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Using Directories for Family History Research
By Jeremy Palmer, Dip. Gen.


The directories
The information they contain
Searching the records
The usefulness of the records

Commercial directories, such as the Sands Sydney and Suburban Directory, can be very valuable research tools for the family historian. They include a variety of information about people of the time, from listings and advertisements of tradesman through to alphabetical street listings of residential addresses.

The directories
The Sands directories digitised on Ancestry.com.au cover the period 1861 – 1933. No directories were issued in the years 1862, 1872, 1874, 1878 and 1881 and so these years are not included in the collection. The directory was an annual publication and due to the mass of information collated within it, it was usually the case that the details were collected many months in advance of publication. The information appearing in a directory of a particular year, say 1890, may have been incorrect at the time of publication if, for example, someone moved address or ceased trading in the intervening period. The later directories had well over 2000 pages of information and it would have been an impossible task to have all of this detail correct at the time of going to press.

The information they contain
Each directory was divided into several main sections. The first section was usually the city street directory. This was a section where each street in Sydney would be listed in alphabetical order together with the names of all of the residents, tradesmen and businesses that were situated there. Intersections of the address with other roads are noted and so it is possible, using a contemporary map of the area, to pinpoint a particular address with some accuracy. This is especially useful if you are tracing the history of a particular building or property.

The next section was the suburban directory. This followed the same format as the previous section with residents and businesses of the various city suburbs listed with their addresses. Each suburb had its own section within which the streets were listed in alphabetical order.

The next section was the alphabetical directory that formed the main part of the publication. This listed all of the people previously recorded in the city and suburban sections in one big list arranged in alphabetical order by surname. Details of each person’s address, and where applicable, occupation would also be noted.

The last of the main sections of the publication was the trades directory. This listed the tradesmen and businesses in alphabetical order of their trade or occupation. For example, all of the greengrocers would be listed together, as would all of the carpenters and the hoteliers.

The remaining pages of the directory would contain various sets of official information - such as lists of magistrates and JPs, information about churches and places of worship, military lists of personnel and details of government departments and officials. At the start of the directory there was usually a master index to all of this miscellaneous information. There is usually also a large advertising section at the rear of the directory and if your ancestor was in business, a copy of the advertisement they used may perhaps be found there.

The information in each section was often the same but each was organised in a different way. It is therefore possible to search the directory by the name of the person of interest, by their occupation or by their residential or business address. This flexibility of searching makes discovering the information about your ancestor so much easier.

Searching the records
Each page of each directory has been digitised and copies of these images are available through the website. Similarly, all of the information recorded in the directory has been indexed by name and is available to search. The Sands Directory main search page will allow you to search for any person’s name in the whole directory collection. If you wish you can specify a particular year, or group of years, to narrow down the number of entries in the results. Alternatively, you can search each individual directory by choosing the particular year of interest to you from the bottom of the search screen. This is the way to track down a particular address, or occupation in the trades section. You may need to first of all refer to the contents page or index of the directory to establish which page, or range of pages, contain the information you are seeking. Navigating your way through the directory to the appropriate pages can then be undertaken by selecting an image number which corresponds to that section of the directory – remembering that most images contain two pages of information.

The usefulness of the records
Whilst the directory will only tell you that a particular person was at a particular address in a given year, this can be a very important piece of information. By checking earlier and later directories you may be able to discover when a person first arrived in the area and when they disappeared from the directory. The latter may indicate that they might have died or perhaps moved out of the area. As there are no Australian census records for the period covered by the directories, they act as a very useful census substitute pinpointing individuals in the period from the mid 19th century to the years immediately before the start of the Second World War.

Directories are therefore an important record source for ancestors of the 19th and early 20th century. They are also very useful if you wish to undertake a study of the history of a particular property as they will provide a year by year account of the residents at that address.

Jeremy Palmer has been a full time professional genealogist since 1992. He was the Registrar at The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies in Canterbury, England for many years before emigrating to Australia where he now runs his own research business which specialises in tracing the British origins of families in Australia and New Zealand. He also lectures on a wide variety of family history topics for the Society of Australian Genealogists.

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