THE GREAT NORTH ROAD

History - PART 1 CHAPTER 8

 TURNPIKES

"So the gay cavalcade passed along Narrow Lane, round Grindstone Quarry Hill, and through the Scotch fir clump at Cornbrook, to avoid the great staring toll-bar at Latchford Law. Hazey never disturbed a 'pikeman if he could help it."[1] 

The greatest revolution in road travel in England, before the development of the internal combustion engine, was the creation of a national system of roads following the spate of turnpike acts that were presented to Parliament in the late 18th Century. The idea of toll roads and indeed turnpikes was not new. There had been tolls on certain London roads in the 14th Century and in 1364 Edward III allowed William Phelippe, the hermit, to levy a toll on Highgate Hill. In 1621 such was the damage to the clay soil of the Great North Road between Biggleswade and Baldock caused by driven cattle and heavy traffic and the inability of the parish authorities to repair it, that a bill was introduced to raise funds for road repair by charging tolls. Attempts to improve through roads were unpopular with ratepayers who did not necessarily benefit from the expenditure and turnpikes were intended to make those who used the roads pay for them. 

In 1663, following the Restoration, the first turnpike act was passed and authorised tollgates on the "ancient highway and post road leading from London to York and so into Scotland," specifically on the low lying parts of the Old North Road at Wadesmill, near Ware, Caxton in Cambridgeshire and Stilton near Peterborough. This was regarded as an emergency measure and was approved for 11 years only, though a later Act extended it to 15 years. It was not a great success; the Caxton turnpike was easily bypassed and the Stilton one, which encountered fierce local opposition, was never built. Turnpikes were no more popular with travellers than the old system of repair had been with ratepayers and, in the face of a number of violent attacks on tollgates, the experiment fell into disuse until the later part of the 18th Century.

The turnpike itself referred to the barrier closing the road. The early versions, based on a Dutch design, were a horizontal bar mounted at right angles with pikes, originally designed to stop cavalry. The bar could be swung open like a gate. Later the pikes were removed and the bar came more closely to resemble a conventional gate.

It became clear, with the growth of trade that followed the inception of the Industrial Revolution, that the national transport system was inadequate. Rivers were used widely for moving goods during the 17th Century and were improved by deepening and widening and the building of locks during the reign of Queen Anne, but it was not until 1761 that the Duke of Bridgewater opened the first entirely newly dug waterway with the Worsley canal in Cheshire and Lancashire which linked Salford with the Mersey and the sea and which halved the price of coal in Manchester[2]. Many other canals followed. Equally, the roads needed improvement urgently and this only came with the growth of industry as De Quincey points out: "Not until our cotton system began to put forth blossoms, not until our trade and our steam-engines began to stimulate the coal mines, which in their turn stimulated them, did any great energy apply itself to our roads."[3] Between 1763 and 1774, there were 452 Acts of Parliament for turnpikes and "slender lines of improvement began to vein and streak the map."[4] By the end of the century, 20,000 miles of road were covered and there were 8,000 tollgates in place. Curiously the immediate impetus for change was military. The success of the Jacobites in the '45 Rebellion frightened the Government who saw the need for better roads to allow the movement of troops, and thus turnpikes were accepted as a necessary evil. Many of the early turnpike trusts were set up by local landowners and merchants, who had a greater interest in raising money from tolls than in improving the roads, and were viewed with justifiable suspicion, as some were fraudulent, others went bankrupt and many pikemen were dishonest. Here is Belloc's opinion: "The idea of the turnpike was to give a small body of capitalists the right to exploit certain sections of road.... they would put up gates where they could charge for the passage of all and sundry.... the roads of the country were more and more given over to what we call to-day capitalist exploitation."[5]

While this might not have been the general view, there is no doubt that some people believed that the roads were worse under this system than before. The trusts had the right to impress free local labour, and retained it up to 1835, and this was immensely unpopular, leading to widespread turnpike riots when gates were torn down and burnt, so that the death penalty was imposed for such vandalism. What succeeded this system was hardly better, for Parish Surveyors were given the power, where tolls were insufficient, to impose a levy on the rates. This was the main cause of the Rebecca Riots which took place in the 1840s in South Wales, when the rioters, who dressed as women and blackened their faces in disguise, called themselves the Daughters of Rebecca, inspired by Genesis Chapter 24 verse 60 "And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her.... let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them." These riots were suppressed by the army, but not before nearly all the turnpikes in South Wales had been destroyed.

