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The publication of directories, originally alphabetical lists of the names and addresses of tradesmen, was very much a consequence of the growth of permanent shopping and trading centres in the 18th century.

Towns that had an overseas trade were the first to have them: London from 1734, Dublin from 1751 and other places from the 1760s and 1770s. The first directory covering a group of towns ('a national directory') appeared in 1781, the first for a whole county, including farmers and craftsmen, in 1784, and the first to include private residents in 1792. English directories rarely include more than the name of the head of the household; other family members are not mentioned.


Types of Directories

There are various types of directories:

1. The first commercial directories were simple lists of tradesmen arranged in alphabetical order by surname and forename, showing their trades and addresses.

2. The names of the tradesmen may be subdivided into categories by trade in a classified directory.

3. In the late 1840s street directories began to arrange the names of householders, followed by their occupations, by street and house number, the streets being arranged in alphabetical order, followed by an alphabetical arrangement of the names. The street directory would show the whereabouts of public buildings and major offices and the intersections of other roads.

4. Directories or sections of directories devoted entirely to private residents may be called court directories. Apart from the gentry, any person who lived on his or her own income, members of the old professions (the law, the church and medicine) and a growing number of white collar workers, as well as many persons retired from trade, would appear in these lists. The persons named had no association with the royal court.

5. In the early days some of the best directories (as described below) were compiled by Post Office officials and the name Post Office Directory came to be applied to many later directories that had no connection with the Post Office.

6. In the Post Office London directories between 1842 and 1940 there is an Official Directory (described below). In London and other town directories there may well be a Law Directory with the names of solicitors, attorneys, barristers, judges, etc., as well as a Parliamentary Directory, Postal Directory and Banking Directory.

7. By the 1850s a town directory may be expected to contain alphabetical, classified and street lists. By this date also the county directories have alphabetical lists for villages and alphabetical and classified lists for the larger places, with street directories for the largest towns, all followed by consolidated lists of private residents and by trade.

Uses of Directories

Jane Norton, the author of the standard guide, wrote that it would be misleading to think of directories "as either precise or accurate" but they form a framework and guide that can be valuable for the genealogist. When tracing people in a town, for instance, it is important to reconstruct their life spans through as many available lists, such as directories and poll books, as possible. The appearance of a name may indicate when a person first appeared in a town; its disappearance may indicate that he or she has died and that a search for a death, burial, or will is appropriate. The person may, however, have gone bankrupt, suggesting a search of the printed lists of bankrupts, of The London Gazette, or in the original records at The National Archives, Kew.

A run of directories will show changes in the name of a business, its address and activities, perhaps indicating when it was formed, the dissolution of a partnership or a bankruptcy, any of which may suggest a search in The London Gazette. For many businesses, however, the directory entry will be its only surviving record. An advertisement in a directory may give more detail about the actual business carried on, sometimes even picturing the premises and examples of its products. The directory may have a separate index to these, usually in the prefatory material.

Directories have been used extensively in the compilation of such works as Maurice Packer's Bookbinders of Victorian London 1837-1901 (1991) (FHL book 942.1/L1 U2pm, BYU L. Tom Perry Special Collections book Z 270 .E5 P324x 1991g), Geoffrey Beard and Christopher Gilbert's Dictionary of English Furniture Makers 1660-1840 (1986) (FHL book 942 U26de, BYU HBLL book NK 2528 .D54x 1986), and Michael Pritchard's A Directory of London Photographers 1841-1908 (1994) (FHL book 942.1/L1 U2pd). Photographs that bear the name of a photographer may be dated from the lists of photographers in directories. Other items that bear tradesmen's marks or labels may be similarly dated.

Before the compilation of the national computerised indexes to census returns, directories were collected in order to help identify households in the returns. Directories may still be used to check the name of the occupant of a particular address, or to assess the completeness or otherwise of the census entries in a named street.

The descriptions of places in directories, as mentioned below, are usually much more detailed than those in any gazetteer. The directories of the larger towns and most later county directories usually contained folding maps of the areas covered.

London Directories

Samuel Lee compiled the first London directory in 1677. He collected the names and addresses of nearly 2,000 merchants and goldsmiths involved in the wholesale trade. These were men who bought and sold in large quantities, and his alphabetical Collection of the Names of the Merchants Living In and About the City of London (FHL film 950403.1, also available as an online resource in BYU's Harold B. Lee Library.) was intended primarily for these men and their foreign agents. The idea was not tried again until 1734.

