RAHS Technical Information Service Bulletin No. 10: Using Directories in Local Historical Research

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This invaluable research guide is courtesy Barbara Le Maistre and the Royal Australian Historical Society.

By Barbara Le Maistre


Directories were published in the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century to provide a convenient reference book for a stated geographical area. They included residents, professionals, tra.ders, industries, and institutions. Nowadays they can be used to trace the history of those listed. Telephone directories of subscribers replaced trade directories as everyday reference books for most purposes early in the twentieth century and can now be used for historical research too.

The method of collecttng the information printed in directories has meant some errors and omissions occurred, and incorporation of new developments was sometimes slow. Nevertheless published directories provide one of the quickest and easiest ways to trace people, houses, firms, institutions, and industries. They can also be used to establish street name usage and to sketch local economic organization.


As economic life in the colony became more complex, there was a strongly felt need to know who were the members of the legal and medical professions, as well as the ecclesiastics. It was necessary for business people to trace residents. The Post )) Offices in each state also needed to know addresses, so at different times charged the leading publishing houses with producing the official Post Office directory. These published directories were sold and distributed as reference books. By the end of the century 200 free copies were made available to the public in New South Wales, in local libraries and hotels, and in London at the Colonial Agent.

From the earliest commercrally printed directories, information was collected by "the most direct sources". Sands* and Kenny1s, Commercial & General Sydney Directory, stated that:

As far as practicable information has been obtained from individuals, at their private addresses, or at their accustomed places of businesses, by competent parties, who have been both diligent and careful.

In other words, collectors visited streets as modern market researchers do today.


The richness of government archival material for the first fifty years of New South Wales life means there is less need to use a directory in early colonial research. For example, Police Magistrates* reports give more complete descriptions of industries than any directory. However, some useful research is possible from early directories.

The Government Printer produced the first organized list of residents under the title New South Wales Pocket Almanac and Colonial Remembrancer in 1806. But at the end of its period under this title, in 1821, it included nothing more than a Civil and Military List.

Early directories largely appear to have been compiled as names of subscribers and in the case of firms, often carried illustrations and descriptions. Francis Lowe's Alphabetical List of Residents with Commercial Occupations« published for Sydney in 1844 is of this type. They often included details of important economic activities such as postal days, pay days and sailing schedules. Sometimes, only the names of eminent and well known re.sidents appear. In some country town directories only owners of substantial land holdings for the surrounding area appear, which makes some directories less useful than the comprehensive ones covering Sydney which appeared around the same time.


It should be kept in mind that the gold discoveries had a disrupting influence on life and producing reliable directories covering all New South Wales towns would.have been more or less impossible for almost a decade.


The most readily available set of directories for the second half of the nineteenth century in New South Wales was produced by the Sands printing house. Sands1 directories began in 1858/9, however publication was irregular until 1882. (No directories were issued in 1860, 1862, 1872, 1874, 1878 and 1881).

For the most part, these directories also included information about country towns. However, Sands published four separate volumes for New South Wales country regions and towns in 1878/9, 1881/2, 1884 and 1889/90.

One advantage of Sands * directories is that they list occupiers whether they were owners or tenants. Only about one third of nineteenth century Sydneysiders owned their homes, with wide differences between parts of the city. Even fewer owned the commercial premises they occupied. Land titles only list owners, except in some early years when leases were registered and entered in the title books as transactions. Trade directories ban sometimes be the only means of tracing a person or a firm.

Towards the end of its life, Sands partially loses its research value because the recording of all householders became too difficult and was dropped, while many more errors and omissions crept into the other sections.

Sands- directories are available on microfiche at many public libraries throughout. New South Wales, under the series title Sands * Sydney and New South Wales Directories. The microfiche version of Sands* directories has been indexed* The alphabetical index on the introductory fiche will direct you to the fiche number and page number you require.


