1555-2009: The first turnpike and toll roads – the history of state-control of the highways

Old Print; Tollgate Oxford Road by Tollhouse Alan.

Old Print; Tollgate Oxford Road, uploaded to flickr by Tollhouse Alan – The Oxford to London stage coach passes through a turnpike. Simultaneously a private chaise comes the other way , trying to get through without the toll collecter noticing but and runs intoa flock of sheep. From Turnpike and Tollgates by Mark Searle, 1930 (see turnpikes/org.uk)

On the history of turnpikes, from Old Hampshire Mapped

The following chronological notes are culled from various sources; do not take them as a definitive list of events.

1555 Highways Act 1555
First highways act, beginning of state control of roads. Responsibility for maintenance placed on parishes.
Fails: national traffic overwhelms the resources of local parishes.
Remained in force for 250 years.
1563 Amendment to Highways Act 1555 increases the labour for roads.
1642 The magistrates court at Cirencester heard a case in which:-

Each end of the High Street … was secured against a horse, with a strong straight boom which our men call Turn pike. A barrier with short metal spikes along the upper surface, placed across a road to stop passage till the toll has been paid.

1663 Highways Act 1663
Justices of the Peace for Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire, and Cambridgeshire enabled to levy tolls for their part of the Great North Road.
First turnpike erected at Wadesmill, north of Ware, Hertfordshire, and others along this road.

The first turnpike act. Up to 1706, turnpike trusts involved local justices.

From the first in 1663, and with a great expansion in the 1750s-70s, there were thousands of trusts and companies established by Acts of Parliament with rights to collect tolls in return for providing and maintaining roads; turnpike trusts. A General Turnpike Act 1773 was passed to speed up the process of setting up such arrangements. Just how trustworthy and effective was the provision and maintenance can be imagined.

Railways had a serious impact on long distance road traffic from the 1830s, and many turnpike trusts were discontinued. The Local Government Act 1888, establishing county councils, gave these new authorities, answerable to an electorate, the responsibility for most of the existing turnpikes. Most turnpike trusts were wound up; roads were more reliable provided and maintained.

1696 Sherfield to Harwich road turnpiked.
Wymondham to Attleborough road turnpiked.
1697 An act aloowed magistrates to erect signposts at crossroads.
1698 Comment by Celia Fiennes:-

… the road on the Causey was in many places full of holes, tho’ it is served by a barr at which passengers pay a penny a horse in order to the mending of the way.

1700 By 1700 there were 7 turnpike trusts.
1700-50 About 10 turnpike trusts set up each year.
1706 The trustees for turnpiking the Fornhill to Stony Stratford road were independent people, not local justices. This pattern was copied for the next 130 years.
Trustess were empowered to borrow capital for road mending against the expected income from tolls.
Turnpike trusts took responsibilty for road repair. They improved alignments, eased gradients, etc. They were only partly effective.
1744 An act made milestones compulsory on most turnpike roads.
1750-99 Three late 18th century engineers developed improvements in road building:-

  • John Metcalfe
  • John Loudon MacAdam (1756-1836)
  • Thomas Telford (1757-1834)

They all realised that good drainage was essential factor for good roads.

1750-90 About 40 turnpike trusts set up each year.
1766 General Turnpike Act 1766.
Milestones became compulsory on all turnpike roads.
1773 General Turnpike Act 1773.
Smoothed the way for setting up turnpike trusts.
Required turnpike trusts to erect distance signs to nearest towns along the turnpikes.
1790s About 50 turnpike trusts set up each year.
1821 By 1821 there were 18000 miles of turnpike roads in England.
1822 General Turnpike Act 1822.
Marker posts required where a turnpike crossed a parish boundary.
Many turnpikes also had terminus markers.
1830s From the 1830s onwards the development of railways caused a reduction in road usage for long distance goods and passenger traffic.
1835 Highways Act 1835
Set up districts, composed of a groups of parishes, to look after roads. Not successful.
1835-36 The last turnpike trusts set up.
1860s From the 1860s disturnpiking was actively pursued.
1878 Highways and Locomotives Amendment Act 1878
Set up Highway Authorities.
1881 By 1881 only 184 turnpike trusts remained.
1885 The last turnpike trust ended 1885.
1889 Newly formed county councils took over responsibility for main roads.
1894 Rural district councils accepted responsibility for local roads.
1895 The last tollgate, on the London to Holyhead road, on Anglesey, ceased in 1895.
1909 Central goverment began to give grants to local authorities for road maintenance.
1920 Ministry of Transport set up.
1930 County councils accepted responsibiity for all roads.
1936 Trunk roads became a financial responsibility of the Ministry of Transport.
1960s The motorway system was begun.
First new road system since roman times?

