Turnpikes are the ancestors of the modern road network. They were the toll roads of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, in the era before the County and County Borough Councils created by the 1888 reforms of local government were given responsibility for the maintenance of the main road network.
Roads have criss-crossed the British Isles for millennia – predating even the Roman Invasion. By the mid 17th century, many of these roads were becoming virtually impassable. The Civil War of the preceding few decades had seen ever more traffic moving around the country, and heavy gun carriages were not the lightest things to be moving around. There was also an ever increasing volume of coaches (stage coach services started in 1640) and market traffic trying to make its way from A to B.
The result was that in 1663 the first Turnpike Trust was formed, to maintain the London to York road. Over the next hundred years or so, many more trusts were set up to maintain major cross-country routes, but despite their efforts, carriage and coach traffic was often unable to proceed in the winter months, or after heavy rain. However, by 1800 things were improving rapidly, and the Turnpikes saw their heyday in the years leading up to the railway booms of the 1840s.
The Turnpike Trusts
The Trusts were set up to maintain the roads by collecting tolls. The tolls were levied on coaches and wagons passing toll gates at strategic junctions or every so many miles. This revenue was then invested in road improvements. In the early years the system seems to have steadily improved the state of the roads concerned, seeing steep hills and boggy valleys bypassed or improved, rivers bridged (often by separate trusts, merchants or town/county councils). However, as the 19th century dawned, it was already becoming clear that many trusts had been set up fraudulently, or at least become so, and of the tolls raised only a tiny fraction was reinvested in the roads, the rest finding its way to the pockets of the Trust directors.
As you criss-cross the older routes of England, and to a lesser extent those of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, you will come across many cottages hard up against the road edge with a prominent bay window watching the road. This is the Toll Cottage, and in the era of the turnpikes, there would have been a gate across the road. The trusts employed families to collect the tolls, providing them with a home, and often their wages were a percentage of the revenue raised.
The toll collector, or a member of his family, would sit in the bay window all day (and often all night), to watch for passing traffic. They would then have to go outside to collect the toll and open the gate, although some later gates had mechanical systems, where a barrier could be raised from inside.
It was surprisingly easy to dodge a toll, as although the gates were placed at strategic locations, there was almost certainly an alternative route around them. It was simply a matter of whether you wanted to pay for a decent road, or get to your destination for free, but potentially knee deep in mud.
It is easy to imagine that Turnpike Roads were wide, well drained and paved like Roman Roads, however this was rarely the case. Even on routes like London - York, the quality of the surface could be very variable. Some were well drained and paved, but most were hardly improved from the muddy tracks that went before. In winter months, the mud could be waist deep, and in summer the dried earth so badly rutted that no wheel could cross out of the ruts. If cattle were driven along a wet road, which later dried out then the pock-marks of the hooves could prevent anything making any progress.
The easiest wasy to picture how bad the roads could be is to find a local dairy farm, and then look at the state of the gateways where the cattle leave the fields for milking. After heavy rain, they often become impassable, with thick waterlogged mud, and when that dries out the holes are left, separated by brick-hard mud.
Many Turnpike trusts, however, did do good work, and construct and subsequently maintain good quality routes across the counties. Urban routes were even more likely to be improved, with steep climbs regraded with cuttings or rerouted in a sweeping bend up the hill. Narrow and twisty sections were straightened, River bridges rebuilt and fords bridged.
Of course, as the trust directors were often the local gentry and squire farmers, many of the 'improvements' were a little selfish. Some roads were re-routed simply to move the traffic further from someone's house, or indeed to bring a decent road to the end of a driveway.
While the tolls raised were generally used to rebuild the roads, this only went towards land purchasing and materials. The actual labour used relied on the centuries-old system which saw each parish providing the labour to maintain the roads within their parish. While this was a terribly unfair system - for example a small parish aligned linearly along the main road, with a much larger parish set beyond, and missed by the road - it meant that the trusts had a free labour pool for 3 or more days a year along the whole route.
Obviously, some of the trusts were more proactive, and hired local labourers to do the work, paying good wages. In later years, navvies were used in line with the canal and later railway construction schemes.
With the increasing levels of fraud and corruption in a small number of Turnpike trusts as the Victorian era progressed, and the continuing rivalry of the railways making the other trusts increasingly uneconomic, the Government saw fit to act and effectively nationalised the trusts from the 1870s onwards (as they would with the railways in 1948). The responsibility of road maintenance was then passed on to the County and County Borough councils as part of the Local Government Act 1888, who also assumed responsibility of all the other roads that had previously been 'maintained' by other local bodies at that time.
In many cases, the councils inherited routes that were far superior to any others in the area, and owing to the nature of the origins of the trusts, these were routes that connected the most important towns and cities. It is therefore hardly surprising that most of these roads would feature again in the 1922 Road Lists, or its B-road equivalent. Even today, there are few rural routes bearing an A- or B classification which have no link to the Turnpike Network of 150 years ago. And, to turn that around, there are few former turnpikes which have never been classified.
Turnpikes by County
Most of the Historic Counties of England, and to a lesser extent Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, had several Turnpike Trusts operating within their boundaries. Click here to see Turnpike Lists for each county.