Sands did not enjoy a monopoly in directory publishing for long. Within thirty years Wise appeared as a regular, formidable rival. Between 1886/7 and 1900 Wise published a directory every two years and thereafter annually. The title varies slightly throughout the period of publication, which ended in 1950, but for most of it a working-title is Wise1s New South Wales Post Office Directory They cover the whole of New South Wales and it is not necessary to go to separate volumes for the country and Sydney. Wise * s Directories will be available on microfiche by January 1989 as a welcome additional source• There is a complete run in the State Library of New South Wales and a broken run in the Mitchell Beading Room.


(a) Alphabetical lists of individuals' and commercial names in personal sections (Useful to trace PEOPLE)

(b) In a commercial section, each trade's members listed alphabetically. (Useful to race TRADESPEOPLE & FIRMS)

(c) Street listings by municipality and suburb giving private and business occupants in Sydney directories (Useful for HOUSE NAMES, OCCUPANTS & STREET NAMES)

(d) Town entries in country sections and directories, giving private and business occupants

(e) Educational, jnedical, legal and ecclesiastical lists

(f) Squatters and station sections in country sections and ;-director iies. "


The country directories and sections printed by Sands and the relevant sections in Wise *s directories bring together information about all New South Wales country towns• They use the same layout and format as the Sydney directories, alphabetically listing towns instead of suburbs.

Sands published their first directory for country towns in 1878/9 as The Official Post Office Country Directory and Gazetteer of New South Wales. It had an alphabetical index covering 748 towns and villages. . Some residents had occupations listed, eg. Adelong’s entry includes a bootmaker, miner and selector. There were later issues in 1881/2, 1884/5 and in 1889/90. From the first issues Wise*s directory covered country towns.

By 1931 it included over 2000 townships, boroughs and districts.

Apart from the major, state-wide country directories, directories were also published on a regional basis, covering the principal towns. The earliest of these town directories is The Directory of the Town on Bathurst published in 1862, In addition to the street directory and the trade and professional directory, this volume contains a miscellaneous directory including official appointments, churches, clergy and trustees,, and a list of Western district schools and their teachers.

Knaggs* directories of Newcastle and the Hunter Valley were first published as a single sheet in 1862 and in book form from 1866. (1866-1889 irregular)• The Border Post covering Aibury and Wodonga (Vic) was published between 1877 and 1902. However an earlier directory covering Beechworth, Kilmore, Wangaratta, Ovens District and Albury was issued in 1866, Other towns are included in single editions of directories. (see WHERE TO FIND DIRECTORIES).


There were other specialised types of directories developed for commercial reasons once Australian manufacturing became more important in the economy, but they are of less value for most research * For example, Wilson's Authentic Directory* Sydney and Suburbs and the Blue Mountains provided a map of each suburb (without a street index) and some descriptive material about the suburbs and transport to them. It bridges the style of the ninteenth century directories and modern street directories and was possibly aimed at carters and car owners. It carried paid advertisements which sometimes permits tracing details of individual business lives.

Mac’s Sydney Directory Incorporating Newcastle, published annually and covering World War 11 and post-war up to the 1960s is an alphabetical commercial and trade list. Cook’s Business Directory, published annually after 1912 and sold for 10/-, includes a country section arranged by town. There are also specialised professional directories for the legal and medical professions.


The first telephone directory in New South Wales was issued in 1889* Betwfeen December 1915 and 1942 they were issued twice yearly, and thereafter annually. By 1920, most affluent householders had the telephone connected and the telephone subscribers* directories had partly replaced the commercial value of trade directories. Telephone directories listed subscribers alphabetically and included a separate section in which trade subscribers appeared by trades or profession.

Failure to find a records of a person, or a firm in the telephone directory does not mean that they were not in the area. Not »everyone could afford a telephone and it was not until 1960 that they were commonplace in families with modest incomes. Immediately after World War 11 there were often delays in securing a telephone which may mean at least a year’s delay in locating a subscriber at an address.


