When researching any part of the country, one of the first things I do is to look to see if I can find a historical trade directory, such as Pigot’s, White’s, Baines’ or from the mid-nineteenth century the Post Office Directories. The reason for this is the vast amount of information that can be found in a directory, from the history of the area, to its geology, population, sanitation, poor law union to entries for individual trades and people.
The first directories began appearing in the late eighteenth century and were mainly at that time for the London area; in 1791 the Universal British Directory was published giving details of the trades carried on in various villages, towns and cities across the country. In the nineteenth century a plethora of directories were produced, with some published every few years and others only appearing the once. Some publishers sent out canvassers to collect information, some used existing listings of trades kept by the earliest registry offices and still others were by a small subscription. Whichever way it was done, these historical directories now give us a window in time to our ancestor’s lives.
If we take the example of the Post Office Directory of Lincolnshire, published in 1868 published available on The Historical Directories Website, (http://www.historicaldirectories.org/hd/index.asp (NB, this project is now finished though the directories are still available to search); which has an introduction to the county, a list of the poor law unions and parishes within each, population tables, a list of Wapentakes, hundreds and sokes which help to place villages in their ancient places and a listing of Acting Magistrates for the County. But by far the most interesting information is within the detailed listings for each village and town.
This example is for the parish of Dowsby in Lincolnshire’s fenlands.
“Dowsby is a parish and village, in the Southern division of the county, hundred of Aveland, union and county court district of Bourn, parts of Kesteven, rural deanery of Aveland and archdeaconry and diocese of Lincoln, distant 4.5 miles south-east from Falkingham, 3.5 from Billingborough, and 7 north-east from Bourn railway station. The church of St. Andrew, recently restored, is an ancient stone structure, with a tower containing 4 bells, and on the south-side is an entrance porch: the interior consists of nave, chancel, and aisles; the nave being separated from the aisles by a handsome stone arcaded colonnade: the church contains handsome pulpit, ancient font, a stained glass memorial window and a brass tablet to the memory of a deceased member of the Scales family; also several handsome tablet monuments, and one of a lady named Ashton, life-size, recumbent; there is an organ. The register dates from the year 1670. The living is a rectory, annual value £612 10s with residence, in the gift of Mrs Johnson, of Ryhall and held by the Rev Kingsman Basket Foster, B. A., of Lincoln College, Oxford. A school for boys and girls is endowed by a Mrs Burrel, deceased: the building is new, and adjacent to the church. Dowsby Hall, a fine Elizabethan mansion of stone, erected in 1630 is now the residence of Mr Seth Ellis Dean. Edward Nathaniel Conant, Esq., of Linden, Uppingham, is lord of the manor. The principal landowners are Lord Aveland, Mrs Deeker, Richard Lucas and Edward Nathaniel Conant Esqrs. The soil is loam; subsoil clay. The chief crops are wheat and oats, and pasturage. The population in 1861 was 195; the parish contains, including the hamlet of Graby, 1,809 acres. Dowsby is situated on the western extremity of the Fen district, or the low country.
DOWSBY DECOY is about one mile east. Graby is about one mile to the north-west; and the portion of the hamlet in Dowsby parish is called East Graby. West Graby is in Aslackby parish.
Parish Clerk, Thomas Wilkinson
Letters are received through Falkingham. The nearest money order offices are at Billingborough and Falkingham.
Free School, Thomas Wilkinson, master
[Next comes a list of residents, starting with the clergyman]
Foster Rev. Kingsman Basket, B. A (rector)
Atkinson Henry Corbett, farmer & grazier, Decoy
Bunning Robt, frmr & grazier East Graby
Casswell Henry, farmer & grazier
Claypole John, miller
Dean Seth Ellis, farmer & glazier, Dowsby Hall
Scales William, farmer
Taylor Benjamin Hunt, boot & shoemaker
Taylor William, grocer & beer retailer
Wilkinson Thomas, parish clerk, school-master and collector of Taxes
There are several things that we have learnt about the parish of Dowsby from just this short paragraph in the Post Office Directory. We know that the Rector Kingsman Foster went to Oxford, we know the name of the Lord of the manor, we know that Thomas Wilkinson was not just the parish clerk, but also the school-master and collector of taxes and we also know that the main trade carried out in this area was farming & grazing, that there is a mill, a grocer & beer seller and a boot & shoemaker.
More than just that though, we know that Dowsby has a particularly beautiful church, St Andrew’s is described thoroughly and it is easy to imagine my ancestors who lived in this parish coming to the church to be baptised, married or buried there by the Rev. Foster. They were agricultural labourers and from here I can see that there are at least five farmers in the area who they may have worked for. Did they buy their groceries from William Taylor or get their boots mended by Benjamin Taylor, did their children attend the school? From here further information can be sought, where was Dowsby Hall, does it still stand today? Who was Seth Ellis Dean, Henry Casswell, John Claypole – all these people were my ancestors’ neighbours.
The nearby parish of Gosberton was larger than Dowsby, and it’s entry is therefore significantly larger;
Additional information added for Gosberton included details of the Post & Money Order Office, Insurance Agents and Carriers, along with the list of commercial entries where again many of them are for farmers. Here also are other trades, such as butchers, druggists, bricklayers, blacksmiths, carpenters etc., a much wider variety than that for the smaller parish of Dowsby.
Directories are available in many local history libraries as well as record offices or archives, look for them on the reference shelves. Online directories can be found in several places, as mentioned above the Historical Directories, http://www.historicaldirectories.org/hd/index.asp website has a wide selection for each county; http://www.ancestry.co.uk/ has directories in its UK, City and County Directories database, some can be found on Google books, and others are available for sale on CD.
All are worth searching through for background social and local history, you may not find an ancestor in these directories (though somewhere along the line, most people do), you will however find out about their village, church, neighbours etc., it is possible to build up a picture of their daily lives using this directory and others like it produced throughout the nineteenth century.