Born to a recusant English Roman Catholic family, Joseph Gillow was educated at Sedgley Park School, Wolverhampton and St Cuthbert's College, Ushaw. In 1878 he married Ella McKenna, a brewer's daughter, securing him a private income allowing him to pursue his antiquarian interests.
Gillow published various researches into the history of Roman Catholicism in Lancashire, but his greatest achievement was the Biographical and Bibliographical Dictionary of the English Catholics (5 vols, 1885-1902). To fit his material into the five volumes allotted him by his publishers, he needed to abbreviate the later volumes. No index was available until 1986. Gillow was appointed honorary recorder of the Catholic Record Society at its foundation in 1904, and was a frequent contributor.
- The Tyldseley Diary, (editor)
- The Haydock Papers
- St. Thomas Priory: the Story of a Staffordshire Mission
- Lancashire Recusants
- A Catalogue of the Martyrs in Englande for Profession of the Catholique Faith since the yeare of Our Lord 1535
- Thomas Bridgett, in The Catholic Who's Who and Yearbook, 1908; quoted in ODNB.
- J.F.X. Bevan, ‘Gillow, Joseph (1850–1921)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; accessed 1 August 2008
- Bevan, J. F. X., Index and finding list to the bibliographical dictionary, 1986
- Catholic Records Volume List 1-76 Archived 2008-08-28 at the Wayback Machine, catholic-history.org.uk; accessed 21 October 2014.
- Burnand, Francis Cowley Burnand. "Gillow, Joseph", The Catholic Who's who and Yearbook, Burns & Oates, 1908, p. 171