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Everyday Travel in Early Modern England

Dr Charmian Mansell is a social and economic historian of early modern England. She currently holds a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in the Faculty of History.

Everyday Travel in Early Modern England

Dr Charmian Mansell

Image of a traveller (London, 1705)
Johann Amos Comenius and Charles Hoole, Joh. Amos Commenii Orbis sensualium pictus: hoc est, Omnium principalium in mundo rerum, et in vita actionum, pictura et nomenclatura. (London, 1705)

In 1557, Juliana Burges, a married woman of Tavistock in Devon, travelled two miles to the parish of Whitchurch where she had previously worked as a servant to visit a sick child of a former neighbour.

One Sunday night in May 1622, Wiltshire weaver John Smyth left William Hapgood’s house in Newton Tony, where he had been working all week. Travelling fourteen miles to Woodborough, he arrived home just before sunrise. Later that morning, he hid as the parish constable banged on the door to search the house for stolen sheep.

On a September morning in 1650, Joanne Symonds and her son John of Dunwere in Somerset returned home from Bridgwater, carrying grain they had bought from the market there in pails on their heads. Making their way along the riverbank, they travelled through a field where men were reaping.  It was here they saw Henry Abbott fall into the river and drown.

Early modern studies of journey-making typically focus on notable travellers like Celia Fiennes, who criss-crossed the counties of England, and the wealthy aristocracy of the Grand Tour, who traversed the cities of Europe for culture, education and as a rite of passage. These journeys were diligently chronicled by their makers in letters, diaries and other writings; they recorded not only the paths they trod, but also their observations of the landscape and environments they traversed and people they encountered. However, journey-making was not restricted to the socially and economically privileged. While the nature of travel was very different for the non-elite – travel for its own sake was not a common experience at the time – journeys beyond the parish were everyday occurrences in early modern England.

Finding evidence of these journeys is of course not without challenges. Ordinary people were less likely to be literate and therefore first-hand accounts of their travels beyond their home village or town are few and far between. My current British Academy-funded research project recovers patterns of everyday travel and mobility of ordinary people in England between 1550 and 1700. The project draws on a substantial number of everyday or quotidian journeys recorded in ecclesiastical court and Quarter Sessions testimonies and examinations. These courts dealt with a wide range of spiritual and temporal matters and in bringing a suit of law, officials collected statements from those with knowledge of the offence. Witnesses informed on their neighbours, reporting the illicit sexual liaisons of the adulterous, the ungodly behaviour of the irreligious, and their suspicions of the light-fingered when things went missing. In their testimonies, witnesses and defendants frequently described quotidian journeys they or others had made (information that is often quite incidental to the case). The journeys of John Smyth, Joanne Symonds and Juliana Burges (outlined above) offer a flavour of the varied nature of this evidence.  

The project explores the spatial horizons of early modern people. It considers the impact of age, gender, occupation and marital status in determining who made journeys and why, and where and how far they travelled. Court clerks recorded this biographical information for each witness as well as their place of birth and residence.  As the vignettes above demonstrate, when describing journeys, witnesses often reported where they were travelling to and from, the purpose of their travel, who they travelled with, the distance, mode of transport and the route they took.  We learn of John Smyth’s working life: he recalls his journey home from work, a distance of fourteen miles that he made on foot at the end of the week.  Joanne Symonds’ testimony details her journey with her son along the river, allowing their route to be charted. We learn this journey had an economic purpose: she was returning early in the morning from market, where she had purchased grain. The deposition of Juliana Burges reveals the retained connection between a former servant and her neighbours.  This was a social visit to a community she continued to be part of, despite now living outside it. 

Modes and routes of transportation were gradually improving over the course of the seventeenth century; however, many of the journeys here continued to be made slowly on foot along poorly maintained roads. The project investigates regional variation in experiences of journey-making, and considers the impact of transport, road networks, local economies and landscapes. Collaboration with The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure will help to inform this part of the project.  The Group’s recent ‘Transport, urbanization and economic development in England and Wales c.1670-1911’ project has produced maps of historic transport networks that help to reconstruct the landscapes in which journeys were made.

The project, which will result in a monograph, fundamentally shifts our understanding of early modern English society. By studying the spatial experiences of ordinary people through the lens of everyday journeys recorded in court depositions, the project extends the geography of the fundamental mechanics of community – credit networks, social relations and work – beyond an individual’s place of residence.