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Tracing Your Ancestry
Geographical Mobility and Population Growth

General Overview

The further you go back with your research, the more likely it is that you will find that your ancestors stayed in the same place for generations. Most people were poor, and the Poor Laws would not allow the movement of people between towns and villages without documentation, so it was easier for most people to stay in the town or village where they were born.

Some people would have had trades, such as the blacksmiths and bakers and these trades would have been passed down from father to son. It is likely that they would have provided for the same town or village through generations. Most however, would have been casual labourers working on local farms and earning what they could when it was available. Agricultural work was seasonal and often poorly paid.

With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, things began to change. New machinery on farms could do the work of a dozen men and many moved from the rural areas into the ever-expanding town and cities, their already precarious choice of living made even harder. Factory jobs employed men, women and children all year round, so despite the often squalid and cramped conditions of urban life, it was considered preferable to starvation. Consequently, the population movement within England became far more common.

Other factors that lured people to the towns and cities were the better chance of education for their children in Sunday Schools and the belief that the houses were built better.

As well as people moving within England, there also began to be more migration. This was sometimes due to the transportation of criminals, sometimes through necessity and sometimes through choice. There was a whole new world waiting for them across the oceans and many took a chance and ventured forth.

From the early 19th century the Irish had been coming to England and the USA, and the potato blight of the 1840s saw an estimated one million Irish leave their shores for a new life

During the late 18th and into the middle of the 19th centuries the Scottish Land Clearances, which saw tenant farmers being forced from their homes, meant that the Scots too were forced to flee. Many emigrated to Australia, New Zealand or Canada, but some moved across the border to England.

Between 1700 and 1750, the population of England stayed relatively stable. Then, between 1750 and 1850, it more doubled. This however, was not just due to the arrival of the Scots and Irish. Indeed, during this time many English families were emigrating to the British Colonies themselves, which would, to a degree have counteracted it.

In fact, the combined population of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales in 1801 was an estimated eighteen million; by 1851 it was twenty-seven million. The death rate was decreasing as children were more likely to survive infancy. There was a better awareness of the need for sanitation, along with the introduction of some inoculations.

Another factor was that people were beginning to marry younger. With a steadier income it was easier for people to set up home together and earlier marriages meant more children. So, there were simply more people being born than were dying.

In 1700 an estimated seventeen per cent of the English population lived in urban areas, by 1801 this had increased to around twenty-eight per cent, and by 1851 over half lived in the towns and cities.

Of course, one thing that made movement from one place to another much easier was the great advancements in transportation. With the building of the railways, a journey that would have taken days could be done in hours.

Prior to the increase in geographical mobility following the Industrial Revolution, other factors played a part. For centuries religious belief had led to discrimination against both Protestants and Catholics depending on the monarch at any given time, and in the early 18th century more than fifty thousand French Protestants or Huguenots fled to our shores to escape their own persecution.

Whilst on the subject of religion, it is worth mentioning here that parish records for English Catholics are not the easiest to fine online. Ancestry and Find My Past have a few, as does but it is more likely that local research will be of further use on this subject, although the websites and may also be of some help.

If you are looking for Jewish ancestors, then there are a couple of very useful websites at and

To sum up, there has always been some mobility within, as well as to and from England, but prior to 1800, you are much more likely to have ancestors that stayed put.

If you can trace a surname back to the 1851 census where if first gives a place of birth, then there is a reasonable chance that you may have found the village or at least an adjoining village or town where your ancestors had lived for generations. Of course, as with any other research, take care. Forenames were not very varied, and your line might have married and moved away, with a cousin with the same name still residing in the one you are looking at.

As mentioned before, villages and towns are not always within the same county or boundary over time. Make allowances for this. A useful source for checking historical counties is 'Great Britain, Atlas and Index of Parish Registers' on Ancestry.

One last website worth mentioning if you want to know more about the places and times that your ancestors lived is This site has a wealth of information from primary and secondary sources relating to British history from 1300 onwards including maps and gazetters, and it can help to give you a real insight into the lives of those who came before.

An extract from Grow Your Own Family Tree second edition - a comprehensive guide to tracing your ancestry by Pauline Golds, published by Emerald Publishing

©2008 Amra Media Solutions Ltd