Gazetteers were also based on a geographical area, but were not as detailed. For example, A Geographical Dictionary or Gazetteer of the Australian Colonies 1848 produced by Wells can be used to trace early stations, such as "Bothoroe" owned by James Vincent in the district of Bligh NSW. However, the entry for the town of Maitland East contains descriptions of churches and banks but no details of householders or tradespeople; Titles for similar works, especially early in the nineteenth century may also use the word almanac, for example, Australian Almanac & General Directory* In these early years the titles directory, gazetteer and almanac may soirfetimes overlap.

Generally speaking, gazetteers and almanacs are useful for researching towns but provide little information about individual residents.


Today directories can be used for much the same purposes as they were originally intended.


For the second half of the nineteenth century people can traced in Sand’s alphabetical personal listings and after 1886/7 in Wise’s directories* If the person sought was the household head, barring errors, he or she will be listed.

Search at five year intervals, working back from the last date at which they would have been listed, eg * a death certificate might provide such a date. Try to avoid years of economic hardship, such as a drought period for country areas or the years around the depression of 1893 in Sydney. Listings thin out in such years.

Once an entry is found narrow the search by using publications annually, if possible. Do not worry if the person disappears for several years and then reappears. Nineteenth century Australia was marked by high population mobility and some omissions and errors crept into directories.

By way of example, if a researcher wanted to know about George Budivant, who they believed to be in business in Sydney in the post-gold rush period, reference could be made to the personal listings in Sands' Sydney Directory for 1871. He is listed there as a shipwright at Bourke Street North, His business can be more clearly located by turning to the street section. He is listed beside the Park Lodge Hotel at the intersection with Cowper Wharf on the west side of Bourke Street.

If more information was needed, searches could be extended to later and earlier directories, using a five year gap at first and then narrowing it when necessary. The 1866 and 1861 directories could be used and, moving forward in time, the 1876 and 1882 directory. (Sands did not issue a directory in 1881.) The plot of land could be identified on a map and a title search undertaken to find out whether he was a tenant or owner occupier.

If it is believed that an eminent or interesting person lived at a particular address, it is possible to verify the rumour so long as the person was the head of the household. Both the street section and the personal listing can be checked.

Directories can be used to widen knowledge of a local identity. If the occupation of a person is known in local history from a particular date, but nothing is known of them before that date, it may be that they followed the same occupation elsewhere. Earlier listings may give an address but no occupation. Instead go to the same trade or professional group for earlier periods to see whether an entry occurs.

Sometimes two addresses are given for successful trades or business people, one being the business address, the other a home address. Refer to the street section for both addresses and establish, from neighbouring descriptions, which is the business and which is the residential address. Remember that many prosperous business and trades people lived in residences that were attached to their place of work and so;only one address might be listed.

The dropping of the alphabetical listing from Sands and the cessation of its publication, makes it difficult to trace people of modest means from the end of the 1920s. Because the new publications were commercially based, this difficulty does not occur with business history.


There are two basic types of procedures commonly needed to trace houses. The first, arises when an address is known for a street arid a house name rather than a street number. The researcher wishes to find the house and, if it is still standing, identify it. In Sydney and large towns often it may have been overbuilt so a photograph or illustration will not help in locating it.

Use the section in the directory for the municipality, suburb and street. For country towns, the town street listing can be used, Over the years there have been many changes and it is not possible to read just the street entry. It is a good idea to go to the street and walk along looking on facades, gate posts, fanlights, and on front walls for any remaining names of properties. It may not be possible to identify the house in which you are interested. Nevertheless map out on a piece of paper any house names that can still be read. The local history librarian may be able to provide a copy of a map which shows house profiles at the end of the nineteenth century. These maps are popularly known as Water Board Maps.

