One of the first real historical documents I used was the humble trade directory.
Before facebook, and before even phonebooks, the way to find out who lived where, and what businesses were in a town, you would get hold of the local directory. They were a kind of cross between the phonebook, yellow pages, and the tourist guide.
The early Directories were rather basic. Lets take the Portsmouth section of the Universal British Directory, 1792-98. It starts with a brief introduction to Portsmouth, covering the town’s history and a description of the area, including particular local customs and the overall character of the town. It also describes the local Mayor, the senior Aldermen and the Council. Market days are also covered. After this the directory then goes on to list local services, including Bankers, Post Offices, Stage coaches, Waggons and coastal shipping. The senior officers of the local naval and military establishments are listed, as well as the Dockyard and the Customs Officers. There then follows a list, in alphabetical order, of all of the local residents, together with their occupation. This includes mainly tradesmen and professionals. So if you found yourself in a strange town and needing to get a shoe repaired or to buy some provisions, you would know who to go to.
By the 1820’s things had progressed, as we see in the 1828 edition of Pigots Directory. The description of the town if far more detailed, and gives a really good impression of what the area was like. By 1828 the local traders were listed by occupation, from Academies to Wines and Spirits Merchants. But now we have their addresses too, so we canfind them easier!
Then by the turn of the century, Directories become really detailed. Practically every street and every person is listed, which means the directories contain the details of thousands of families. They now contain adverts, and an index at the back. If you want to get a contemporary idea about a town, directories are a great source of information.
By the 1950’s, however, when more and more people are routinely having telephones, the phone book replaced the directory. Most directories stopped printing in the 1970’s.
So if you’re looking for ancestors in the late 18th, 19th and early to mid 19th Centuries, directories can be very useful. They help you pin down a person or a family to an address, and can tell you about their job. They are especially useful if your ancestor ran a shop or some kind of business. They are also very useful for using alongside census returns and electoral registers. And by looking at each years edition, you can see when and where people move.
So where can you look at directories? many libraries with historical collections will have them, as well as local Records Offices. Alternatively, you can take a look at some directories on the Historical Directories website.