Street Directories – a valuable source of family information

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Street Directories

Street Directories are a useful primary source of information on ancestors. These were published annually and cover a period from the 1840’s till 1996, when they ceased publication. Unfortunately there are only a few sporadic volumes for the early part of this period but they provide an interesting insight into the developing towns and inhabitants.

What Information is included in a Street Directory?

The earliest directory for Belfast is simply a list of residents’ names. Later directories provide more detailed information. For example at the start of the Belfast Directory for 1892 there is:

  • a section devoted to the history, description and statistics relating to the town
  • an account of the water supply, trade and manufacturing, the Port and the Shipping trade and ship building
  • details of public buildings and Institutions, Poor Relief, educational establishments, parks, literary clubs as well as hospitals and cemeteries
  • There is also a list of parliamentary representatives and local officials

Using the Street Directory

Single Family Households

Street names are recorded in alphabetical order. The head of house will be noted for each property. This will be the husband or father in the family. If a female name is given she will either be a widow or living alone.

Shared Houses

In many of the poorer working class areas the houses were occupied by two or more separate families. It is important to note that the Street Directory information will be incomplete in this case as the Directory only records the main family, that is, the family living in the ground floor rooms.

For more information, Census records can be used to obtain information on all the people living in a property e.g. the 1911 Census Residents of a house listed as “20.2 Washington Street” actually refers to the family living on the second storey with the ground floor residents living at “20.1 Washington Street”. Bear in mind though that the census is produced every 10 years, so a family moving into a shared property after one census and leaving before the next census may not be traceable.

Insignificant Properties

In some areas the houses were considered too small/ insignificant to require a full listing. These were usually alleyways or lanes off larger streets often named Row, Mews or Court. They will simply be mentioned in the Street Directory by a vague number e.g. “King Street Mews off King Street – a few small houses” (from the 1894 Belfast Street Directory)

Resident’s Occupation Information

The occupation of the main householder will be recorded beside his name –

  • Davison, James Labourer
  • Harris, Joseph Carpenter
  • Teaney, Wm. Tailor

Often the occupations will reflect the main employers or industries in a district. Crumlin Street, off Flax Street near Ewarts Mill and Weaving Factory in 1894 has at least 13 residents listed as flax dressers. While in 1880 in Pilot Street in the Docks area, households include

  • Duffy, Thomas Pilot [guided ships from Belfast Lough out to sea]
  • Brown, Charles Seaman
  • McVeagh, M Ship Smith
  • Geogh, Michael Marine Dealer

More affluent Belfast residents might simply be registered as ‘gentlemen’ meaning of independent means. Business owners are sometimes listed with both the business address and their private home address. In the early part of the nineteenth century however, most families in commerce or business lived above their business premises.

Alphabetical List of Residents Names

The street directories contain an alphabetical list of the Names of Belfast inhabitants for each particular year. This however, will not record all the residents of the town. Only those of rank, a specific trade or business will be noted. Labourers, housewives, unemployed, retired and so forth will not be mentioned.

List of Professions

Also in the street directories you will find al list of Professions – this will correspond to the record of Names. This can be very interesting from a social history point of view. It reflects the growing industrialisation of the city with many new occupations appearing while others decline or disappear altogether.

Taking the occupations listed in the 1892 Directory, for example, many professions such as Alabaster Merchants (11), Bellow Makers (5), Cart and Wagon Makers (10) and Whip Makers (5) disappeared completely over the years. Conversely new occupations emerged with the 1960 Directory, for example, listing Insulation Contractors (6), Physiotherapists (6) and Telephone and Radio Dealers (102) which did not exist in earlier volumes.

Directory of Professions & Trades
Directory of Professions & Trades

The Plight of the Poor

Many family historians are surprised at the number of house moves a family may make over the years. This is especially true in the poorer areas. Most labourers at the time were only employed by the day, which makes for a very precarious financial situation. A period of unemployment due to illness or recession would force a ‘downwards’ move. Alternatively, if circumstances improved, a family could afford to move into a bigger property. Very few working-class people owned their own homes – they were reliant on rented accommodation. Also most poorer families had few possessions – a kettle, pot, a few plates, perhaps, which could easily be wrapped in a shawl when moving again.

Although less well-off families moved a lot, they would usually stay in the same area, so we see generations of extended families living in the same few streets. People tended to live close to their workplaces as the only affordable transport was by foot.

A Word on the Advertisements

Another interesting aspect of the street directories are the advertisements. Although these do not often relate directly to family history, they do give an insight into the day-to-day life at the time and the environment in which our ancestors lived.

Advertisement for Rope & Twine Manufacturers
Advertisement for Rope & Twine Manufacturers

Geographic Coverage of Street Directories

The Belfast Directories, while mainly concerned with Belfast, will also list the counties, towns and villages in the province of Ulster. These will cover the size of the town, how far from Belfast, transport and postal links. The main industries, facilities, churches and so forth will also be noted. The directory will also publish the names of the important residents in the area, their address and occupation.

Some towns produced their own localised directories, mostly for commercial reasons, for example – the Ballymena and Mid-Antrim Almanac and Directory 1912 and Bradshaw’s Directory of Newry and Armagh 1820.

Availability of Street Directories

Bound Street Directories

The larger city libraries in Ireland will have a collection of street directories relating to the local area. The collection may be incomplete but any existing Directories will be available for consultation.

Online Street Directories

For Directories online please see below or try searching Google for your locality:

See also:

Getting started on your family tree

Trace your ancestors in the Irish Census Records


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