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Author: David Foster
Title: Trades Directories: Unlocking the Code
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2000

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Source: Trades Directories: Unlocking the Code
David Foster

vol. 3, no. 2, August 2000
Article Type: Work in Progress
PDF: Download full PDF [21kb ]

Trades Directories: Unlocking the Code

David Foster

The Trades directories have long been used by family Historians to obtain genealogical information, but generally ignored by "serious" academic Historians because of their obvious limitations. Part of the problem it has to be admitted lies with the scarcity of these materials, existing as they do mainly as treasured possessions in private collections or single reference works in libraries and record offices.

However, with the advent of affordable computers and the input of a great deal of time, the Trades directories may be accessed at will by a wide range of people and the Trades directories may persuaded to reveal a great deal of historical information.

The materials produced may also serve to educate in the widest possible sense. Data can be used successfully with students from six to sixty in a wide range of contexts.

.01. What are Trades Directories ?

Local Historians and members of the public researching family History have always found trade directories of the 18th & 19th centuries to be an invaluable source of information about the local community. Most directories contain information about the history and geography of an area . But it is the wealth of detail concerning the people who inhabit the directories' pages which attract most of today's readers.

By no means comprehensive, the directories set out to record the "principal inhabitants" of a community, those in trade, or those affluent enough to be recognised as the important people in the community, such as the gentry or clerics, professionals, etc. The ordinary men and women of a community rarely figure in these directories .

The directories have been compared to the phone books or yellow pages which we use today to find out information in order to save us time and effort; there are similarities, but there are also significant differences. Directories were put together by individuals for commercial purposes at almost random intervals during the late 18th and 19th centuries. There must always be a question mark over the inclusion or exclusion of information. We shall never know the precise relationship between an entry in the directory, say of a business, and the payment to the author of the directory for a subscription for that publication. If someone refused to pay, did their business disappear from the list ?

There is no certainty, therefore, that the information they contain is either comprehensive or accurate; such information should always be cross-checked with other local sources such as parish records or the census returns to establish as far as possible what the real situation was at the time when the directory was complied.

For many people the trades directories merely contain lists of trades and professions, from which, if they are lucky, potential ancestors emerge. Thus the trades directories perform at best a rudimentary genealogical function. Partly because of the way the directories were compiled and printed, lists of boot and shoe makers, taverns, wheelwrights etc., do not make the most interesting reading on a first glance; who browses for pleasure their local telephone directory today ?

Given the computer's power to process and sort data a rather different picture emerges of the potential of this material.

Naturally the trades directories have a very long pedigree from their inception at the end of the eighteenth century until their demise in the twentieth century. An instructive period to study, however, is the middle of the nineteenth century. Taking the dates 1842 to around 1856, the material that they contain can shed light on an uneasy interface between the old world of the pre industrial age and the quickening pace of steam power and mass production in Britain.

This period coincides with the first really significant and usable census of the Industrial age in 1851, a useful source to cross check the data contained in the directories. By the middle of the 19th century the data in most directories in urban areas had become sufficiently mature and thorough to provide a snap shot of economic life at the time. From this data it possible to obtain locations in many cities with numbered streets, evolving institutions facilitated by Acts of Parliament such as the Municipal Corporations Act, the Factories Acts and Public Health and Education Acts.

The unwitting testimony of the trades directory pays homage to the "new" technology of steam power, deeming its sufficiently novel to append references to trades such as milling by steam or sawing by power alongside businesses which still relied on water power. Even printing with power appears along side copper plate printers and lithographers.

The directory also attempts to accommodate new sources of wealth within the directory by opening the "gentry" section to "gentry, clergy, partners in firms and those not arranged in the list of trades and professions". No longer just catalogue of breeding, new forms of wealth are represented.

Yet despite the apparent rush to industrialize and mechanize, the directory bears witness to continuity of archaic practices and institutions within the evolving social and economic structure of Industrial Britain. In towns and cities up an down the country new and old practices coexist. "Cow Leaches" remain as veterinary surgeons appear. Fly boats and sailing vessels ply the rivers and canals as well as steam vessels. Almshouses rub shoulders with union workhouses, cuppers and bleeders are to be found in lists where surgeons abide . Philanthropic charitable institutions for health and education are to be found as the state increasingly made its presence felt. In fact, even the language in places harks back to an earlier epoch, accomptroller is frequently used for the more modern term accountant.

Although to some the Industrial revolution brought turmoil change and dislocation, it is also possible to see persistence of the "domestic system" within trades ; to observe the frequency of artisans who were for example brewers and wheelwrights and to see mutli-functional tradesmen who relied on more than one trade to earn a living.

And yet change did alter social relationships: many cities contain reference to the forces of law and order. Police and law courts appear with regularity in the later directories. The business of the law is well represented with attorneys, notaries, and proctors. Many towns boast a gaol, lockup or bridewell. The rural locations usually note magistrates and the visits of a circuit judge.

Civic pride and the development of concern for welfare and the environment is recorded with the inclusion of town improvement commissions, inspectors of highways, bridges, factories inspectors and inspectors of weights and measures.

