Historical directories

In Britain the first recognisable directories emerged during the late seventeenth century, meeting a growing demand for accurate information about trade and industry. An invaluable primary source for historians, and an essential tool for local, urban and family history, they provide first hand data about local communities, their infrastructure and the individuals inhabiting those communities and include:

  • descriptions of cities, parishes, towns and villages, and may include geographical, historical and statistical details
  • information about local facilities, institutions and associations
  • listings for private residents, traders, trades and professions
  • details of important people
  • advertisements 

Development of directories

The earliest directories were established by entrepreneurial publishers in response to the expansion of trade or evolved from the lists of traders kept by the earliest registry offices. Large scale directories started to emerge in the late eighteenth century and by the early nineteenth century methods of compilation had become more organised. In part, this reflected the growing links between directories and the Post Office with many postal officials, such as Frederick Kelly, turning their hand to directory publishing as a means of both aiding their work and making some extra money. The heyday of the trade directory was the early twentieth century peaking in 1936, with around 320 directories appearing. After World War II trade directories faced growing competition from telephone directories, particularly for business and commercial use and by 1950 large scale production and use declined.

About the collection

This digital collection contains 689 trade and local directories for England and Wales from the 1760s to the 1910s, with at least one directory for every English and Welsh county. It includes Kelly's and Pigot's directories, as well as those by regional publishers.

The directories were originally digitised as part of the Historical Directories project, funded by the Big Lottery Fund. The original website can still be accessed via the UK Web Archive

How to Search

The historical directories collection on Special Collections Online is searchable by name, place and occupation or may be browsed by county. They are also available through Ancestry.co.uk.