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Ancestors on the Move: A History of Overseas Travel

Ancestors on the Move: A History of Overseas Travel

by Karen Foy

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Ever wanted to understand more about your ancestor’s sea travels? What was life like aboard ship for both passengers and crew, how long did the journey take, what kind of conditions could be expected and what exotic locations might they have visited along the way? Following the tried and tested routes established by cargo ships, Karen Foy describes the


Ever wanted to understand more about your ancestor’s sea travels? What was life like aboard ship for both passengers and crew, how long did the journey take, what kind of conditions could be expected and what exotic locations might they have visited along the way? Following the tried and tested routes established by cargo ships, Karen Foy describes the development of passenger travel, the changing face of the vessels used and the demand for both comfort and speed. From transportation to trade, adventure to emigration, through persecution or for pleasure, she explains the reasons behind our ancestor’s desire for overseas travel and reveals the records and archives we can search to complete our own genealogical journey.

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The History Press
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Ancestors on the Move

A History of Overseas Travel

By Karen Foy

The History Press

Copyright © 2014 Karen Foy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5739-7



'The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.'

Augustine of Hippo

* * *

Events in history have dictated why many of our ancestors have been prompted to 'up sticks and move', completely changing the path our family stories have taken. Before we focus on how they were drawn to, and away from, specific countries, we take a look at those ancestors who chose to travel for pleasure, discovering that for some, the saying 'it's not about the destination, it's the journey that counts' really was true!

We are all familiar with the term 'holiday' – a chance to take a break from our busy lives and enjoy a well earned rest or a period of change. This often involves travel and the chance to experience a new destination. For our ancestors, travelling abroad was an exciting – and ultimately rewarding – prospect. Yet, with no television to visually relay what countries looked like, they relied on books, atlases, personal memoirs and recollections to form a picture of what to expect when visiting a foreign land.

Although these trips could be for extended periods, travellers always intended to return home once they had completed their itinerary. This form of 'pleasure seeking' was seen as a 'rite of passage' for the wealthy; a pastime unaffordable to the lower classes that could only dream about the prospect of short-term travel taken purely for recreation and enjoyment.

Today, in our twenty-first-century world, we take foreign travel for granted. We have a choice of transport to get us off our island, and once we set foot in another country we have the option of planes, trains and automobiles to take us further on our journeys.

By comparison, our ancestors had much fewer options and travel abroad would mean a completely life-changing experience. To enable us to follow their trail around the globe we must investigate their methods of transport and the conditions encountered by the varying classes. We will begin with those who were eager to see the world from a different perspective, soak up the atmosphere and culture of their new destination, and enjoy life on the ocean wave in comfort.


From the late 1600s, it was customary for upper-class men, and later, women, to undertake what became known as a Grand Tour of Europe, enabling them to advance their cultural education and mix with those of a similar social status on the Continent. By the nineteenth century, their contemporaries in the United States had also joined in on these European jaunts, along with the wealthy middle classes who were seeking to mingle with the fashionable elite, making beneficial contacts for when they returned to home.

Eventually, the development of the railways made overland travel much more enjoyable compared to the stagecoach journeys of the past, while maritime advancements ensured greater comfort and speed as vessels changed from sail-driven barques and clipper ships to steam-powered liners. Naturally, conditions onboard varied depending upon the class of cabin a passenger could afford. Those travelling for pleasure and education would enjoy the luxury of comfortable accommodation, while adventurers hoping to seek their fortune were prepared to endure the basics of third class or even steerage, with its limited facilities and privacy.

For many, the Grand Tour could take anything from a few weeks to several months to complete as the 'tourists' soaked up the arts, antiquities and customs of the countries they visited. Along the way they would purchase items unlike those found in Britain: sculptures, books, furniture and other works of art became a permanent reminder of their trip to Europe, displayed on walls and in cabinets, and passed down within a family as an early form of memorabilia.

Each tour naturally had a 'tour guide' to explain the intricacies of etiquette and tradition within each country visited, as well as providing a commentary on the sights, offering advice on local behaviour, and providing a translation of foreign language should it be required.

But it was not only the wealthy who wished to have a 'window on the world', and when Thomas Cook saw the opportunity to extend his popular British excursions overseas, the scheme was met with enthusiasm. After a series of 'grand circular tours' of Europe, he extended his routes to include Italy, Switzerland, Egypt, and later, the United States. By charging for travel arrangements, food and accommodation over a fixed period along a specified route, Thomas Cook's company established 'inclusive independent travel' and the pre-booked holiday. His series of guide books (known as 'Cook's Travellers Handbooks') were aimed at educating a wide, middle-class audience and preparing them for the sights, sounds and experiences that lay ahead.


