Directories are printed lists of local traders compiled for general sale by commercial publishers. They also frequently list private individuals and contain extensive information on the history, public institutions and major features of each community. The earliest directories cover London and were regularly published from the 1730s. Larger provinvial towns begin to have their own directories from the later 18th century. Directories with national coverage begin in the 1780s, and from 1822 in Devon they begin to be arranged within counties in Pigot's series of regional directories. Only larger towns were covered until Kelly's provincial directories began in the 1840s. Kelly's directories were discontinued in 1939 and most of their town directories in the 1970s, although local trade directories continue to be published, sometimes now being free distribution.
Devon towns are first recorded in Bailey's national directory of 1783, the first Devon county directory is Pigot's of 1822/3 and the first to cover every parish in Devon is White's of 1850. Until the appearance of the final edition of Kelly's directory in 1939 county directories were published approximately every five years, providing a useful basis for tracing the development of communities.
Most county directories are arranged by place, either in one alphabetical sequence or sometimes within administrative areas such as hundreds. After an introduction giving such details as the location of the community, its administrative structure, major buildings, public institutions and statistical information, there are alphabetical or sometimes classified lists of traders and frequently a separate list of the major private residents. County directories usually have a general section on the county as a whole and countywide classified lists of traders similar to today's yellow pages. Town directories frequently have listings arranged by street.
Not all inhabitants are listed. Typically there is one entry for every ten inhabitants in smaller settlements and a lower proportion in larger towns. These lists concentrate on employers or self-employed traders. Entries are not always regularly updated and instances of plagiarism are not unknown but, given the immense task of collecting data, directories generally provide a remarkably full picture of the community in the past.
In Devon good sets of directories are to be found in the major local studies collections in Exeter, Plymouth, Torquay and Barnstaple. Record Offices also have collections as do non-public libraries such as the Devon and Exeter Institution. A listing of trade directories held in the major collections is available on the Internet. Branch libraries and museums frequently have examples of county or local directories and photocopied extracts from the county directories for the period 1822-1939 are included in the parish packs which can be found in most branch libraries in Devon. In the larger libraries directories are sometimes only available on microfiches because of their fragility.
Directories are easily approachable sources for most levels of student and can be used to trace the changing pattern of trades in a community, to check continuity of ownership (e.g. of farms or businesses), the distribution of family names etc. They are of some use for property history where properties are named or numbered. Students could compile a present-day directory of their area and draw conclusions on such matters as the relative levels of self-sufficiency of the local community over time.
A website which reproduces searchable versions of historical directories is http://www.historicaldirectories.org/.
Norton, Jane E. A guide to the national and provincial directories of England and Wales, excluding London, published before 1856. (Rev ed, 1984).
Shaw, Gareth and Tipper, Alison. British directories: a bibliography and guide to directories published in England and Wales (1850-1950) and Scotland (1773-1950) (1988)
Shaw, Gareth. British directories as sources in historical geography (1982).
Shaw, Gareth "Directories and the local historian: ii. Methods of compilation and the work of large-scale publishers", Local history magazine, 45 (July/Aug 1994), 10-14.