52 Ancestors: Travel

I don’t have any travel agents in my tree, so this week’s theme for Amy’s 52 Ancestors had to take a different turn. Of course, my first thought was to talk about passenger lists and some wonderful Holborows who appear on multiple passenger lists, but as I’m working on my Holborows in Australia series (and other countries too!), and that I do have other family lines that aren’t Holborow related at all, I thought that it might be nice to switch gears and switch sides.

I actually got to thinking about the families that didn’t travel. The ones that stayed put. The ones whose lives were nevertheless impacted by the rumbling storm of the Industrial Revolution.

It isn’t uncommon when researching rural families to find that one parish or village that really seems to answer the question “Where am I from?”. Of course, as genealogists we kind of know that there is no one village per se. There is always somewhere before, and how can you have one location when at each generation the potential for an elsewhere doubles?

But if I could pick a handful of places to answer the “Where am I from?” question (fun interruption: several times in my life I have been asked “where are you from?” because people seem to think that I can’t be, you know, English: Portuguese, Mexican, Italian) then the villages of Collingbourne Kingston and Collingbourne Ducis on the chalk downs of Wiltshire must surely be amongst that number.

For around 300 years my father’s Palmer family have been there. I can trace my line back to the marriage of a William Palmer (possibly born in the neighbouring parish to the north, Burbage) to Christian Dudman in June 1727 (the Dudmans I can trace in Collingbourne to at least 1667). There are Palmers being baptised, married and buried in the Collingbournes as far back as the records survive – I just can’t get my particular line to meet up with them. C’est la vie, right?

For the vast majority of that time, the Palmers were intimately involved with the land, primarily being agricultural labourers (the Will of George Palmer dated to 1614 mentions a William Palmer being a cooper, 200 years later the Will of John Palmer simply describes himself as yeoman [that is, he owned his own land that was worth at least 40 shillings a year] but these certainly seem to be outliers). That was also reflected in their baptism, marriage and burial patterns: the Collingbournes truly were their hub. True, a few marriages might take place in the bride’s neighbouring home parish, but the couple generally came back to Collingbourne.

Take my 3 x great-grandfather, William Palmer. Born around 1828 in Collingbourne Kingston, he married a local girl, Eliza Gwynne, and had 12 children baptised in the local church. The son of an ag lab in 1841, he continued in that same occupation in 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891. In 1901? Cattleman on farm, before his death in 1902. Looking at his 12 children, all bar two of them died in Collingbourne – one in Basingstoke (about 35 miles away) and one in Southwark (85 miles away).

However, if we look at the family of his son Frederick (my 2 x great-grandfather) things are different. Although he also married a local girl, and continued to work on the land as an agricultural labourer, of his 10 children, only two died in Collingbourne.

The cause of this dispersal? The arrival in 1882 of the Swindon, Marlborough and Andover Railway (later part of the Midland and South Western Junction Railway later subsumed under Great Western Railway in 1923), and the opening on 1 May 1882 of Collingbourne station. Located off Cadley Road in the neighbouring village of Collingbourne Ducis, the station gave the residents easy access to Swindon, Cheltenham and the Midlands up the line or to Andover, Salisbury and Southampton down the line. Both directions also gave quick and reliable services to London via Andover, Savernake or Swindon (Old Town) stations.

Map of the Civil Parish of Collingbourne Ducis, Ordnance Survey 1890s revision showing the railway line

It’s difficult for us today to truly grasp the momentous impact that the railways had on everyday life up and down the country, especially in small rural communities. Some people liken the impact to that of the modern internet. Yet it was bigger than this. It produced a standard national time, for one thing. It also led to the popularisation of fish and chips as a national dish as fresh fish could go from coastal markets to inland eateries in a matter of hours, but maybe that’s only really important to some people. But with train operators obliged to operate at least one train a day with tickets priced at a penny a mile, the railways opened up the entire country. It certainly worked for Thomas Cook who started his company selling railway tours to the south-west.

Sure, the main road through the Collingbournes had been turnpiked in 1762 (the road was of better quality but subject to tolls – and was disturnpiked in 1866) meaning that travel was easier, but the mode of transportation was based on a horse and cart or if you were lucky, a stagecoach. To put that into a little more perspective, a good coach travelling on a good road surface could manage up to 10mph (16km/h). Steam locomotives reached the dizzying speed of 65mph – and when first introduced people thought that there was a risk of eye damage from looking at quickly-moving scenery or even that it would be too fast to breathe.

The photos below were found on the Swindon’s Other Railway site, courtesy of Mike Barnsley.

On 1 April 1932, Collingbourne Kingston Halt was opened, 1.5 miles north of Collingbourne Station. Apparently it was an attempt to revive flagging passenger numbers as the rise of the motorcar slowly but surely affected ticket sales across the country, but during the 1930s around 1500 tickets were sold each year from Collingbourne.

Of course, to travel on the train you needed to purchase a ticket. Collingbourne Ducis had a ticket office, but in Collingbourne Kingston that meant seeing Mrs Fanny Palmer at Number 57 as there was no ticket office at the Halt (her husband, Ernie, was a brother to my great-grandmother, Emily Alice Palmer). Well, that was until a crashing aircraft took the thatch off the roof during WWII, and deposited their bedroom furniture in the road … After this point you had to go to Mrs Dolly Palmer at number 54. Thankfully, she also sold sweets. A solid business plan! (After speaking with my parents – who lived at number 55 for many years – Dolly was known as Doller, wasn’t married, and often wore a man’s vest in the summer and I suspect was actually called Lydia but we won’t go into that right now.)

We all know what happened next – the British Transport Commission identified this line as unprofitable and on 1 September 1961 (two years before Beeching published his fateful reports) the stations were closed and the lines abandoned, putting an end to this travel option for the inhabitants of the Collingbournes. Of course, this was being repeated up and down the country, and I feel it only fair to mention that lines had been closing since the 1920s (up to 1,200 miles had closed by 1939) and a further 3,318 miles closed between 1938 and 1962.

Collingbourne Kingston Halt, September 1967 taken by Roman Brockhurst

Whilst Collingbounre Kingston was never the most populous of places (its peak was 933 in 1841 and has never regained that number, Collingbourne Ducis hit its population peak in 1861 at 564 and didn’t exceed that until 1971 when it reached 590), the coming of the railway and the newest mode of travel most certainly impacted the village and certainly contributed to the slow haemorrhaging of its children throughout the latter 19th and most of the 20th century – but perhaps not more than that of the internal combustion engine …

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