Seasoned travellers often chose to share their own encounters with others through publication, either relaying their adventures to newspapers back home or writing books on their experiences upon their return. During the 1890s, W. Lawrence Liston wrote a fascinating personal account – later published in The Girl's Own Paper to educate young ladies – of a voyage that he undertook for health reasons, enabling us to visualise what a traveller could expect to see and experience on the journey between Port Said and Suez. Initially, he comments that:

Port Said is not a beautiful town and this is rarely worthwhile for any lady passengers to land, a motley crowd of men on shore, in long robes and turbans, come to row passengers ashore in boats. Many land here for the purpose of telegraphing home the news of their safe arrival and one is frequently pestered by self constituted guides, who offer, for the sum of two pence, to show the way to the post office or Telegraph Depot.

Comically, he explains about an Egyptian juggler who comes on board to provide entertainment for the passengers and 'performs marvellous tricks ... his ample robes enable him to secrete endless chickens and rabbits, which he utilises for his tricks: the marvel is that he does not sit on them'. Liston also gives us an insight into how the ships were refuelled at this time:

At night [...] it is a striking sight to see the coal barges come up to the side of the ship. At the end of each barge is hung out a kind of large beacon fire, and all the barges swarm with dark bodied Arabs and Egyptians, who, as they come alongside, sing a kind of wild dirge-like melody, which they keep up during the whole coaling. To watch these men coaling the ships and walking up to the bunkers is like seeing the links of a great revolving human chain. They leave the ship in a shocking state of dirt and dust, and it is a great relief when the engine room bell sounds and we are once more moving.

When the steamer enters the Suez Canal, Liston explains that it can only travel at a rate of 4 or 5 miles an hour due to the shallowness of the water. Any ship that navigated this channel at night was required to have a searchlight that illuminated 1,000yd in front, lighting up the sandbanks and making them look like ridges of snow. He adds, 'On the return voyage one will hear our Australian cousins, who have never seen snow, asking if this is what it is really like.' It turns out the author had a good knowledge of how the Suez Canal operated, after travelling this route on several occasions in the past:

By far the greatest numbers of trading vessels passing through are bound for, or have come from, England. At each station – known as a 'gare' – there is a set of signals which indicate to an approaching ship whether she is to enter the canal or put into a siding [...] Other ships take second place to the mail packet steamers. On the entrance of the ship into the canal this fact is noted at the chief office at Tewfik, where there is a model of the canal and a set of model ships. The clerk receiving notice of the entrance of the ship places a model with corresponding flag in the little trough, and telegraphs directions concerning it to the next 'gare', so that at any particular time the position of any ship in any part of the canal is accurately known.

Today, in our computerised world, this operation seems quaint and antiquated, but it obviously worked sufficiently well to get the majority of ships through the passage with little or no trouble. It is fascinating for the family historian to come across personal accounts or published articles that explain these mammoth projects from the viewpoint of the passenger and how it affected their journey. Your own ancestor may well have travelled along this route and these snippets of information can really 'add weight' to your own family story.

Liston mentions a whole host of sightings passed by on this particular voyage, including the town of Suez, Moses Wells marked by a group of palm trees, the famous Mount Sinai, and one particular port of call – Aden. This was the first addition to British territory in the reign of Queen Victoria and was secured in 1839 by the East India Company and Royal Marines to help prevent attacks by pirates on British shipping to India. It was an extremely valuable acquisition as a centre for Asiatic and European trade, as well as being an important military and coaling station. But it is not only the places that Liston describes but also the people, and to many passengers, everything they witnessed would be new and exciting:

A wonderful collection of human beings assembles to greet each ship, most noticeable of who are the divers. Their heads are all clean shaven and they generally come out to the ships in threes in little boats, one rowing and the others diving about. For the most part, they disdain all copper coins, affecting to be unable to see them, and crying out, 'Throw silvah, sah!' The impunity with which they swim about among the sharks is miraculous: they will, for a shilling, dive under the ship and, come up on the other side: or, having clambered up the rigging, will dive from it into the sea. Having secured the coin for which they have dived, they cram it, along with all the others that they may have gained, into their mouths, being apparently, like monkeys, endowed with pouches there.

This last comical observation shows just what people believed when they came into contact with new nationalities and cultures. He continues:

Another interesting set of people are the natives who come on board with all sorts of fabrics, embroidery, jewellery, boxes, bottles of Attar Roses, and ostrich feathers also form a large part of their stock in trade. They invariably ask more than double the sum that they expect to receive. These gentlemen bring a certain quantity of material on board, and hope to take a certain amount of money back, so that towards the end, when they have made that sum, they will sell what remains of their stock at very much reduced prices, and then is the time to buy. All these natives are controlled and kept in order by the native police, who, with their little round caps bordered with yellow, look quite imposing. Their methods of dealing with their brethren generally take the form of fearful blows delivered anywhere and anyhow with a thick stick.

