Old Books as Family History Sources

County Directories

Directories by County

The known directories of each county, including the local town directories.


Further references to available directories:

England and Wales, excluding London, to 1855: 'Guide to the National and Provincial Directories of England and Wales excluding London, published before 1856' by Jane E Norton. Published by the Royal Historical Society in 1950 (Out of print, but second hand copies may sometimes be available from book dealers).

England and Wales 1850-1950 and Scotland 1773-1950: 'British Directories published in England and Wales (1850-1950) and Scotland (1773-1950)', by Gareth Shaw and Allison Tipper. Second edition published in 1997. ISBN 0 7201 2329 1

London to 1855: 'The London Directories '1677-1855' by Charles W F Goss, published in 1932. (Out of print, but second hand copies may sometimes be available from book dealers).

London 1677-1977: 'The Directories of London, 1677-1977' by Peter J Atkins, published in 1990. ISBN 0 7201 2063 2

Below are links to actual examples, scanned at high resolution to make them easily readable. Unfortunately, some of these are quite large files, and therefore take a little while to display on the internet - but they are worth it!

What's in a directory?

  • A geographical description of a county
    Including its geology, soils, agriculture, industries, transport, etc.
  • The history of the county
  • Descriptions of the individual towns and villages
    Including the amenities such as schools, churches, hospitals, work houses, etc.
  • Lists of the inhabitants that have trades, and in most of the later directories even street by street, house by house lists of all householders.

How old are directories?

There were some directories published in the late 1700s, but the first major county directories were published from around 1820 onwards.

The 1791 Universal British Directory

Did people have to pay to be included in a directory?

No. It is a commonly held myth that they had to pay. The publishers made their money by selling directories.

Is my ancestor going to be found in a directory?

Not necessarily. The early directories included people with trades. This doesn't mean just businesses and shops, but anyone with a recognised trade, such as a chimney sweep, a teacher, or a dress maker working from home. Apprentices  and labourers were not included, although in the later post 1900 directories, that had street listings of people in major towns, such people were included. (Ironically, the 1791 Universal British Directory does include some labourers). In any case, only the head of household was listed in a directory, not wives or children, and not lodgers.

A late Kelly's Directory of 1938

Above: A renovated Pigot's directory of 1844. These books are incredibly rare as complete volumes, as they have usually been split down into separate county sections by book dealers.

What else can I get out of a directory?

Directories are a great start to going beyond a simple collection of names and dates in your family history. Don't just look for the names of your own family in the directories, but start looking at the background information on the places in which they lived. Get a feel for the town or village, its history, and what it was like during the period.

How did your family travel to the nearest town? The details are here. If they wanted to send a parcel or goods by carrier, or post a letter, then you will find out all there is to know. What local schools were there, and who was the school teacher that taught your ancestors' children? Find out about the neighbours, the shop keepers and tradesmen, and other related people in the village.

A directory enables you to build up a detailed picture of real life at the time. This is what family history is all about. You can literally reconstruct their lives, with details of things happening around them in the place where they lived.

Directories are really gazetteers and trade directories. They contain an immense amount of information about towns and villages, their facilities in the year of the directory, their history, and lists of all people in each who have trades.

Not just businesses and shops - common ordinary people such as gardeners, blacksmiths, seamstresses, dress makers, chimney sweeps, etc.

Directories began in the late 1700s, were common in the 1800s, and continuing into the 1900s.

Some additional notes:

  • Maps were originally included in most directories, however, few of the original books still contain these maps. They have been removed for sale to map collectors.
  • Directories can be purchased, but they are simply not the sort of thing that you can go out shopping for. They are very rare. An old Kelly's county directory from 1845 to 1920 will cost between £100 and £150, and for London, Yorkshire or Lancashire considerably more, up to around £300 to £400. A White's directory will set you back anything from £130 to £250 depending on condition. Pigot's Directories were originally published in volumes containing a group of counties, but book dealers usually split them down into individual county parts and sell them for about £50. To find a complete original volume is virtually impossible, and on the rare occasions that they come on the market, they can fetch between £500 for one in the poorest condition, up to £950 for one in good condition. Thankfully, a great number of them are now available in facsimile on CD.
  • The directories were compiled by surveyors knocking on doors to gather information. In the early directories, people were eligible to be included if they had a trade (dress maker, chimney sweep, butcher, shop keeper, etc. Gentry and clergy were also included in the early directories. (Farmers were not included in most of the Pigot's directories).
  • Later directories were in three sections:
    • County listing of places (with descriptions, facilities and history) and people with trades in each place.
    • Court Directory. (private residents, but not all)
    • Classified Trade Directory
  • The "Court Directory" section became the place where ordinary private residents were listed. Later, the section was renamed "Private Residents".
  • London directories were the first to have house by house, street by street listings of householders.  (Even those without recognised trades). This feature was gradually introduced in most other counties, but only for the main towns. Some counties, e.g. Essex, never had street directories.
  • People living in apartments would not be included in a directory, only the householder.
  • Directories had two purposes
    • For people to find those with trades, just like the yellow pages of today.
    • For travelling salesmen as a reference source for sales leads.

old books

Above: Part of a Pigot's directory.
A scanned image from an original book of 1830.

A restored 1832 William White's Directory of Nottinghamshire - full leather.

Above: A delightful London directory - The 1833 Royal Blue Book. An excellent street directory of central London.Note how the listing of people is laid out, with every address in a crescent shaped road.


Copyright ©2000, 2004, 2007 Rodney K P Neep. All rights reserved.

You may not make copies of the data. You may not publish or sell any portion of the data in printed, electronic or any other format without prior written consent. However, this is not intended to restrict your personal use. You may print, photocopy or download portions of data for private research and study, or to include in your personal family history publication.