References Albert, W: 1972: Turnpike Road System in England 1663-1840: Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, Cambridgeshire)Benford, Mervyn: 2002: Milestones: Shire Publications (Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire):: ISBN 0 7478 0526 1

Boumphrey, A E: 1939: British Roads

Copeland, John: 1968: Roads and their Traffic

Hindley, Geoffrey: 1971: History of Roads

Jeffreys, Rees: 1949: King’s Highway, The

Jervoise, S: 1930=1936: Ancient Bridges of England

Pawson, E: 1977: Transport and Economy, the Turnpike Roads of the Eighteenth Centruy: Academic Press

Robertson, A W: 1961: Great Britains Post Roads, Post Towns and Postal rates 1635-1839

Stenton, F M: 1936: Road System of Medieval England, The: Econ Hist Review: vol.7: pp.7-19

Taylor, Christopher: 1979 & 1982 (pbk): Roads and Tracks of Britain: Dent, J M and Son (London):: ISBN 1 85797 340 2 (pbk)

Webb, S; Webb, B: 1913: Story of the King’s Highway, The

Wright, Geoffrey N: : Turnpike Roads: Shire Publications (Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire): album 283: ISBN 0 7478 0155 X

From Ware Online, about the history of Ware, the town where the first turnpike was built –

Ware was situated on the Old North Road, the main thoroughfare of medieval and Tudor England from London to York and Scotland. In the centuries following the Norman Conquest, the main traffic on this road was military, but in about 1400, the people themselves began to move more freely around England, either for trade or on that medieval equivalent Of tourism, the pilgrimage. Ware is mentioned in the most famous account of a pilgrimage, Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’, as being the the town from which the cook originated, and Ware was itself on the other main pilgrimage route, to the shrine of the Virgin Mary at Walsingham in Norfolk. One Tudor writer said that the road through the town was known as ‘Walsingham Way’.

Ware by TheLizardQueen.

To serve these pilgrims and travellers, virtually every building in Water Row (the south side of the High Street) was an inn at some time during the period from 1400-1700. There were other inns in Land Row and Baldock Street, as well as a few in Amwell End, but it was the inns of Water Row that were ‘great and sumptuous hostelries’, as described by Raphael Holinshed. The most important were the Crown, the White Hart, the Christopher, the Bull, the George and the Saracen’s Head. The inns have long since been converted into shops, but the waggonways, which are a feature of the High Street, remain as reminders of the great inns of the past. No wonder the Tudor poet, William Vallens, described his home town as ‘the guested town of Ware’ What led to the disappearance of the inns was another thriving Ware industry, malting. The passage of waggons bringing barley into the town for malting made the roads almost impassable for much of the winter, with the result that, in 1663, England’s first turnpike was set up at Wadesmill, in an attempt to control the malting traffic. Immediately, travellers began to find alternative routes. Before 1663, Samuel Pepys travelled to Cambridge by way of Ware – often complaining about the state of the road, particularly when he had to get down from the coach and fell into a ditch – but after the erection of the turnpike, he preferred to go via Bishop’s Stortford. Others went by way of Hatfield, on what became known as the Great North Road.

In an attempt to attract what was left of the coaching business, the Ware inkeepers offered new facilities. Riverside gardens were laid out with summerhouses, or gazebos, for the enjoyment of their guests. In addition, any visitor who wished to stay in an inn containing the Great Bed of Ware was treated to an elaborate and bawdy ritual. In their time, a number of Ware inns housed the Great Bed, which is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It is thought to have been made as a sort of advertising gimmick for the Ware inns.

The malting industry dominated the life of the town from the 17th century, and Ware could justly claim to be the premier malting town in England. What gave malting in Ware the edge over other centres was its position between London and the barley-growing counties of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, and also its situation on the River Lea with easy transport by barge to London. One of Ware’s specialities in the early years was brown malt – a malt which had been cured at a high temperature over a wood-burning kiln – and this became the main ingredient of ‘porter’ or ‘entire’, the main drink of London’s labourers during the 18th century. Brown malt earned Ware its superiority and its own quoted price on the London Corn Exchange. There are many former malthouses in the town, now converted to other uses, and the last working malting, Paul’s at Broadmeads, was a thoroughly modern, computerised plant. However, that too closed, in January 1994, thus bringing to an end the 600-year-old malting industry for which Ware was once famous.

From wikipedia, on the history of toll roads internationally –

Toll roads are at least 2700 years old, as tolls had to be paid by travelers using the SusaBabylon highway under the regime of Ashurbanipal, who reigned in the seventh century BC.[1] Aristotle and Pliny refer to tolls in Arabia and other parts of Asia. In India, before the 4th century BC the Arthasastra notes the use of tolls. Germanic tribes charged tolls to travellers across mountain passes. Tolls were used in the Holy Roman Empire in the 14th century and 15th century.

A 14th century example (though not for a road) would be Castle Loevestein in the Netherlands, which was built at a strategic point where 2 rivers met, and charged tolls to boats sailing the river.

Many modern European roads were originally constructed as toll roads in order to recoup the costs of construction. In 14th century England, some of the most heavily used roads were repaired with money raised from tolls by pavage grants. Turnpike trusts were established in England beginning in 1706, and were ultimately responsible for the maintenance and improvement of most main roads in England and Wales, until they were gradually abolished from the 1870s. Most trusts improved existing roads, but some new ones usually only short stretches of road were also built. Thomas Telford‘s Holyhead road (now the A5 road) is exceptional as a particularly long new road, built in the early 19th century.

