Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

Telephone Directories

making a telephone call
Suggestion on how a telephone would work c.1879. Print PD

Research your ancestors through telephone directories.

Telephone directories can be useful source of information while tracing the movements of your ancestors post-1911 census, and if you're struggling to confirm the date of your ancestors death, then, surprisingly, they can also be employed to try to narrow down the date of a death.

The first public telephone exchange was opened in London in August 1879. Within a few months further telephone exchanges were opened in Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Bristol. In January 1880 the first telephone directory was published with the names of 200 subscribers.[1]

The various telephone companies were eventually amalgamated and later the Post Office took over responsibility for the telephone network. It was later passed to a private company, British Telecommunications plc, later known as British Telecom.

The British Telecom's archives contain many hundreds of telephone directories and these are now available on Ancestry.co.uk. They consist of 1780 phone books covering most of England and parts of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.

Telephone directories contain the surname of the telephone subscriber, their initials or sometimes first name, address and telephone number. The directories also contain local information, a map of the area covered by the directory, help on how to make a telephone call, and carry advertisements on most of the pages.

For the family history researcher, telephone directories have several disadvantages because many entries only show initials and not first names, and searching them can sometimes be time consuming.

Not everyone will find their ancestors listed in them. In the first decades of the 20th century very few people could afford to have a telephone in their home. But don't let this put you off, if your ancestor was affluent enough to afford one, then the directories should be seen as a potential useful source of information.

On Ancestry.co.uk. you can search by surname and first name, with or without address, but select country which then allows you to select all counties. There is flexibility on dates.

From my own experience, however, the search engine is not 100% efficient. Start with just a surname, date and county. Then narrow down your search.

making a telephone call
Advert from a 1894 Glasgow directory: "The Turcan-Morton Mouthpiece causes speech to be transmitted with greatly increased distinctness, and is of special advantage for long distances".
Image courtesy of National Library of Scotalnd on Flickr NKCR

If you've tried this but with little success, then you may have to go through the directories page by page. To do this go to the right of the search form and you'll see 'Browse this collection'. Select date range, then a year, and you'll presented with the available directories. For instance, for 1924 you would find Essex in a directory covering Bristol and Exeter, Canterbury, Essex and Suffolk, Gloucester and District, Guildford and District, Norwich, Plymouth, Reading, St Albans, Brighton and Tunbridge Wells, South Wales District, Southampton, Portsmouth and Bournemouth. Be careful though, for Ancestry does not fully describe the coverage in the link from this 'browse directory' page.

To find Essex you must navigate through the directory by using the page number navigation on the top right of the screen. In the first 10 pages or so you should find an index to contents. Once you have found the Essex part of the directory, names will be in alphabetical order of surname.

Some later directories are a little easier to navigate as they only cover one area or county.

I mentioned earlier about telephone directories helping to establish a date of death. On several occasions I have been unable to confirm the date of death of a person because there are so many possibilities covering many years and places in the death registers. Have a look to see if they appear in the telephone directories. If they do, and then their name disappears, it may be because they died. Start checking the death certificates for their name and location from the last year they appeared in the directory.

[1] British Telecom archives

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