Did Your Ancestors Go on Holidays? by Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot

General view from cascade, Dawlish England It’s July and many people are on holiday. We all expect to have a summer break but unless our ancestors were better off, holidays were impossible and even short excursions were unlikely. Change came slowly and it was a long time before the laboring classes enjoyed holidays or weekend breaks. There needed to be three things: shorter working hours, cheap transportation, and some guaranteed days off.

The wealthy have always enjoyed travel; the Grand Tour of Europe was undertaken by most wealthy young Englishmen, a way to acquire the knowledge of art and antiquities that was more or less required of them. As the middle class in England grew, so the interest in travel spread amongst the population and many spots, especially the Lake District and seaside towns, became popular.

The Lake District was popular because artists like J.M.W. Turner had painted it and Wordsworth had written poetry about it. Seaside towns were good for one’s health as well as beautiful–economical too. A widowed ancestor of mine, forced to live on a more limited income went to Dawlish in Devon in 1826. Here is what the topographer Samuel Lewis said about Dawlish in 1831:

It was an inconsiderable fishing town prior to 1790, about which time the salubrity of its air, the pleasantness of its situation, and the beauty of its environs, made it the resort of invalids, for whose accommodation preparations were progressively made, in proportion to the increase of the visitors, and it is now a fashionable watering-place.
(Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 1831)

In North America, as towns and cities grew, holiday travel was also enjoyed by more and more people. People came to tour the United States and Canada, and some of our ancestors went home for visits. I have found one direct and three collateral ancestors, settled in Canada, who were caught by English records when they were staying with relations.

Genealogical Value
Most genealogists tell me they are interested in the lifestyles of their ancestors. Leisure and travel for pleasure were aspects of their lives and, as my opening paragraphs suggest, knowing more about them can assist your research.

Do you know whether your laboring ancestors got a break from work? Their occupations are one clue, the time period is another. For many laborers in Britain the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 made the difference. Four days in the year, Easter Monday, Whit Monday (Whit Sunday is also known as Pentecost and comes seven weeks after Easter), the first Monday in August, and the day following Christmas Day were declared to be public holidays.

More than interesting background, knowledge of holiday travel can be valuable to your research. It was difficult work locating my widowed ancestor in Dawlish and I wondered why she went there. First, I found out about its beauty and healthy air, and then I decided she may have moved there, all the way from Scotland, because other family members lived in the vicinity. My research expanded to other branches of the family and I learned a great deal more about the people close to this fourth great-grandmother and tracked her through another decade.

As for my Canadian ancestors visiting England and Scotland, I now regularly check the census records at Ancestry 
for visiting kin in Britain, and I have expanded this to include the United States for lines that came from there into Canada.

Finding Travel Books Online
The idea for this article came to me while I was on a holiday trip. When I got home the first thing I did was check out two old travel guides on my bookshelf, but I wondered how many I could find online. I searched three ways, using Google Books, checking what’s in the Ancestry collection, and looking at library and local government websites of holiday towns. I had better success with the first two; library and local government sites varied, some had galleries of old pictures or articles on local history. It is easiest to find old travel books for sale.

Here are two examples of old tourist literature available at Ancestry:

Disturnell, John. A trip through the lakes of North America: embracing a full description of the St. Lawrence River, together with all the principal places on its banks, from its source to its mouth: commerce of the lakes, etc., forming altogether a complete guide for the pleasure traveler and emigrant. New York: J. Disturnell, 1857.
(at Ancestry)
Speight, Harry,. Lower Wharfedale: being a complete account of the history, antiquities and scenery of the picturesque valley of the Wharfe. London: E. Stock, 1902. (at Ancestry)

I enjoy old tourist guides. These are first hand accounts by and for people at the time my ancestors were alive. Old guidebooks provide a different perspective compared to gazetteers and topographical dictionaries and they include maps, some of which are quite different from those I usually consult to aid my research. Not only do they offer an enjoyable summer diversion, but knowing a bit more about the leisure time of your ancestors could add a valuable dimension to your research.

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AWJ Editor’s Note: Today’s image in the HTML version of the newsletter is a bathing cove in Dawlish, England. (There are actually six images of Dawlish in this collection.) Check out the Library of Congress Photo Collection, 1840-2000 at Ancestry and the Library of Congress Photochrom Print Collection: Germany, Austria, & Switzerland, 1890-1910 at Ancestry. You may find a view of your ancestor’s favorite holiday retreat!

Sherry Irvine, CGRS, FSA Scot, is an author, teacher, and lecturer specializing in English, Scottish, and Irish family history. She is the author of Your English Ancestry (2d ed., 1998) and Researching Scottish Ancestry (2003), and she is a contributor to several publications. Since 1996, she has been a study tour leader, course coordinator, and instructor for the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University. Recently she served a two- year term as president of the Association of Professional Genealogists.

Online Classes
Sherry Irvine has teamed up with Helen Osborn for a new series of online courses. For more information, visit:

One thought on “Did Your Ancestors Go on Holidays? by Sherry Irvine, CG, FSA Scot

  1. Just back from a weeks vacation and catching up with email. In regards to my ancestors ability to vacation I have this comment. I am lucky. On my great-grandfathers death certificate his cause of death was listed as heart disease and over work. He was a farmer in the midwest starting from 1910 until his early death. Joanne

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