We tend to think that travelling around the world is something only we, people of the twentieth-first century do. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Moving around was just as common in the time of our ancestors as it is today

Emigration from England peaked in the 1880s, however  people had been emigrating to the United States, India, Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, among others, since 1606. 

In this article, we’ll explore how far our ancestors really travelled during the middle ages, with the advent of mail coaches and with the invention of railways. We’ll also look at how their movement (and our perception of it) can influence our genealogical research. 

The Post Office Stage Coach.
The Post Office Stage Coach. Image Courtesy of The National Postal Museum.

Travelling in the Middle Ages

When we think of travelling in the Middles Ages, we usually imagine serfs tied to the manors, rarely going more than a few miles from home in their entire lives. However, this is a false image.

Before the Industrial Revolution, travel was slow and difficult. The non existence of mechanical means meant that those with strong legs used to walk (a fact documented with the forensic examination of human skeletons of that time), or relied on animals like horses, donkeys and mules. Having sauid that, people were a great deal more mobile than many think.

On foot, the average distance travelled in one day was about 15 miles (25 kilometres) and could even reach 50 or 60 in the case of professional couriers. On horse, the daily journey could be around 37 to 62 miles (60 and 100 kilometres). Long distances tramping routes were familiar to, for example, papermakers, who were forced to travel round the country from mill to mill seeking work and walking over 30 miles a day in some instances.

Land travel usually followed ancient Roman roads, which were severely damaged. Because of the poor condition of these roads, vehicles with wheels like carts were useful for short distances but not for longer ones.

Roman Road: Greek street - IV-III century BC - Porta Rosa - Velia - Italy
Roman road: IV-III century BC (Porta Rosa, Velia, Italy). The street is 5 meters wide and is paved with limestone blocks, girders cut in square blocks, and on one side a small gutter for the drainage of rain water. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Map of Roman roads in Britain
Map of Roman roads in Britain based on Jones & Mattingly's Atlas of Roman Britain. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Most of the movement was from the country to the city, but shorter distances were often too. People moved for marriage (seeing that many in the same villages or areas would be interrelated), and farmers travelled to sell their products to fairs and local markets. As money came to be the bond between master and peasant, the peasant would inevitably go where the best offer lay – be it the next village or the next valley.

It was common to travel in groups and heavily loaded, transporting goods such as food, weapons, tools, tents, clothing, money and documents. Curiously, wine was the recommendable drink for travelling, as it was safer than water, especially in the cities. The most important roads usually had inns, but hospitality at cottages and farms was also a common practice. 

River navigation required toll and it was used mainly for merchandise. For long trips between coastal cities, the sea was preferred. Sailing used to take place mainly in the summer, when the sea was the calmest. Because maps didn’t begin to spread until the 14th century, the most common methods to maintain the course were the position of the sun, the release of birds carried on board and the stars.

Roads and Turnpike Trusts

Before the Industrial Revolution, roads were made of dirt and often poorly maintained , as they had been responsibility of the local parish since Tudor times. 

The Great North Road near Highgate on the approach to London before turnpiking.
The Great North Road near Highgate on the approach to London before turnpiking. Engraving owned by Alan Rosevear. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The first professional road builder to emerge during the Industrial Revolution was John Metcalf, who constructed about 180 miles (290 km) of turnpike road (the term originates from long sticks that blocked passage until the fare was paid and the pike turned at a toll house) from 1765. He understood the importance of good drainage, knowing it was rain that caused most problems on the roads. Soon after, a Scottish engineer called John Loudon McAdam, designed the first modern roads using an inexpensive paving material of soil and stone aggregate known as macadam.

At the peak, in the 1830s, over 1,000 trusts administered around 30,000 miles (48,000 km) of turnpike road in England and Wales.

The Coach

Coaches were introduced to England in 1580, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, but their development benefitted inmensely from the improvement in roads. Before turnpike trusts, coaches had been un-sprung and, because there was no suspension, any journey in them was very uncomfortable.  

In the1800s, the bodies of these early coaches were hung on leather straps and suspended on a C-spring (a large C-shaped piece of metal from which hanged a carriage) which was later improved to an elliptic spring – greatly enhancing the quality of journey. While the original coaches were pulled by two horses, by 1619 they had increased to six.