National toll-road differences

Toll roads are found in many countries. The way they are funded and operated may differ from country to country. Some of these toll roads are privately owned and operated. Others are owned by the government. Some of the government-owned toll roads are privately operated.

Some toll roads are managed under such systems as the Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) system. Private companies build the roads and are given a limited franchise. Ownership is transferred to the government when the franchise expires. Throughout the world, this type of arrangement is prevalent in Australia, South Korea, Japan, Philippines, and Canada. The (BOT) system is a fairly new concept that is gaining ground in the United States, with Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi[2], Texas, and Virginia already building and operating toll roads under this scheme. Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Tennessee are also considering the BOT methodology for future highway projects.

The more traditional means of managing toll roads in the United States is through semi-autonomous public authorities. New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Oklahoma, and West Virginia manage their toll roads in this manner. While most of the toll roads in California, Delaware, Florida, Texas, and Virginia are operating under the BOT arrangement, a few of the older toll roads in these states are still operated by public authorities.

Payment of the road toll may be made in cash, by credit card, by pre-paid card or by an electronic toll collection system. In some European countries payment is made using stickers which are affixed to the windscreen. Some toll booths are automated. Tolls may vary according to the distance traveled, the building and maintenance costs of the motorway and the type of vehicle.

In France, all toll roads are operated by private companies, and the government takes a part of their profit.

Critics of toll roads

According to Gabriel Roth toll roads have been criticized as being inefficient in three ways:

  1. They require vehicles to stop or slow down, manual toll collection wastes time and raises vehicle operating costs.
  2. Collection costs can absorb up to one-third of revenues, and revenue theft is considered to be comparatively easy.
  3. Where the tolled roads are less congested than the parallel “free” roads, the traffic diversion resulting from the tolls increases congestion on the road system and reduces its usefulness.

From wikipedia, on toll roads in the United Kingdom

Medieval Pavage

Main article: pavage

In the 14th century, pavage grants, which had previously been made for paving the market place or streets of towns, began also to be used for maintaining some roads between towns. These grants were made by letters patent, almost invariably for a limited term, presumably the time likely to be required to pay for the required works.

Highway Repair

Responsibility for the upkeep of the roads seems to have rested with landowners, but was probably not easily enforced against them.

The Parliament of England placed the upkeep of bridges to local settlements or the containing county under the Bridges Act 1530 and in 1555 the care of roads was similarly devolved to the parishes as statute labour under the Highways Act 1555. Every adult inhabitant of the parish was obliged to work four consecutive days a year on the roads, providing their own tools, carts and horses. The work was overseen by an unpaid local appointee, the Surveyor of Highways.

It was not until 1654 that road rates were introduced. However, the improvements offered by paid labour were offset by the rise in the use of wheeled vehicles greatly increasing wear to the road surfaces. The government reaction to this was to use legislation to limit the use of wheeled vehicles and also to regulate their construction. A vain hope that wider rims would be less damaging briefly led to carts with sixteen inch wheels. They did not cause ruts but neither did they roll and flatten the road as was hoped.

Early Turnpikes

The first turnpike road, whereby travellers paid tolls to be used for road upkeep, was authorised in 1663 for a section of the Great North Road in Hertfordshire. The term turnpike refers the military practise of placing a pikestaff across a road to block and control passage, this would be “turned” to one side to allow travellers through. Most English gates were not built to this standard; of the first three gates, two were found to be easily avoided.

The early turnpikes were administered directly by the Justices of the Peace in Quarter Sessions.

Turnpike Trusts

Main article: turnpike trust

The first turnpike trust was established by Parliament through a Turnpike Act in 1706, placing a section of the London-CoventryChester road in the hands of a group of trustees.

The trustees could erect gates as they saw fit, demand statute labour or a cash equivalent, and appoint surveyors and collectors, in return they repaired the road and put up mileposts. Initially trusts were established for limited periods of often twenty one years. The expectation was that the trust would borrow the money to repair the road and repay that debt over time with the road then reverting to the parishes. In reality the initial debt was rarely paid off and the trusts were renewed as needed.

The end of the Trusts

The rise of railway transport largely halted the improving schemes of the turnpike trusts. The London-Birmingham railway almost instantly halved the tolls income of the Holyhead Road. The system was never properly reformed but from the 1870s Parliament stopped renewing the acts and roads began to revert to local authorities, the last trust vanishing in 1895. However, some bridges have continued to be subject to tolls.

The Local Government Act, 1888 created county councils and gave them responsibility for maintaining the major roads. The abiding relic of the English toll roads is the number of houses with names like “Turnpike Cottage”, the inclusion of “Bar” in place names and occasional road name: Turnpike Lane in northern London has given its name to an Underground station.

Modern Toll Roads

In recent times, the concept of charging tolls to finance the building of roads has been revived, but so far the only new toll road is M6 Toll. The opposite is the case in Scotland where all toll roads have been abolished as of February, 2008 [1].


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