What did my ancestor do for a living? A guide to what you can - and can't - find in trade directories

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02 July 2021
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Although often not a first line resource, trade directories can be extremely valuable for discovering what your ancestor did for a living and where they were based, writes Dr Simon Wills.

The first British trade directory dates from 1677 and covers London merchants, but it was in the later 18th century that directories started to become more well-established and common, and in the 19th century they flourished.

The earliest publications often simply listed inhabitants of a community by name and profession, with an address or a parish where they could be found. However, this is particularly useful information in the period before the first census in 1841. It may be the only way to determine what your ancestor did for a living.

Who’s listed, and who’s not

Not all workers are identified in early trade directories. Generally, the people named are of two types. The first are ‘upstanding members of the community’ – lawyers, schoolmasters, clergymen, physicians and so forth.

The second type are people who owned or rented business premises. So, for example, you may discover named cobblers, butchers, and blacksmiths but not the individuals who worked for them.

You won’t find persons who did not trade from a fixed address such as hawkers, peddlers, and fishwives. Most people who did relatively menial jobs or worked from their own homes are also usually omitted, including charwomen, labourers, weavers, and nurses. The street directories that appeared in Victorian times identified a broader range of inhabitants if they were householders.

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Unusual additional details

Trade directories may provide all sorts of useful additional information that you didn’t expect to find. Sometimes an entry will state when the business was founded, or give a brief description of the services provided.

In the Sheffield directory for 1857, James Turner states that his company was founded in 1789 and produced ‘wire fencing, and ornamental wire work for parks and gardens, also riddles, screens, fenders, bird cages, window blinds etc’. It’s also common in the 19th century to find businesses run by partners with each person named. Sometimes these are family members.

Article extracted from a guide to trade directories in the August 2021 issue of Family Tree magazine. Get your copy here.

About the author

Dr Simon Wills is a genealogist and author with more than 30 years’ experience of researching his ancestors. He has a particular interest in maritime history and the natural world. His latest book is A History of Birds (White Owl). He is also author of The Wreck of the SS London, Tracing Your Seafaring Ancestors.