Post office directories

Post office directories

Sands Directory

You can search the Sands Directory for historic Sydney household and business information. The records have been scanned from microfiche into a complete digital edition.

Sands Directory

What is a post office directory?

Post office directories like Sands, are best thought of as a precursor to telephone directories and a rudimentary street directory rolled into one. They combine alphabetical name listings, suburban street listings and business listings that help identify people or businesses who once lived or worked at your address. A number of commercial firms published post office directories.  

This section of the house and building histories guide explains how to use the Sands directories, the most widely used postal directory for Sydney which has been available on microfiche for many years and is now available online.

Please note, post office directories published by other commercial firms often have comparable material and some of their date ranges are not covered by Sands.

What is a Sands directory? 

Sands post office directories, which were sometimes called Sand's Sydney Directories or Sands Sydney and Suburban Directories, were published by the John Sands stationery firm from 1858 until 1933 and appeared every year, except 1860, 1862, 1872, 1878 and 1881.

There are 68 volumes, each increasing in size from the previous one as the population of Sydney and NSW increased.

What does a Sands directory contain?

Each directory contains several sections:

  • A street directory, which provides an alphabetical list of streets, first for the City of Sydney and then for surrounding suburbs, with name and occupational information against each address. If a house was named, this may also be listed.
  • An alphabetical list of residents' names with addresses. 
  • A directory of trades, commercial companies and organisations, and professions. An equivalent of today's Yellow Pages.
  • Various other commercial, government and institutional listings.

What does a Sands directory tell you?

  • The names of people who lived in the house.
  • The occupations of residents (sometimes).
  • The economic uses of the building – for example, the house/apartment may have previously been a shop or a factory.
  • Previous structures on the site – for example, in the case of a new apartment building.
  • House name (if any).
  • Approximate construction date of a house or buildings.
  • Changes in street numbering. 

What does the information mean?

Directory information was gathered in door-to-door surveys where whoever answered the door gave information to the collectors. There would have been no reason to lie or evade answering questions but there are no entries for housebreakers or prostitutes, nor is there consistent spellings of names. If you find a James Coates living at the address where the previous year there was a James Cotts, it is reasonable to assume it was the same person.

An important function of the directories was to provide citizens with access to tradespeople and commercial organisations. The street address listed will often be accompanied with the name and occupation of the householder, for example, Blair, James, upholsterer or Ah Chong, interpreter. However, don't expect all tradespeople to be listed in the trades section as it was a form of advertising where a fee was paid, similar to the Yellow Pages today.

If no occupation is listed accompanying the name it may be either because the occupier was a labourer, or at the other end of the scale, a gentleman – the house type and its location may however help you decide. Or the lack of occupation information may just have been an omission.

Post office directories list occupiers, not owners. To find out owners' names you will need to consult other sources such as assessment and rates books. Usually only 1 householder was listed for each house although common sense suggests there may have been other breadwinners living in the house, which can be verified by searching the trades section.

When the name given was a woman, it either means there was no male earner or household head, or the place contained a business she was running such as boarding houses, laundries, grocery stores, hat makers and so on. In these cases there may or may not have been a male presence as well.

Some houses were named and these too were often listed but don't expect your house name to have remained unaltered. House names can be particularly helpful in some of the earliest directories when streets were not named or vaguely recorded. In places like Newtown the early directories provide no house numbers because the houses weren't numbered. Houses on large acreages were recorded at the main road they faced. When later subdivisions resulted in new streets, the house remained but the street address changed.

In the 20th century when flats began to be built and other buildings had multiple stories, there were often multiple tenants recorded for a single address. For example, Sands in 1932–33 recorded the names of several businesses and 13 tenants at 9 Bayswater Road, Kings Cross. Other buildings listed with multiple occupants provide only the caretaker's name.

Post office directories took several months to prepare and therefore the information they provide for a particular year often related more accurately to the previous year. For example, a house first appearing in Sands in 1892 may well have been there, or it was at least being built, in 1891. Or a person recorded at an address in 1923 may have already moved on that year but they were living there in 1922, and so on.  

Research tips

These research tips will help to ensure you receive the best search results.

  • Always start with the most recent volume, 1932–33 and work backwards. This is due to many places not having street numbers listed in earlier volumes and more importantly, the house number may have changed over time. Likewise, the street name may have changed. Starting your search from the earliest volumes could result in subsequent searches for the wrong house.
  • The approximate construction date of the house can be determined from the previous volume where it was not listed. For example, a house listed in 1932, may not be listed in 1931. 
  • In the first instance, it may be adequate to search only every third or fifth year. If the occupier's name and their occupation did not change there is probably little to be gained from searching the years in between. However, you may want to search every year for 2 reasons:
    • Variation in occupation. For example, someone whose occupation changed between carpenter, undertaker and builder, indicates the state of the economy and the individual's position in it.
    • Year by year information can contribute to an understanding of changes in the locality. The occupant of the house may remain the same, but if a factory or hotel is built next door, you may want to know.
  • Always take note of the nearest cross street. This ensures the correct side of the street is being captured and helps to locate a building when the number of buildings on a street is inconsistent. It will also provide information about the neighbourhood. The street where the building is located is listed in bold and the cross or intersecting streets are in italics.
  • Although the focus of research is usually on the details of a particular house, we advise making notes of other information about the locality. For example, it is worth looking across to the other side of the street and around the corner to get a sense of what the immediate neighbourhood was like in past decades.
  • Sometimes a familiar name will appear in a different house. This could be a mistake when the directories were first compiled, or it could be correct. People often moved only a couple of doors down the street or across the road, especially renters.
  • It is worth checking the trades section of the Sands directories for builders to find out who was working in the area when the house was built. This could provide some clues about the builder of the house you're researching, especially if it is in a row of terraces. It was common for small-scale speculative developers to build a terrace row sequentially, including a house of their own that was a bit bigger or fancier than the rest of the row.

Other post office directories

Low's Directory was published in the 1840s, predating Sands. Waugh & Cox was another early directory, published in the 1850s:

Trove: Sydney directories 1839–71

The NSW Post Office (and Commercial) Directories, which are often referred to as Wise's Directories started in the mid-1880s and continued until 1950, covering more than a decade after Sands stopped publishing. The Wise's Directories are available in hard copy format from the State Library of NSW:

NSW Post Office directory 1886–1908 Wise's NSW Post Office directory 1909–1950

Handbook to the City of Sydney is a complete street directory showing at a glance the exact positions of any given street number or house, including public buildings. It was created in 1879 by Lee & Ross, Sydney.

Handbook to the City of Sydney

Wilson's directories which were published for many decades from 1902 contain maps showing rail and tram lines:

Wilson's authentic director. Sydney and suburbs

Sands Directory

You can search the Sands Directory online. The records have been scanned from microfiche into a complete digital edition:

Sands Directory 

Last updated: Monday, 22 July 2019