Using the “Between” Records – County and City Directories

Library and Archives Canada’s recent announcement that the digitized collection of County and City Directories, Canadian Directories Collection,  had more directories added to it was welcome news to this family history researcher. Directories are a great source of information for the years between censuses and especially the years after the 1921 Canada Census, the last one released to date.

Caveats to consider when  researching in county and city directories

  • county directories were generally created in the late 1800s and the early 1900s.  City directories became more the rule as early as the 1920s.
  • directories in the early years tended to record working people, such as farmers, tradesmen, doctors and lawyers. City directories collected information about employed citizens with fixed abodes. Note that most women, although productively employed in managing households, did not rate a mention in the early city directories. Female milliners [hat makers] and dress makers might get listed along with the occasional company owner or professional like a doctor.
  • the information provided in a directory listing might not be up to date since a 1920 directory would probably be published the year before. People also moved mid year.
  • some of the time you will be dealing with a nominal entry with no other family members to be found in the listings. You will need to have some idea of where your ancestor lived in order to ferret out the correct person.

Structure of a Directory 

County Directories in Ontario listed farmers alphabetically by township, since they were the predominant business men of the era, and also provided a lot and concession number. Tradespeople and professionals like doctors and lawyers were usually found in the small and larger towns and were listed there, usually without any further location information such as a street address. The lot and concession number provides the key information that you need in order to access land records in Ontario’s counties.  My great grandfather, John Pratt Campbell was captured in the Lambton County Directory for 1877, Bosanquet Township:

Campbell, Pratt, f……..7 16 [Source: Belden’s Illustrated Historical Atlas, County of Lambton, Ontario, 1880, Edited and Published with Additions by Edward Phelps, Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, 1973]

In the entry, the 7 refers to the concession number and the 16 refers to the lot number. The “f’ notes that he is a freeholder or owner of the land. In this case, the term was legally incorrect as the land was owned by his brother- in- law.

City Directories generally consisted of at least two parts. One part was the alphabetical listing of people in the city, usually those who were employed. Some of the later directories would list a wife’s name in brackets behind the husband’s name. In some cases, I have seen a notation following the name of a widow such as “wid[ow of] Andrew” which can help in establishing that you have the correct person. The second part of the directory, was a street listing of homes which generally provided you with the name of the owner of the premises. Checking both sections of the directory can lead to you finding family members living together. If they still use their common surname you can track members of a family in the alphabetical listing by checking for similar home addresses. Remember that this listing will only include the ones who are employed. The street listing of homes could catch the fact that a brother or sister is living in a married sister’s home. The same could apply to parents moving in with a married daughter. Look for connections.

Searching the Canadian Directories Collection on the Library and Archives Website

The collection is broken into two parts at this time,  the first of which is a searchable database. Make sure that you check the  available editions in the database so that you don’t waste time looking for an ancestor who did not live in any of the geographical areas covered by these directories. The second part which covers Hamilton, Ontario; Kingston, Ontario; London, Ontario; and Southwestern Ontario Counties, is only available in pdfs which can be searched individually. Each of the latter directories is broken up into several pdfs, so you will need to do some searching to find the section that gives you what you want. I downloaded the pdfs to my computer because I found that the searching was a lot faster that way.

Obviously it helps to have some idea about where your ancestor lived in any given period of time. Sometimes, the names of employed family members in the same geographical area will help identify an individual as the one you are seeking. Enjoy the search!

Alan Campbell OGS # 12978


2 Responses to “Using the “Between” Records – County and City Directories”

  1. Bill Young says:

    This is a great summary with active links to the LAC site to help researchers find the directories. It can be frustrating trying to find documents on the LAC site even after you know they are there.

  2. Editor says:

    You are correct Bill, frustration can be part of the process. The rewards can be great, though.