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Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Before Google Earth

Let's imagine an early nineteenth century businessman arriving in a strange town after many hours’ bone-shaking coach travel. If the inn was full, he’d need to locate a bed for the night. Maybe he had cloth samples to show potential customers; where could he find the principal merchants in town? How could he find out the names of the most fashionable families, or the gentry with likely business contacts? There was no internet to help him search, or Google Earth so he could check out the town before he arrived. A canny traveller would buy the latest guidebook or trade directory.
Similarly, if you’re a family historian, then trade or street directories can help you find your way around your ancestors’ town. You can explore which shops or factories were in a particular street, and discover the names of shopkeepers like butchers, grocers and bakers. The trade listings can help you confirm census data for your long-lost relatives, or cast fresh light on their everyday life. There are more tips for using trade directories and guidebooks to broaden your family history search in Let Your Fingers Do The Walking, my feature for the April issue of Ancestors, the magazine for the National Archives.

Image: Title page, Cooke’s Topographical and Statistical Guide to the County of Stafford (c. 1803.) Author’s collection.

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