Then go back to the trade directories and see where the house you are seeking stands in relation to those still identifiable. For fexample, on the north side of •Cavendish Street, Stanmore, the facade of a large terrace is marked "Hughenden" . On the other side of the road semi-detached houses retain "Remus", "Roslyn" and "Weslyn’* nameplates from a later period. These are sufficient to identify the names of other nineteenth century houses in the street.

The second type of search arises when a house is known by its twentieth century address and its original name and occupiers are unknown. For example, present day 66 Cavendish Street carried no indication of its nineteenth century name and from jthe end of the nineteenth century it was occupied by tenants who were not listed on the land title.

To find out more Sands* directories were consulted for the southern side of Cavendish^ Street between Liberty Street and Merchant Street, The house next door, built in "Art Noveau" style, was identifiable by its name "Remus" which was still in place. The name of the occupier was noted as Keats. So was the name of the occupier in the house next to Remus. Then the lfiist runs of the trade directories between 1925 and 1930 were used. From them it was found that the property already had the house number 66 and Remus carried number 68. Noting the names of the householder, directories were used anually, working backwards. It was found that number 66 had previously been number 33, The names of adjoining householders and the house-name, "Stanbrook" were noted. Working back through the directories further in the nineteenth century it was found that the house had been known as "Stanbrook" for most of the -period in which it was listed. The names of its occupiers and sub-tenants were recorded and compared with the names on title deeds. For some periods they were the same.

A table of names of both houses and householders in adjoining properties was also kept from which it was possible to identify the names of other properties in the street and to observe the infill buildings by style.


This is usually an easier task because such premises occupy a corner or nearby site, and the directories read from the name of the intersecting street. The street listings can be used first. They usually give the trade occupation and a cross check can be made to each trade listing given for an occupier in the street listings.

To trace the business life of a firm, use the trade or profession listings work at five year intervals at first, narrowing to annual checks if the firm drops out of the listing or its business address changes. After the last entry go to the following year’s directory to the address in the street section at which the firm had been. Identify the type of business which moved into the premises. Carry out a similar exercise before the first entry to see what land use preceded the firm or person in 4whom you are interested.


New subdivisions were common in Sydney and country towns after the gold rushes but their maps. or council. rate books cannot always be found. The -appearance of a street in the municipal or town section of a street directory may be the first published use of the street name.


It is suggested that only a very small area is attempted at first, perhaps a short block in the main street of a country town or a block in a suburban area. Commence at a date at which general historical knowledge suggests the area was well established and flourishing. For example, by the end of the 1880s Sydney suburbs such as Petersham were well developed. A block in Parramatta Road, Petersham could be chosen and either Sands* 1888 directory or Wise’s 1888/9 directory used. The names and occupations can be set out at the chosen date in order from an intersecting street. From this date annual changes should be noted. Frequently no street numbers are given and tenants change often in retail and factory areas. Premises were often rebuilt and even in main streets, some vacant land remained unoccupied for some years until rentals attracted a builder. In many central business addresses tentants on each floor are listed.

For these reasons, it can be difficult to plot development. With a high proportion of tenants, searches of land titles do not always clarify problems. Once a municipality has been declared, surviving rate books may be used in conjunction with directories.


A recent, comprehensive listing of New South Wales directories has recently been published by University of New South Wales Press. New South Wales Directories 1828-1950: a Bibliography by Joy Hughes provides invaluable information about where to find metropolitan and country directories, and describes each type of directory and their contents. The entries are arranged chronologically. Directories are also indexed by title, by publisher or compiler, and to a lesser extent by place name.

Sands' Directories are available on microfiche. They are published in two parts; 1858-1900 and 1901-1932/3. New South Wales Telephones Directories (metropolitan and country 1889-1985) are also available on fiche. Check your local library or historical society. Sets are available at the State Library. Wise’s Directories will be available on microfiche in 1988.

September 1987

® Royal Australian Historical Society, 133 Ma-' larie St, Sydney 2000. (02)27 8001.

ISBN 0 909954.16 x