Guest Blog Post: Using Post Office Directories to Research “Lower Class” Ancestors

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Aug 252010

Today we are excited to introduce our first guest blogger, Emma Jolly. Emma is a professional genealogist and historical researcher (more information on her website:, she is also the author of Family History for Kids. Emma has written for us about how she has found post office directories, like those in AddressingHistory, valuable whilst undertaking research and particularly focuses on those people who may not traditionally appear as prominently in the directories.

Using Post Office Directories to Research “Lower Class” Ancestors

Most family historians know how useful post office directories can be in researching ancestors of high social status or those with shops. But directories often seem less useful for investigating the lives of the working classes.

London Post Office directories are similar to those in Edinburgh and have helped me to trace owners of private schools, china shops, lawyers and senior members of the clergy. However, I have also used them to find out more about members of the working class.

Although the Private Residents section tends to include middle or upper class inhabitants, the Trades section can include workers like cabinet makers, commercial travellers or laundresses. And the appearance (or not) of your ancestors in a series of years provides an insight into the success of their business over time.

For those tracing the history of a school, the directories’ school lists are essential for pinpointing when the school opened and any subsequent name changes. Street and public house name changes can also be thus identified – useful for all in streets, and for those who either worked in or regularly visited local pubs.

The descriptions of areas of the city tell us about the nature of your ancestors’ immediate environment in that specific year. Was it ‘healthy’ or ‘populous’, rural or industrial; how many railway stations did it have, and were there any trams? What workhouses existed and where in the city were they?

My great great grandfather, William Jolly, lived and worked as an apprentice blacksmith in the Auchinblae and Fordoun area in 1861. Even though I have visited this quiet and remote region, I may never have known that it once included “a thriving modern village” without the use of a local directory [Pigot and Co.’s National Commercial Directory of the whole of Scotland, and of the Isle of Man 1837 (Kincardineshire)]. And the description of the flax mill and the weaving industry in which “the greater proportion of the industrious classes here find employment” could explain why William’s sisters were later working in a flax mill in the town of Montrose.

When trying to track a likely church for a baptism or burial for any class of ancestor, the list of churches with denominations for the relevant year can help to simplify the search. In the later Victorian years, churches were built regularly and our ancestors often shifted adherence. With a shorter list, the research should be less arduous.

A glance at the Commercial section for businesses in that street where your ancestors lived [by using censuses or BMD (Births, Marriages, Death) certificates] gives an indication of the world with which they were familiar. A street of hotels, or coffee houses; piano makers or dressmakers; schools or factories – what did your ancestors see everyday? Was there a library on the corner, long since closed, where they could educate themselves in adulthood?

I have traced Londoners of every social class within the city and to as disparate parts of the globe as Scotland, France and India. Directories are always useful in my research and if I can access them online, then, all the better.

If you are would like to contribute a guest post to this blog on any topic related to the AddressingHistory project then please email us:

Aug 202010

This month all of us on the AddressingHistory Team have been feeling quite festive: the sun is (mostly) shining, the web tool for AddressingHistory is starting to look fantastic, and there have been huge amounts of enthusiasm and energy surrounding Edinburgh (where we are based) as the various August festivals get under way.  With this in mind we thought we would gather up some information on shows and events in and beyond Edinburgh that might be of interest over the next few weeks.

In and Around Edinburgh

Around Scotland

  • The Bruce Festival, which celebrates the life and legends of Robert the Bruce, takes place in Dunfermline from 19th August to 29th August.
  • Gaelic Workers at Stanley Mills looks back at the people who were recruited from the Highlands to work in this 18th century cotton mill complex near Perth. This event will run every other week from 28th August until the end of September.
  • Highland Games are taking place throughout the summer in various locations around the Highlands. A full schedule is available on the VisitScotland website and one of the most high profile games, the Braemar Gathering, takes place on 4rd September.
  • Perth: A Place in History,  part of the Perth 800 celebrations, is a two day conference (10th-11th September) looking back over the history of the city. AddressingHistory will be along at the event along with colleagues from the Visualising Urban Geographies project so please do stop by and say hello!

September also brings various Doors Open days and is also Scottish Archaeology Month – more information on both can be found on the Historic Scotland website. Edinburgh Doors Open Day 2010 will take place 25th and 26th September, more information can be found on the Cockburn Association website.

Finally, following yesterday’s news about the passing of Glasgow-born poet Edwin Morgan, we thought you might like to know that you can explore his work and hear readings of his poetry (along with the work of many other great Scottish poets) at the Scottish Poetry Library website.

Would You Like to Be Our Guinea Pig?

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Aug 122010

We are pleased to announce that you can now register to be one of our early testers of AddressingHistory. Over the next few weeks we will be looking for feedback and comments on the look-and-feel and functionality of the web tool before it is launched to the world.

If you would like to be one of the very first to try out AddressingHistory (and hopefully give us some feedback) please head on over to our sign up form and we’ll be in touch.

If you’d rather wait for the full launch then you won’t have too much longer to wait!