In 1773 the General Turnpike Act established the first national system of roads, removing the duty of maintaining trunk roads from parishes (though they retained their responsibility for secondary roads or "highways"). By 1787, the Great North Road was gated the whole way from London to Edinburgh. One incidental consequence of this act was the standardisation of measurement of distance as milestones were compulsory and the Statute Mile[6] became universal. Previously there had been wide variations and, for example, the Post Office "computed" or "reputed" mileage from London to Berwick had been 262 miles compared with an actual 339 statute miles, which incidentally was the same as Ogilby made it in 1675. The turnpike acts, for the first time, allowed new roads to be developed along new routes. It was not until Telford built the Holyhead Road in 1810, however, that a complete road linking two points was designed and built as a single unified enterprise.

Turnpikes were regarded with hostility by travellers, who took pains to avoid them wherever possible, like Mr Hazey. Parliament tried to prevent such evasion and the 1773 Act included a Section as follows: "No Waggon or Cart to be turned out of a Turnpike Road to avoid the Tolls, on Forfeiture of a Horse." Another Section had this to say: "Persons fraudulently taking off any Horse or Beast of Draught, from any Waggon or Carriage, before the same comes to any Gate; forfeit Five Pounds." This was because tolls varied, not only according to the number of wheels on a vehicle but also according to how many horses or oxen pulled it. Tolls were paid grudgingly and the gate keepers or 'pikemen regarded with hostility, a sentiment they returned, as Dickens describes:

--the stopping at the turnpike where the man had gone to bed, and knocking at the door until he answered with a smothered shout from under the bed clothes in the little room above, where the faint light was burning, and presently came down, nightcapped and shivering, to throw the gate wide open, and wish all waggons off the road, except by day.[7]

And Mr Weller senior had this to say:

" Wery queer life is a pike-keeper's, sir.... They're all on 'em men has met vith some disappointment in life.... Consequent of vich, they retires from the world, and shuts themselves up in pikes; partly with a view of being solitary, and partly to rewenge themselves on mankind by takin' tolls...if they was gen'l'm'n you'd call 'em misanthropes, but as it is, they only takes to pike-keepin' "[8]

The result of the turnpike acts was dramatic. The first coach with leaf springs had been built in 1754. By 1775, there were 400 stage-coaches on regular routes on the roads of England and 17,000 four wheeled carriages[9]. This was possible because the hard smooth surface needed by such vehicles was now available.

One of the reasons that maintenance had become such a burden on parishes was that techniques of road building and repair had improved and inevitably become more expensive. The pioneers of the new techniques were Blind Jack Metcalf of Knaresborough[10], who was mainly active in the north, and later the two Scots, John Loudon Macadam and Thomas Telford[11]. As Belloc pointed out "It is not always appreciated that the chief obstacle to travel from the beginning of time has been and still remains marsh, which may be defined as soil too sodden for travel, as distinguished from the lands which are boggy in wet weather but passable.... It is ... the chief problem presented to the making of a road, because of all the natural obstacles it is the only one wholly untraversable by unaided man."[12] As late as 1737 the orthodox way of building roads on marshy ground was to dig the road into the ground in the hope that the water would drain away like a river.[13] Metcalf, who was indeed blind since childhood, and who had been a carter, took the opposite view and built roads over boggy ground by criss crossing bundles of heather and "floating" a hard convex surface on the platform thus created. 

In the early 19th Century, Telford - called Pontifex Maximus by Southey - developed Metcalf's ideas in making a firm foundation of larger stone sets, laid on their edges, putting a 6 inch layer of smaller stones on and packed between them and then a gravel surface, pitched and cambered for drainage. Macadam, nicknamed "The Magician", who had observed Swiss and Swedish roadbuilders, believed in strength of surface rather than foundations. He wrote: "A road ought to be considered as an artificial flooring forming a strong smooth surface at once capable of carrying a great weight and over which carriages may pass without meeting any impediment."[14]

Footnotes

[1]R S Surtees Mr Facey Romford's Hounds

[2]J H Plumb England in the Eighteenth Century. The Romans had, however, built canals including a major one called Caerdyke from the Nene at Peterborough to the Witham at Lincoln.

[3]Thomas De Quincey Autobiographical Sketches.

[4]Ibid.

[5]5 Hilaire Belloc The Road.

[6] Eight furlongs of forty perches of five and a half yards each.

[7]Charles Dickens The Old Curiosity Shop.

[8]Charles Dickens The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club.

[9]Addison.

[10]10 Metcalf lived 1717-1810, Macadam 1756-1836, Telford 1757-1834. Macadam's name is sometimes written McAdam, for example in Encylopaedia Britannica.

[11]Hilaire Belloc The Road 1924

[12] Robert Phillips in his "Dissertation concerning the present State of the High Roads of England" argued that, if the surface of roads was lower than the surrounding land, water would drain away naturally into the land; he had observed that the beds of rivers were hard and smooth.

[13]J L Macadam Report on the Highway System of the United Kingdom 1835.

[14]This compares with 31,500 miles of motorways and A roads in 1993.