Family History Resources: Historical Trade Directories

This week on the Secret Library we hear from Local and Family History’s Josh Flint, who will be exploring the excellent family history resource, historical trade directories. This article will help family history researchers understand what trade directories are, how they can be useful for family history research and finally where to find them. This is part of our series of articles exploring family history resources.

The Leeds Directory, 1798

Directories of traders were initially compiled to help fellow businessmen and merchants to find each other and advertise their businesses. These directories were often divided by location, trade, street and alphabetical by name. Now these trade directories are an invaluable resource for family history research, as they can offer a fascinating insight into the lives of ancestors. The earliest trade directory of Leeds can be found in Bailey’s 1784 British Directory Volume 3 – Yorkshire, it wouldn’t be until 1790’s that Leeds would start to have its own section in the Universal British Directory: Leeds. The first Leeds only trade directory can be found in Johnson’s 1796 Street Directory of the Borough of Leeds. All of these early trade directories can be found in the Local and Family History Department.

Local and Family History Trade Directory Alcove

Trade directories can often be found in local Libraries, for example the Local and Family History department in the Leeds Central Library has a great collection of Leeds and West Yorkshire trade directories and though not complete it is a great place to get started. Trade directories have started to be digitised and now many directories from all over the UK are accessible online. The University of Leicester have an extensive collection of digitised trade directories that are easily available online, the oldest digitised Leeds directory is the Leeds Directory of 1798. This article will detail how to find and use these digitised directories to help your family history research.

Finding Leeds trade directories on the University of Leicester’s website is a fairly simple task. You will need to use the Historical Directories webpage and click on the Historical Directories Collection option. This page gives you multiple options to find the appropriate trade directory. You can either select by area at the bottom, with the closest option to Leeds being the Yorkshire option, or alternatively you can type ‘Leeds’ into the search bar at the top of the page, which is what this example will do. This basic ‘Leeds’ search will bring up every Leeds option within every digitised trade directory, including a person or road called Leeds that could be in a completely different part of the country. Due to this I would recommend narrowing down the search further by using the section on ‘Place (country)’ and choosing the ‘Yorkshire’ option. This will now bring up the list of every trade directory in Yorkshire that references Leeds. Then you will just have to choose a trade directory that is  most relevant for your family history research, for this example we will use the Kelly’s Directory of Leeds, 1888.

Kelly’s Directory of Leeds 1888

Each page of the trade directory has been digitised so you can choose to view every page, but mostly you will want to use the search option to filter the pages that could be useful for your research. For the example we will try to look for a William Miller, who was a Toy Maker in Leeds in the late nineteenth century. You can search for a person, occupation or street, in this case William Miller, and then click on the filtered searches, this will only keep the relevant pages. Then it is just a process of navigating through these filtered pages until you find what you are looking for, for this search William Miller, Toy Maker at Wheeler Street was on page 326 of the alphabetical commercial section. After finding the correct William Miller, I wanted to try and learn more about the street that William Miller worked on, so I decided to change my search to Wheeler Street. I found the correct Wheeler Street with William Miller at number 6 and was interested to learn that Wheeler Street seemed to be a very busy with many shops including multiple shopkeepers, fish sellers and a pawnbrokers.

Kelly’s Directory of Leeds 1888, William Miller
Kelly’s Directory of Leeds 1888, Wiheeler Street

Hint – Looking at the rest of the street can often give more information about the area that your ancestor lived and worked in. You can then compare this information to historical maps and historical photographs.

That is how you would use one trade directory to research the occupation of an ancestor, it is often useful to use numerous trade directories to try and track how your ancestor’s business changed. I went back to the list of Leeds directories and found the next subsequent trade directory, White’s Directory of Leeds & the Clothing District, 1894. It will be useful to see if anything has changed for William Miller in the six years between these directories. Using the search function to find William Miller, I was able to find his business was still at 6 Wheeler Street, interestingly William Miller is listed as a Toy Manufacturer rather than a Toy Maker. Though these are the same occupation it is worth noting how it can be listed slightly differently. Finally, I searched for Wheeler Street, just to see if much had changed on the street itself. Not much seemed to have changed on Wheeler Street since  1888, with many shopkeepers and fish stalls, though the pawnbrokers is no longer listed.

White’s Directory of Leeds & the Clothing District, 1894 William Miller
White’s Directory of Leeds & the Clothing District, 1894 Wheeler Street

There you have it! That is how you can use the digitised versions of the historical trade directories of Leeds to further your family history research. If you would like to know more about trade directories then please do not hesitate to email us at

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