This is related to the question Why would a family baptise at a parish but not marry or bury there?. If you've exhausted all the records available to you for a parish, and you want to widen your search, how can you tell if you've traveled 'too far' in your attempts to make an exhaustive search?

Some local travel information can be found on websites such as Devon Heritage. But how do we take these materials and put them into the proper historical context?

In the US, research guides often suggest the use of topographic maps like the USGS Historical Topographic Map Collection. In the UK, one can access Ordnance Survey Maps - Six-inch England and Wales, 1842-1952 at the National Library of Scotland or the historical maps available at A Vision of Britain Through Time or http://www.mapseeker.co.uk/ .

Historical maps are a great resource, but how do you get a feel for how people commonly travelled, and how far was 'too far'? Obviously it varies with economic status, as we can see from this exchange in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice:

"It must be very agreeable to her to be settled within so easy a distance of her own family and friends."

"An easy distance, do you call it? It is nearly fifty miles."

"And what is fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a day's journey. Yes, I call it a very easy distance."

In my husband's family, I have several instances of census records where grandchildren are listed in the households of their grandparents, nieces visiting aunts, and so on, so the family connections quickly become evident. In the US, I also have several notices from the gossip-filled small town newspapers which list which family is visiting and from where. Without those hints, how can you tell if you have strayed past Elizabeth's, or Darcy's, "easy distance"?

Note the distances children were allowed to travel alone in this article:

How children lost the right to roam in four generations

Four generations of the Thomas family in Sheffield

The generations who walked everywhere would, it seems to me, have a much different sense of distance than those of us raised to go everywhere by car. City dwellers would likely be different than those raised in rural areas, etc.

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    50 miles on a good road in half a day, say 5 hours yields a 10 MPH speed. An army march is about 4 MPH, maybe a common man could do that speed for a while, but for 6+ solid hours? So Jane Austen is talking about someone on horseback or horse and carriage. I've read that it took Thomas Jefferson about a week to travel from Monticello (outside Charlettesville VA) to Washington DC for his inauguration. Its about 100 miles. Of course, a proper gentleman would have to stop and visit his friends, say Monroe, along the way Jan 5, 2016 at 6:24

2 Answers 2


Carl Rogerson put together a series of "Stage-Coach Timetables in 1830's Cheshire".

The warning here is that most people could not afford stage-coach travel. In fact, I think we underestimate people's walking abilities. A journal of a Nantwich shoe-maker(?) shows that one day he walked from Nantwich to Chester to hear a court case (nearly 20 miles) and back again in the same day. He was, if I recall correctly, anxious to see if he and his friends would be implicated in a trial of union members accused of illegal oath taking. Nor is this the only instance, as boot & shoemakers from Nantwich would regularly walk the 30-odd mile from Nantwich to the boot markets in Manchester if they couldn't afford the carters' fares. Though I don't think that was done in one day.

  • Yes, exactly. I need to hunt down information about which were the market towns in the area -- presumably people from different towns / parishes would meet on market day? Easy to find by reading the newspapers in the British Newspaper Archive, but working out the search terms will be ... interesting.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jul 15, 2014 at 15:08
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    I'd just find a County Directory for the right era and just plough through the intro pages for each town. Or maybe an earlier one because they tend to be smaller and markets usually disappeared rather than appeared. I think. The Historical Directories web-site used to have a useful search engine - I have yet to work out the new site.
    – AdrianB38
    Jul 15, 2014 at 19:08
  • I'm struggling with the new interface at the Historical Directories site, too leicester.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/… but many of the directories do have travel information e.g. 1889 Kelly's Devon -- the entry for Slapton says when the bus to Dartmouth leaves. Google Books and the Internet Archive are another source of directories.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jul 23, 2014 at 2:39

While browsing John Marius Wilson's 1872 The Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales, which is available as a searchable database on Ancestry.com, I saw several references to the branch railways in South Devon; many entries had information on the dates the lines were established and the terminus of the lines.

Then I wondered if I could find maps for the railways, so I did a Google image search. Since I was familiar with the company because of seeing the stockholders' records on Find My Past, I started with a search for the Great Western Railway. This led me to the Wikipedia article Great Western Railway. Along with the extensive discussion of the gauge wars that would probably already be well-known to railfans, there are sections on the different types of service on the lines, and information about social history, such as the introduction of third-class passenger service:

Early trains offered passengers a choice of first- or second-class carriages. In 1840 this choice was extended: passengers could be conveyed by the slow goods trains in what became third-class. The 1844 Railway Regulation Act made it a legal requirement that the GWR, along with all other British railways, had to serve each station with trains which included third-class accommodation at a fare of not more than one penny per mile and a speed of at least 12 mph (19 km/h). By 1882, third-class carriages were attached to all trains except for the fastest expresses.

By making use of the references in this article, and making searches for lists of fares and train schedules for the GWR and the other local lines, I should be able to work out a timeline of construction for the various lines, locate likely routes, and see what the cost and time of travel might have been.

I'm still on the lookout for material which talks about migration patterns in the South Hams, where people might have written about their journeys -- particularly diaries from families who moved from one parish to another.

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