Commercial forces created the directories and the directories reflect the concern for commerce, industry and retailing. Given that, it is interesting to note the parochial yet specialized nature of commerce and the frequency of artisans who were for example boot & shoe makers ; milliners ; bakers, etc., in any one town. The streets must have been crowded with shops and shoppers, and to a large extent been self sufficient in many of the articles necessary for daily life. Again, the directories enable us note the number of communities based largely upon one particular craft of trade ; eg Prescott watch making in all its minute detail. ( As well as the Staffordshire locksmiths, the Manchester cotton industry, Yorkshire woollens etc.

Unless one really studied the directories very carefully, it would be difficult to establish the penetration of female commercial activity within communities. It might well be obvious that females were largely absent within the professions, but very common among trades such as dress making and the frequent presence of females as innkeepers, etc. There are surprises. Some women were involved in financial activities, working as pawnbrokers and agents for insurance companies. The are many examples of females in what might be considered to have been male preserves such as blacksmithying. Conversley, it is interesting to note the male domination of occupations now considered to be female, e.g. hairdressing ; clerks, etc.

There are almost limitless possibilities presented by the directories for serious research. It should be possible to :

  • note the diversity of educational provision through the appearance of schools of various societies and denominations.
  • note the absence of religious provision and the appearance of town missionaries in certain northern towns

However, it is important to comment upon the reliability of the material, using both internal and external comparisons of data.

The listings given in larger towns purporting to be of all inhabitants from the gentry and trades persons often fail to synchronise with other listings for the same town giving details of trades and professions. Their omissions from both lists are not entirely resolved by careful scrutiny.

There are errors of spelling of people's names. A Smith in the trades can turn out to be Smyth elsewhere. Abbreviations are frequently used to save space. John becomes on occasion Jno. or Jn . Wolverhampton st. become Whampton st; Some occupations are misleading: broker could mean a insurance broker, but most often refers to a furniture broker.

When faced with comparing the directories using external comparisons of data e.g., using data from the 1851 census, the fallibility of the material is exposed. However it is important to remember that the directories never purported to be a record of every inhabitant of each town or city, nor, given a mobile population, was it to be expected that a citizen of Carlisle in 1847 would be situated in the same place with the same occupation in 1851.

What the directories represent is a snapshot of social and economic life at a given time. With careful analysis there may well be some very important discoveries to be made ... . If the code can be broken.

With this in mind I began a project many years ago to place on computer the largest towns and cities from each of England's forty counties. At the time of writing, 2nd August 2000, I have almost completed the task. I have inputted 459,000 names, addresses and occupations for some 626 towns and I am working on the final town (Birmingham) which will probably add another 30,000 record to the database.

The data thus extracted has been placed into a series of database files. These records comprise of a 5 field database:

  1. Number (for referencing)
  2. Surname
  3. Name
  4. Occupation
  5. Location

The material was compiled in Microsoft Works, simply because when I began the project this software was the main choice of schools and colleges in the UK for those establishments using PCs. This software was deemed to be simple enough for students to use effectively in their studies. At that time Microsoft Office was not a first choice for educationalists. However, today many institutions have abandoned Works and opted for Office . Luckily my resources are easily converted to text & tabs for easy import into Excel ; Access ,etc. I avoided "heavy weight" databases because my target audience in the main either would not have such software or the expertise to use it. The material did not need a sophisticated database to process the material successfully.

I have manually inputted nearly half a million records; why, might you ask did I not scan the materials into the computer ?

There were several reasons for this decision. Firstly, when the project started, scanners were far too expensive for the home user. Cheap hand scanners were around but their size restricted their use to "stitching" multiple passes together to form a picture. Flat bed scanners were far too expensive.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, the materials to be scanned are usually too precious to risk being damaged by being photocopied or scanned. Many archivists refuse to allow these materials to be photocopied at all. Scanning requires a flat surface, many of these books are tightly bound and do not easily open flat enough to permit copying or scanning.

Thirdly, the directories are old, faded and produced in fonts that do not easily scan. Since the advent of cheaper flat bed scanners I have tried to scan the directories but with little success. OCR programmes still produce less than 100% success and generate more work in sorting out the errors.

Fourthly, the materials require a little editing to be truly useful in a database as opposed to how the data appears in the directory. Take, for example, the occupation of Innkeeper. Every entry for Innkeeper is prefaced with the name of the Inn, e.g., King George Inn; Holly Bush Inn ; Railway Inn, etc. This would have played havoc with a sorting routine. Thus, where possible, a kind of consistency has been imposed on the materials to facilitate searching and sorting.

02. Why Did I Start this Project ?

It started as a challenge to find decent historical resources for the classroom that could be easily used and relevant to a course in Local History. Anyone who has struggled to find an answer to that challenge will empathise with my dilemma. There are bespoke programmes in the UK which do a good job of representing history in a multimedia fashion, usually at a national level, but little material has been produced that reflects local communities and their heritage. A search for relevant materials produced few results, so I started with the local county in which I teach, Cumbria, and moved on from there.

I chose the trades directories for this project because they were relevant to the Economic and Social History courses that I taught and although they are scarce as resources go, most counties are covered in some depth by a series of such works.

What next ? I intend to use this material as the basis for a Ph.D., to explore the data as fully as possible. I do make the materials available for individuals and institutions but I need to develop a better marketing strategy than my current ad hoc approach.

I intend to complete the whole of the United Kingdom; I do have the raw materials for Scotland, Ireland and Wales in hand, I just need another ten years to complete it !

An outline of the project and many sample materials have been posted at: . The site receives steady hits and is regularly updated as new materials are added.

David Foster lectures in History at Carlisle College.