London Metropolitan Archives).

If you are looking for an ancestor who had a business, do take time to look at the index of advertisers (which is often near the front) in case they advertised. As records of smaller businesses rarely survive, these adverts may help you understand the business they ran – what goods or services did they offer, what sort of clientele were they hoping to attract. They can be attractively set out, humorous or workmanlike. Occasionally there will be a sketch of the premises in the advert.

Possible pitfalls

Directories are not an official source of information. They were produced commercially by independent publishers and therefore have different formats and coverage. The information was often a few months out of date by the time the directory was published so you might find an ancestor still listed the year after he died, for example. There are gaps in coverage if properties were vacant or if the occupier refused to give their information. Do bear in mind that the name listed is the head of household, usually male, and there is no indication of how many other people lived at the property.

Bearing all this in mind, though, the Directories can connect you with the streets where your ancestors lived, their neighbours, their trades and businesses and help you trace them from year to year.

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