In 1734 Brown and Kent's Directory of the Cities of London and Westminster and the Borough of Southwark (available as an online resource in BYU's Harold B. Lee Library) appeared, the first of an annual series by different publishers. In 1763 Mortimer's Universal Directory began to include retail shops, being addressed more to the visitor than to the tradesman. The alphabetical and consolidated list of traders known as the Commercial Directory remained, but now separate lists by individual trade, the Trade Directory, was introduced. Holden in 1799 introduced lists of the better class of private residents, later to be called the Court Directory, and Robson in 1823 first regularly listed tradesmen by street. Employees were conspicuous by their absence.

The involvement of Post Office officials from 1800 onwards led to more accurate directories. The copyrights of one official, Critchett, were obtained by another, Frederic Kelly, in 1836, and his Post Office Directory of London (the BYU Harold B Lee Library has online access to a number of his directories as well as the 1923 edition on Microform CS 43 .G46x LH18781), printed by his brother W. Kelly that year, began a lasting series. Stopped from using the services of Post Office officials in 1847, his firm tried unsuccessfully to establish an exclusive right to the title Post Office Directory, but he still called all his volumes Post Office Directories and put the Royal Arms on their red covers.

Kelly's coverage in the London suburbs was not good. Pigot's 1838 and Watkins's 1852-4 directories were better, but they were forced out of business by Kelly. Coverage improved when the two-part Kelly's Post Office London Suburban Directories for the northern and southern suburbs began to appear in 1860 (The 1923 edition is available in BYU's Harold B Lee Library on microform CS 43 .G46x LH18781'.'). At the same time the wonderfully detailed Buff Books for the various London districts started to appear, greatly expanding their coverage in the 1890s. Coverage of private residents in provincial directories was probably always better than in London itself.

Lists of privatest Office London Suburban Directories addresses first appear in the Universal British Directory (available online at BYU's Harold B Lee Library) for London in 1790, but are rarely found in provincial directories before the middle of the next century. The first London directory to consist entirely of private residents, Boyle's Court Guide, came out in 1792. It survived until 1925 and with other similar guides provided extensive lists of residents by street, fuller than those in the Post Office Directory.

Official Directory

In London the inclusion, at the beginning of the Post Office Directories from 1842 to 1940, of an "Official Directory", provides a valuable list that is often overlooked. The majority of the names found here do not appear in the lists of private residents and although no addresses are given the list is usually followed by details of the personnel in each department and office separately and these show the exact position held. It contained "Persons holding situations under the Crown, in the East India House, the Bank of England, the various Law, City, and all other public officers". A wide range of public servant appears, from the housekeeper and porter in the Cheque Department at the Reduction of National Debt Office, the Under Cooks at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, and the Will Sorters in the Legacy Duty Department, to the Third Class Clerks in the Stationery Office.

Provincial Directories

In provincial towns the production of the first directories in the 1760s was also connected with the growth of offices providing commercial information and acting as employment agencies. In 1752 Thomas Juxon of Birmingham, who ran such a place, had many names on his books of those who wished to borrow or lend money, buy land or houses, or employ apprentices or domestic servants, and he compiled a catalogue of the "principal inhabitants of the town, their trades, and where they live, which may be serviceable to strangers". It does not survive, but James Sketchley, who also kept a registry office, published the first directory there in 1763. No copy survives until its third edition in 1767.

Liverpool has a series of directories from 1766, Manchester from 1772, Sheffield from 1774, and Bristol from 1775. That for Manchester was compiled by Elizabeth Raffald who kept a registry office and confectioner's shop. As the owner of two inns she had contacts with commercial travellers and foreign buyers and they may have inspired the compilation of her directory "for the easy finding out of every inhabitant of the least consequence".

The 1774 Sheffield directory, also produced by James Sketchley, contains a classified list of manufacturers, an alphabetical list of merchants, manufacturers and others, the times and cost of post to and from the town, lists of coaches with the inns at which they called and the places to which they conveyed goods, and a list of the London merchants who traded in the area. This is a very typical of the better directories published at this time.

Watering places and holiday towns produced lists of doctors and lodging houses that developed into directories, usually of the better class tradesmen, later adding lists by street of the private residents in houses let for the season. Bath had a directory from 1792 and Brighton from 1799.

In Newcastle-under-Lyme a police officer, Isaac Cottrill, persuaded the authorities to number every house and in 1836 and 1839 published exceptionally full directories of the town based on his own lists of inhabitants and containing many labourers.

The first directory to cover a whole county, Hampshire in 1784, survives in one copy at Winchester Public Library. The next, Bedfordshire in 1785, was reprinted in 1885.

