Phone books and directories


One of the biggest collections you’ll find at is the British Phone Books 1880-1984, which includes the pages of 1,780 telephone directories. That’s over 278 million listings to search. You can use these old phone books to find out things like when previous generations of your family first had telephones installed and, perhaps a bit whimsically, what their old phone number was. You might also be able to discover a little more if they had a business listing as these usually say what the line of work a proprietor was in.

The further back you go, fewer and fewer of our ancestors had telephones. Before telephone books, however, there were city and county directories. These were originally published by various bodies including the Post Office, and usually listed the professionals, tradesmen and householders in a given area. They cover the entire Victorian period and for some areas of the country go back as far as the 1750s. Pigot’s, White’s and Kelly’s are some of the other well-known directory publishers.

Searching in directories

Frequently, the listings are street by street but thanks to they are also searchable by name and surname. These books are very useful particularly if you want to find out what your ancestors were doing between the main census years. For instance, if have found them at one location in 1861 and at another in 1871, you might be able to use Post Office directories to pinpoint when they moved. Some are also dated before 1841 and therefore give you the opportunity to go further back than the first census. Click here to read more about censuses.

Often referred to as trade directories, these books usually have sections that list residents of the area by occupation, as well as providing a dwelling by dwelling listing of heads of household for a town or city. Commercial directories were also published which mainly focused on listing businesses, as well as Court directories, which offered information on wealthy residents and government officials.


There are over 200,000 individual listings in the growing collection of city and county directories at If your ancestor was in the clergy, they might also be found in the Crockford’s Clerical Directories dating between 1868 and 1932. Doctors practising in the UK between 1859 and 1959 are listed in the UK Medical Registers collection.

Just like the Yellow Pages in the modern era, directories often included advertising and if one of your ancestors had a business, they might have promoted it with some space in the front or back of a directory. Aside from listing officials, tradesmen and heads of household, directories were also full of local information. Each book usually begins with important details on the local transportation options, and where to find schools, hospitals, government buildings and churches. By reading this you can find out a bit more about what life was like when your ancestors lived there.