* * *


In the late nineteenth century there was nothing that affluent Brits hated more than to spend a cold wet winter in Britain. Turn to the back pages of any Illustrated London News and there would be adverts to entice prospective globetrotters, often under the heading of 'Where to Winter'.

The Grand Hotel at Biarritz was just one of the fashionable places to be seen and 'frequented by the elite and a rendezvous of the English colony'. In 1895, it boasted 'views to satisfy all the comforts which travellers may desire [...] charmingly situated facing the ocean with a climate as mild and delightful as that of Nice and Italy'. During the winter season the rates were from 10 francs per day, depending upon the floors occupied, and visitors could expect the luxury that all private rooms were carpeted!

But perhaps Europe did not fit the bill and there were those Victorians who preferred a destination a little further afield. Thirty Guinea Tours to Palestine, Egypt and Constantinople could be enjoyed by those prepared to travel by steamship on a thirty-day cruise. The Peninsular and Oriental Company advertised the 'excellent opportunity of reaching Egypt or Bombay' on their steam-navigation vessels, while the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company offered sixty-five days for £65 on their 'magnificent vessels' touring the West Indies. The promise of 'a string band, electric lights, electric bells, hot and cold baths, and high-class cuisine' tempted many travellers from their draughty mansions or London flats. Newspaper coverage of the P&O liner SS Cathay reported that:

The magnificent oil burning steamship described by Lord Inchcape, two or three years ago when she was launched as the last word in comfort in ocean travel, left Tilbury Docks on a severely cold winter's day, bound for Australia. The atmosphere was Arctic, and all the passengers long for the warmer air and genial sunshine anticipated during the next day or two.

On this particular vessel it seems most of the travellers were bound for Australia (Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane), some for New Zealand, some for Colombo or Rangoon, and others for Khartoum and further destinations in the desert. A passenger on board confirmed the luxurious conditions they were experiencing on the voyage:

Truly, she is all we could desire. Cabins for one and two passengers, each with something like a real bedstead, large and airy, electric lights, wardrobes, chests of drawers, paper racks above your bed, and a small folding table attached to the wall on which your early cup of tea is placed at 6.30 in the morning. There are hot and cold saltwater bathrooms in plenty; a charming music room with easy chairs, smoking room, and a library of books free to passengers.

Along with all these 'mod cons' was the regular dining: 'You are amply fed, and the cuisine is excellent. Breakfast is at 8.30, lunch at one, afternoon tea at four, and dinner at 6.30. Then later in the evening are dainty sandwiches and during the forenoon a Steward takes round biscuits.'

Although security upon entering a foreign country was not what it is today, for some, the encounter was still memorable and worth noting in their diaries: 'The experience with customs officers at Marseilles is really most curious,' explained one traveller writing in 1925:

After your bags are opened and examined in the usual way, and you innocently try to march out of the Customs House following your porter, you are stopped by other officials asking further questions; then a third attack is made upon you by a man who might be anybody or nobody, but who is in reality a plainclothes detective, who insisted on feeling my pockets for tobacco, but apparently was satisfied, and then allowed us all to pass on. (I had heard about these plainclothes men before.)

Even the requirements surrounding travel with a passport had still not reached the strict regulations enforced during the latter part of the twentieth century. On a journey from Algiers to Marseilles on board a steamer of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, one traveller recalled:

Whilst on the ship having dinner, the gentleman sitting opposite overheard us talking about passports (which we had never yet shown since leaving home) and afterwards told me our conversation had reminded him that he had forgotten his own passport in Algiers (where he lived) and that he had immediately wirelessed home for this to be posted to Paris, as he was proceeding to England, and would be held up in Paris until it came.

When the same diarist proceeded to Cannes, it is interesting to note his amazement about the developments in travel times and transport: 'Cannes is a resort most charming, refined and sweet. It is difficult to imagine that in this May-like weather we are only about twenty-seven hours' journey from wintry England. In six weeks time this journey will be done in eight hours by seaplane!'


Not everyone had the finances to be able to afford a holiday overseas, and for those with a passion to experience the countries they had previously only read about, there was always the option of working their passage. There were plenty of situations for men who were prepared to take on any role on both cargo and passenger ships, but for the women it was not quite so easy. From the 1870s, competition grew between steamship companies to provide the finest accommodation and facilities with their passengers in mind. Vacancies for stewardesses and other female roles gave women an opportunity to experience onboard travel to a foreign destination without the need to find their fare. But competition for these positions was tough.


Excerpted from Ancestors on the Move by Karen Foy. Copyright © 2014 Karen Foy. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Karen Foy was part of the "Ask the Experts" team at London's Who Do You Think You Are in 2011, and has written over 300 articles for historical journals and magazines. She is the author of Family History for Beginners, Ancestors in the Attic.

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