National Directories

William Bailey was the first person to attempt even wider coverage and in 1781 he produced his Northern Directory that included London and "every principal Town from the River Trent to Berwick-upon-Tweed". He did a similar Western & Midland Directory in 1783 and a year later, in spite of financial problems, a four-volume British Directory, in which he claimed to have personally visited every house mentioned.

Between 1790 and 1798 John Wilkes, formerly proprietor of the Hampshire Chronicle, produced in parts at irregular intervals the Universal British Directory covering many smaller town throughout England and Wales. The parts were often lifted from other people's directories and some were again reprinted at later dates, so his lists must be used with care.

The first illustrated directory was published by James Bisset at Birmingham, with entries for thirty towns, in 1800, under the title Grand National Directory of Literary & Commercial Iconography. He charged ten shillings and six pence for entries, but later they were free. Finely engraved advertisements became a feature of some later Birmingham directories.

After an interval of some years William Holden, a coal merchant in Clerkenwell, who had started to publish directories of London under the title Triennial Directory in 1799, produced in 1805 a volume containing alphabetical directories for 84 towns. This went through several expanded and relatively expensive editions until 1811. His ambition was to produce a classified directory but most subscribers wanted an alphabetical list.

The towns throughout the British Isles covered by these early national directories are listed in The British National Directories 1781-1819 by Ian Maxted (Exeter, 1989) [not in FHL].

It was James Pigot, the printer of a long series of Manchester directories, who took up the production of national directories in 1814, stimulated by the prospect of revived foreign trade, producing a growing series that extended into Ireland and Scotland in 1820, and to London and the south-east in 1822-23. He published directories for groups of counties, including villages as well as towns, arranging the names by trade, making fresh surveys through agents every six or seven years, but re-issuing many in the intervals with only an addenda or a changed date. After 1840, in the face of ruthless competition from Kelly's directories Pigot slowly retreated to the north, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. He died in 1843 but had been in partnership with Isaac Salter since 1839. Their company continued until 1892 when it was taken over by Kelly's Directories Ltd.

William Robson, who had printed London directories nearly annually from 1819 to 1842, in 1838 and for four years published a series of county directories, the preparation of which is called "hasty and slipshod" by Jane Norton.

The appearance of Frederic Kelly's London directory in 1836 had heralded the production of more accurate directories. As chief inspector of the inland letter-carriers he knew that the development of the postal services required more accurate lists to ensure the correct delivery of letters. In the 1840s the establishment of the penny post, the telegraph and railways, and the numbering of houses in streets, all had their effect.

Kelly began to produce provincial directories in 1845, starting with one for the six home counties. This had useful consolidated lists of the court and trade entries for the whole of the area around London, a feature repeated for the same counties in 1851 and in 1855. By the late 1850s he had covered all the English counties (with Monmouthshire in 1871). His directories usually contain alphabetical court and commercial lists for each parish or town, followed by court and classified trade directories for the whole of the area covered.

Another firm taken over by Kelly at the end of the 19th century was that founded by William White. White had himself taken over several directories that were appearing in the north in the 1820s, including that published by the historian Edward Baines for Leeds. He then extended his activities to other counties, attaching great importance to historical and scientific information. He inconveniently arranged the parish entries according to their Hundred, but his green-bound directories were very popular. In 1854 his Norfolk directory for 1845 was pirated by a rival, Francis White, whose work is generally far less competent.

In the late 19th century specialist directories began to appear. Those that survived a number of years, such as Kelly's Directory of Chemists and Druggists, 1869-1916, and Simpkin Kent's The Soap Makers Directory of Great Britain, 1888-1955, are listed in Occupational Sources for Genealogists by Stuart Raymond (Federation of Family History Societies, 2nd ed. 1996) [FHL book 942 U23rs].

How Directories were Compiled

The names in many early directories were obtained by personal visits or through local agents paid for the task. Those involved were often local printers and booksellers, registry office keepers, tax and post office officials, policemen, or accountants and agents for insurance companies. Land and house agents and auctioneers would be aware of local changes of address and business. Thomas Pearce, who produced directories in Walsall, had also enumerated two censuses there.

The use of circulars and advertisements was found ineffective and although rate books might appear to be a good source they omit permanent lodgers and those who do not pay the poor rate. Fees for insertion, other than for advertisements, seem rarely to have been charged.

