Posted by Laura Gibson on May 20, 2020 in Uncategorized

To mark Local and Community History Month, which is celebrated throughout May, we have collaborated with regional archivists to understand the value of trade directories and explore how they could be used to support your family history research.


What are trade directories and how can they help you with your family history research?

Trade Directories are a valuable research tool which can help you understand more about the environment your ancestors’ lived in. Just like a web-based search engine or the yellow pages, a trade directory provided people with the contact information of businesses, tradesman and principal residents within the area.


Directories, which are available for both counties and cities, were originally created as an alphabetical list of companies including their location. They show the main house or property holder, whether they own, rent or occupy as part of their job.


In order to be included in a trade directory, companies and individuals would be charged a fee, therefore not all tradespeople are listed from each location. Often, we find a variety of private residents who were living in a hall, manor house or other notable building in the village. As well as a detailed list of tradesmen too, it wasn’t just the wealthy that made it in. If your ancestor was a farmer, bootmaker, miller or shopkeeper (among many other trades) they could all be found in the trade directory.


They are also a great tool which can fill in the gaps between the census years and in earlier years when censuses are non-existent. Melanie Strong at the Guildhall Library shares pointers on how you could use these records in your own research; “In the late 19th Century many people are listed by name at private addresses, even without a profession, including many people who would not have been eligible to vote – this might be particularly useful for locating single or widowed women. Trade directories can, therefore, be used in this way as an alternative to the electoral registers for finding addresses for your ancestors between censuses.”


Additionally, these records are an excellent source for gathering details to help you place your ancestors in historical context. Smith also explains how valuable these records can be in understanding the social landscape of the time: “They are a great source for learning the socio-economic nature of where the family lived. The type of businesses around an address gives a great indication of the class of the neighbourhood, as well as little details that might provide clues to where your ancestors shopped and even some of the names of the people they knew. For example, in the 1862 directory, Mount Terrace in Lambeth includes the Beer retailer, tobacconist, coffee rooms and a baker. In contrast, at the more affluent Montague Place in Islington there are surgeons and solicitors listed.”


Credit: Reproduced courtesy of The Museum of Croydon.
Credit: Reproduced courtesy of The Norfolk Record Office.


Navigating a directory

The directories had three main sections to search, alphabetical by name of Street, alphabetical by name of company, and alphabetical by type of company or trade. Due to the wealth of information available, this record can often be tricky to navigate. Victoria Draper, Education and Outreach officer at the Norfolk Archive Centre shares her advice on how best to browse a directory; “It is always best to look for an index, which may be at the front. Some directories cover more than one county. For example, the Post Office Directory of Cambridge, Norfolk and Suffolk covers all three counties in one volume, each one separated out. When using a directory look for the name of the parish and then you can find the list of principal and commercial residents. “


Directories, which were often named after the publisher, such as Kelly or Ward sometimes initially included maps or street directories. These would list the residents down each side of the street, split up by the names of the roads which dissect the street at any given point. Using a map, therefore, will allow you to start tracing which house your ancestors were living in.


Are there any limitations of Trade Directories?

Lindsay Ould, Borough Archivist and Mandy Smith, Collections Access Officer at the Museum of Croydon highlight whilst these records are great resource when researching your family history, they do come with some limitations to consider:

  • They won’t show if a resident is married or where several families are sharing a dwelling.
  • The information was collected by individuals knocking on doors so names can sometimes be misspelt
  • It took time to compile the lists so they may be up to a year out of date and you need to look at other sources such as Electoral Rolls to get a clearer picture
  • Directories will also only give you the name of the head of the household. No other details about the family are provided


Additional Resources

You can browse the trade directories available on Ancestry here. However, there are many other useful resources to be explored. For example, street directories which were published for towns and cities across the UK. Therefore, it is worth contacting your local archive or record office to see if they hold a collection for your research.

The Guildhall Library has the largest collection of UK trade directories across the British Isles and well worth a look.

The Museum of Croydon has a large collection of street directories, some dating back to 1851. Some of the earliest directories are published by a range of companies including Jesse Ward, founder of the local newspaper, the Croydon Advertiser. They were published each year until 1939 and ceased during WWII. After the war, some directories were published but as populations grew, it was more difficult to make them comprehensive and phone books directly competed with trade directories.

Norfolk trade directories are included in the Norfolk Sources website. Whilst directories for other counties are available on the University of Leicester’s Special Collections Online section.