How did you find people before phone books & social media?

IMG_8138In Victoria (Australia), you probably would have used a Sands & McDougall Directory to find people in the days before telephone directories & the Internet.

These impressive publications were compiled annually between 1857 and 1974 and listed the occupants at every business and residence, as well as all professions and trades in the colony (pre-Federation) and state (post-Federation).

They were based on surveys conducted by doorknockers who visited every address in both urban and rural areas.

Local directories such as these became important when cities grew to the point that they could no longer rely on word of mouth and other informal ways to find people and as a response to the mass migrations of people from other regions and countries (e.g. during the Gold Rush that began in the 1850s).

Over the years other directories were produced in Victoria by government agencies, such as the post office and electoral office, and various private companies – but none were as comprehensive as the Sands & McDougall directories.

(Sands & McDougall also produced commercial directories for Sydney and Adelaide, while other government agencies and private companies produced similar publications for other cities.)

Even though the information was frequently out of date by the time it was published, local directories were a valuable resource for roles such as office and legal staff, mailrooms, travelling salesmen, advertisers, and debt collectors.

Nowadays they are most often appreciated by historians and genealogists and offer us a fascinating insight into life at a specific point in time.


It’s fun to use local directories to find out when your house was built and who lived there before you or to discover where your forebears lived and what work they did. But these volumes can tell us so much more about the cities and towns we live in.


(As you can see in this excerpt from the 1906 edition, racism and propaganda were alive and well in the early days of the White Australia Policy – but check out the names of the cabinetmakers working at Punch’s Lane!)

Details such as professions and trades were often included with the list of names and/or street addresses, as well as in a separate section of the directory.

Unlike these days when most workers expect to have a number of major career changes, it would not have been unusual in the past for someone like James Brown to have been a chimney sweep in 1906, 1934 and still in 1962. (However, it does make you wonder how old he was when he started working…)

sands & mcdougall chimney sweeps

These tomes inadvertently recorded the rise and demise of various career paths over the years. But although the lists generate many questions and theories, they do not necessarily provide all of the answers.

For example, did the chimney sweeps gradually die out due to other forms of heating or did they fall victim to corporate takeovers and mergers such that most of them worked for the Chimney Sweeping Company by 1962?

The directories also provide hints about social and economic changes that occurred as a result of new technologies and services, such as household electrical appliances and the introduction of reticulated gas and other utilities to individual homes and businesses.

(For example, night-soil men would have been replaced by plumbers (mentioned in this post – here), while cars, trucks and tractors presumably gave rise to large numbers of mechanics and drivers but significantly reduced the number of people dealing with horses, saddles, carts [and manure]. And there would not have been many television repairers before 1956).

sands & mcdougall trades

Even a rudimentary study of the directory entries can highlight relevant priorities and environmental issues at the time.

For example, the number of people working as rabbit exterminators and trap importers in the first half of the 20th Century indicates the extent of this problem in rural Australia (mentioned in this post – here).

On the other hand, the directories also show that many furriers and related trades, including companies like Akubra Hats that is still around today, took advantage of these destructive pests by reusing the pelts.

In terms of contamination, it would be relatively easy to find evidence of shifts in the location of tanneries, factories and gas and coal merchants (mentioned in this post – here) and other polluting businesses as they were progressively pushed out of the city centre, banished overseas or made redundant.

There are also lots of small townships that were gradually usurped by expanding city suburbs or that were overshadowed by larger settlements (even if they still exist).

Many of these places had great names that we rarely hear anymore – especially if the main highways bypass them. (Don’t you just love ‘Budgerum, near Quambatook’?)

sands & mcdougall towns

Sands & McDougall also published fabulous maps to accompany the directories. You can use these maps to find out when areas were subdivided and when a particular street was first shown and named. (But in my experience, the exact map you need will generally be missing from the collection.)

sands & mcdougall maps

As the population grew, the cost to produce these directories and maps became prohibitive and phone books, street directories and other competitors undermined Sands & McDougall supremacy.

Householders were also becoming concerned about sharing personal information with doorknockers.

I wonder what future generations will think if they bother to trawl through the mountains of information that is now shared via the Internet…


You can still find Sands & McDougall Directories in some libraries – but you may only be able to access electronic copies. Some may even be available online. (For details of available directories for Victoria – start here.)

They record only the ‘head’ occupant (not necessarily the owner) and do not give any indication of how many people lived or worked at a particular address. And there are notable omissions, such as Chinese tent cities during the Gold Rush.

Other sources of information about properties for amateur historians who want to do their own research (like on Restoration Home and other TV shows) include old rates books and parish plans (possibly available on microfiche or CD at local libraries or councils), and other land records (start here).

sands & mcdougall books

If you are in Melbourne before 20 December 2014, I recommend a visit to the Town Hall (opening hours – here) where you can flick though a few of the leather-bound hard copy originals from the council’s rates department. They are part of the ‘Page Not Found: The Lost World of the Sands & McDougall Directory of Melbourne’ exhibition where you can also enjoy see some great illustrations by Oslo Davis. (Exhibition details here & catalogue here.)

There is nothing quite like the real thing.


Photo credits: Pip Marks (2014)

Categories: Australiana, Internet

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. Wow! Absolutely fascinating social history!!!
    I had a comparable history adventure a few months ago in the city archive of Palermo, where they had books listing each inhabitant by address and ….. the date they died of the plague! Then how many people remained in their house and a list of literally everything they owned. All in massive hand written books.
    Thanks for this article – really enjoyed it.

  2. I’m amazed that people shared so much information and also that they answered the door at all. (Now, I never do, but I remember when I was growing up in a small town, we always answered the door if someone knocked) Thanks for info on this exhibition — very interesting how things were v how things are.

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