What are historical trade directories?


What are historical directories?

Directories are an invaluable primary source for historians. They provide first hand data about local communities, their infrastructure and the individuals inhabiting those communities. Published more frequently than the census, directories can also help you fill in any missing gaps.

Here are some of the key features you are likely to find in many directories published in our Historical Directories of England and Wales:

  • descriptions of cities, parishes, towns and villages. These 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

The directory titles in this collection often give a rough indication of location and date. For example:


In Britain the first recognisable directories emerged during the late seventeenth century, meeting a growing demand for accurate information about trade and industry.

Why was there such a demand? The answer lies in the expansion of commerce during the period. There was an increasing number of tradesmen, many of whom were becoming more specialised and forging business links.

Early publishers

Early directories appear to have followed two paths of development:

  1. Some early directories were speculative ventures. These were established by entrepreneurial publishers in response to the expansion of trade.
  2. Other directories evolved from the lists of traders kept by the earliest registry offices. This type of directory was particularly common in provincial towns.

Directory publishers during this early period came from all lines of work, which gave them access to information about names and addresses. Some typical examples include:

  • registry officers
  • printers
  • house agents
  • auctioneers
  • policemen.

The ways in which publishers collected data also varied considerably. Some obtained information by personal canvassing and combined the results with existing listings.

Other publishers simply asked people to send in their names together with a small payment if they wanted to be included in the directory.

Wider geographical coverage

Another important development was the emergence of larger-scale directories during the late eighteenth century. These covered substantial parts of the country, in contrast to previous directories which had focussed upon a single town and its surroundings.

Such ambitious publications were costly to produce, requiring collection of data by a large number of local agents. Consequently the production of these national and provincial directories was increasingly concentrated into the hands of a few large companies.

The Post Office

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. Many postal officials, such as Frederick Kelly, turned their hand to directory publishing as a means of both aiding their work and making some extra money. Information was collected by letter carriers, who circulated forms during their postal rounds, and also delivered the finished directory on commission.

The directory industry

Trends in the number of directories published in England and Wales show considerable fluctuation over time.

  • The period 1760 to 1850 was one of sustained, if rather erratic, growth for directories. This was driven by increased trade, urbanisation and transport improvements.
  • The 1850s saw some consolidation within the industry leading to an initial decline, followed by a period of relative stability.
  • From around 1870 far more directories started to be published again, with particularly rapid growth after 1880.
  • The heyday of the trade directory was the early twentieth century, when over 250 were published each year, apart from a dip during the World War I.

From growth to decline

The peak year for directory publications was 1936, with around 320 directories appearing. This sustained growth stemmed from continuing urbanisation and the increasing importance of retail and service activities in the British economy.

During World War II, however, the publication of directories declined sharply to less than 100 per year. Despite a slight recovery after 1945, they never again approached pre-war levels. Many of the publishers had gone out of business during the war years.

After World War II trade directories also faced growing competition from telephone directories, particularly for business and commercial use. The 1950s, in many ways, marked the end of large-scale directory production and usage.

  • Last Updated Sep 22, 2022
  • Views 27
  • Answered By Simon Dixon

FAQ Actions

Was this helpful? 0 0