Many people moved at the quarter-days in June and December and, as there was a delay of two or three months between the collection of names and the publication of a directory, most were planned to come out in March or September. Accordingly Bailey made his surveys after Christmas. The 1795 directory of Newcastle-upon-Tyne took only two months to prepare and the names for Kelly's 1840 London directory were collected in September for printing in late November. Longer delays, however, could occur.

Severe weather conditions, as at Huddersfield in 1867, might adversely affect the collection of names and there would always be those who avoided a listing, fearful that names were being taken for the militia, or simply because they wanted to be ex-directory. There would be problems too, of course, with local pronunciations when names were given by servants and with defining those with multiple occupations.

Many early directory compilers were dishonest, and there are disconcerting differences between any two directories for the same place and date. Shameless copying was always a problem. As late as 1863 Casey's Directory of Hertfordshire was copied wholesale from Kelly's 1862 directory of that county. A directory that is regularly printed in its own locality is likely to be more reliable than any other.

The proportion of households that appear in directories has attracted adverse comment. Gareth Shaw compared directories with the census and found that 98 per cent of the households in the main streets of Exeter appear in the 1871 directory of Exeter, and 75 per cent of those in the smaller streets. White's directory of Exeter in 1890 includes some 65 per cent of the households. Even Baines's 1823 Lancashire directory has 70 per cent of the households in very large towns, but only six per cent of those in small villages.

The number of surviving directories for many places is surprising and as many as possible should be sought out in local and national libraries. The town of Dudley, perhaps the most unhealthy place in the country, with one mile of drains to 36 miles of streets, has 38 directories between 1770 and 1852, an average of one every three years.

Place Descriptions

Directories are important not only for their lists of names but for their descriptions of places, often more detailed than those in standard gazetteers. Apart from the physical topography this section usually gives the Hundred, poor law union, deanery, diocese, etc., in which any parish is situated, its area and population, the ownership of the manor and the main land use, details of the history and size of the Anglican church, its main monuments and registers, incumbent, his patron and the value of the living, details of any nonconformist chapels, of public institutions, the type and size of the schools, the cemetery, library, charities, the main seats, hamlets in the parish, the post office, police station, parish clerk, insurance agent, tax collector, carriers, etc. All this information was intended to assist the visitor and may suggest further lines of enquiry to the genealogist.

Collections of Directories

The Family History Library has many directories. They are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under one of the following:

A free digital library of local and trade directories for England and Wales, 1750-1919, has been placed online by the University of Leicester. The library seeks to provide at least one directory for each decade in the 1850s, 1890s and 1910s, but there are samples from years throughout the above period, with in depth coverage for Leicestershire and substantial coverage for London and Wales. Any maps in these directories have not been digitised. Visit

Large collections of directories are also to be found at the Guildhall Library, London, and the Society of Genealogists. A catalogue of the latter has been printed as Directories and Poll Books in the Library of the Society of Genealogists (6th ed. 1995) [FHL book 942.1/L1 D23so]. There is a fine series of London directories on microfilm at the London Metropolitan Archives.

To locate a volunteer who will search some directories for you free of charge, visit the England Lookup Exchange and click on the county you need.

Free online historical directories for England 

Current Directories

Collective directories, covering churches, libraries, museums, newspapers, societies, and a wide variety of other organisations and activities, are also published. See Current British Directories (Beckenham, Kent, 14th ed. 2003) [FHL has 10th ed. (1985) book 942 E43c]. Many are listed in the section 'Useful Publications' in the invaluable British Archives: a guide to archive resources in the United Kingdom, by Janet Foster and Julia Sheppard (4th ed. 2002) [FHL has 3rd ed. (1995) book 942 J54]. A portal for current directories worldwide is found at

A national version of the 2008 Telephone Directory containing some 15 million names and addresses from residential and business telephone directories may be found online at [see the article "Electoral Roll or Registers in England"].


Jane Elizabeth Norton, Guide to the National and Provincial Directories of England and Wales, excluding London, published before 1856 (Royal Historical Society, 1950) [FHL book 942 C4rg].
Gareth Shaw and Alison Tipper,British Directories: a bibliography and guide to directories published in England and Wales (1850-1950) and Scotland (1773-1950) (Leicester University Press, 1989) [FHL book 942 E43s].
Ian Maxted, The British National Directories 1781-1819 (Exeter, 1989) [not in FHL].
P.J. Atkins, The Directories of London 1677-1977 (New York, 1990) [FHL book 942.1/L1 E43a].

[Adapted from Anthony Camp's article 'The history and value of genealogical records: all about directories' in Practical Family History (UK), no. 60 (December 2002) pages 23-25].


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