The Portsmouth 'fly', a fast horse-drawn carriage crammed with people, heading down the London Road. Painting by Thomas Rowlandson.
The Portsmouth 'fly', a fast horse-drawn carriage crammed with people, heading down the London Road. Painting by Thomas Rowlandson.
North Country Mails at the Peacock, Islington, 1821.
North Country Mails at the Peacock, Islington, 1821. Painting by James Pollard (1792 - 1867). Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Coaches facilitated not just the movement of people and products, but also of mail. John Palmer started the first mail coach service from London to Bristol, halving the time it usually took to do the journey by carrying a horn to warn toll gate keepers when he was coming so that they would open the gates earlier (the toll was paid directly by Palmer’s company later).

Mail coaches also carried passengers, so coaching inns grew up along the route where fresh horses were kept and drivers and travellers could refresh themselves.

In 1750, it took 6 days to get from London to York. Thanks to coaches, in 1830 the length of the trip had been reduced to just a day.


As early as 1671 railed roads were in use in Durham to ease the conveyance of coal, but these type of wagons had usually been pulled by horses.

The first passenger-carrying public railway was opened by the Swansea and Mumbles Railway at Oystermouth in 1807. It used horse-drawn carriages on an existing tramline. 

Railways meant the end for canals and coaches, and the begining of massive transport in the United Kingdom. 

Paddington Station with holiday crowds on a peak Summer Saturday morning in 1953. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Paddington Station with holiday crowds on a peak Summer Saturday morning in 1953. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The first commercially successful steam locomotive was called Salamanca, and was built in 1812 by John Blenkinsop and Matthew Murray for the 4 ft (1,219 mm) gauge Middleton Railway. In 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened, setting the pattern for modern railways with its ‘scheduled’ services, terminal stations and services as we know them today. The period also saw a steady increase in government involvement, especially in safety matters. 

The major period of expansion in the UK’s railways system occurred in the half-century between the 1840s and the 1890s. In 1841, Isambard Kingdom Brunel completed his London to Bristol line – the Great Western Railway. This was such a stunning achievement that people used the rail line’s initials (GWR) to call it “God’s Wonderful Railway“.

The train was 50% cheaper than travelling by coach, and a lot quicker. Even the poor could afford rail travel as three different classes of travel existed, and farmers could get their perishable products to market quicker and cheaper – making food more unexpesive as a whole. 

The Tube, Trams and Cars

Metropolitan Underground Railway stations
Metropolitan Underground Railway stations, from The Illustrated London News, Issue 1181, 27 December 1862. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As we mentioned, trains allowed for cheap, longer travel, but things were changing quickly on a local scale too.

In 1863 the first underground railway in the world was built in London, using gas-lit wooden carriages hauled by steam locomotives and connecting Paddington and Farringdon stations. It was a huge success, carrying 38,000 passengers on the opening day and hacing to borrow trains from other railways to supplement the service.

Tram systems were also popular in England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however with the rise of the motor bus and later the car they began to be widely dismantled in the 1950s.

Since 1952 (the earliest date for which comparable figures are available), the United Kingdom saw a growth of car use. By 1952, 27% of distance travelled was by car or taxi; with 42% being by bus or coach and 18% by rail. Today, road is the most popular method of transport in the United Kingdom – carrying over 90% of motorised passenger travel and 65% of domestic freight.

Our Ancestors' Travels and Our Genealogy Research

A painting of the inaugural journey of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, by A.B. Clayton. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Although we tend to picture our ancestors as stationary figures, we’ve seen that people travelled long distances from even before coach services and trains were in use. They walked for miles on a fairly regular basis, and with the advent of these technological inventions their movement became even cheaper and easier. 

So, what this mean for genealogy research?

If you;ve done any type of family research, you’re probably familiar with the term brick wall. This concept refers to a point in which someone’ trace disappears. In my case, my highest brick wall was my great-great-grandfather Francesco. I knew where he had married, but his family didn’t show up in any local records. I finally managed to find him, several towns away, by tracing the migration paths of people with similar professions. 

This is why it’s so useful to understand how and why our ancestors migrated. 

Families that move have always been a challenge for family historians, but these movements are an opportunity for us to look into our relatives’ circumstances. 

After all, isn’t that why we do genealogy? We’re chasing the stories, and there’s always an interesting one behind a person leaving a place.

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