Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Stand And Deliver ... Your Tolls? The Rise and Fall of the Turnpikes

by J.A. Beard

Of all the benefits of modern industrialized civilization, roads are perhaps one we take the most for granted. Perhaps quality roads and easy of transport seem not all that worthy of special attention. Many ancient civilizations, after all, had developed fine road networks. At the dawn of the Georgian age, however, the quality of many roads in England left much to be desired.

First, let's take a step back and consider many roads prior to the 18th century. During this period, the resources and funds for road maintenance were maintained mostly at the parish level. Paving of any form certainly was limited. This was adequate for making sure various local roads were decent, but the system didn't do much to maintain the quality of distant roads and the intermediate roads connecting various far-flung locales. The net result was a haphazard system of road improvements of varying quality. Wheeled travel was often unpleasant and dangerous. Rugged road conditions and holes could easily lead to accidents.

Inclement weather only made things worse and England is far from an arid country. It was somewhat difficult to drive a coach through a muddied mess. Riding a horse was more practical, but not necessarily comfortable or practical depending on one's circumstances.

Economic improvements, along with the accompanying transportation of heavier amounts of goods, also contributed to wear and tear on many a poor-quality road. Even if the Georgian-era traveler ignored the poor quality of the roads and the difficulties associated with weather, there also was the unpleasant issue of highwaymen. The increase in traffic and trade travel, particularly in the environs of London, hadn't been lost on the criminal element. The lack of an organized police force, let alone anything akin to a highway patrol, only contributed to the problem. A swift, mounted criminal could waive a pistol and demand that someone, “Stand and deliver!” often with impunity despite the threat of execution or transportation to Australia.

Things began to turn around for the often poor, sad, and unsafe roads of England at the beginning of the 18th century because of the Turnpike Acts. Following up on earlier parliamentary acts, in 1696, the first Turnpike Act was enacted, the first of many to follow.

So what were these Turnpike Acts, why did they have to pass so many, and what did they have to do with road quality and highwaymen? These acts established Turnpike Trusts. These trusts were granted the responsibility of taking care of a certain portion of a road, but also granted them several legal tools to do this, including two of particular importance: the right to collect tools and to control access on roads through the use of both gates and men.  The name itself comes from gates’ designs that involved pike-like constructions on crossbars that could be rotated, though not every tollgate necessarily had such a design, and now, of course, the turnpike has evolved into just a general term for toll road.

The trusts each could handle their various roads and road sections as they saw fit, so many would farm out the actual administration of the trusts to other enterprising people. These sort of trust subcontractors, as it were, could then do their best to efficiently run the trusts for a profit.

In the early years of the system, the various turnpike roads weren’t necessarily all that better maintained than before, but techniques advances lead to general quality improvements, particularly in the latter half of the 18th century, which, in turn, fueled a massive expansion of the system, with a general slowing of expansion with the coming of the 19th century. Although there were nearly one thousand trusts in place by the end of the Regency, and thus the tail end of the Georgian era, in 1820, it’s important to note that the majority of roads in England were still maintained by parishes and other local entities. That being said, many major important roads were under the control of turnpike trusts.

While the trusts, in general, contributed to road improvements that helped reduce transport times and the general quality and safety of travel, they also improved general security. Although there were some other contributory factors, the rise of the turnpike system, particularly on high traffic roads, greatly contributed to the decline of highwaymen. The presence of so many guarded gates made post-robbery escapes far more difficult.

Although, like so many things, the decline of the turnpike system was multi-factorial, the most fundamental contributory factor was the rise of a more efficient and swift means of mass transit: the railroads. By the end of the 19th century, a stronger central government, municipalities, and county councils took down the gates and took over the responsibility of maintaining the roads. Only a smattering of smaller private roads, tolled bridges, tolled tunnels, and the newer M6 Toll remain as the descendants, direct and indirect, of the extensive system that once covered tens of thousands of kilometers.


  1. Fascinating.
    For some reason this post evoked memories (a coconute madeleine moment!) of a summer's day when I was in infant's school, staring out of the window and watching the willows blow in the breeze - whilst the teacher drew a diagram of a cross section of a roman road!

  2. How many people just galloped around the toll gates? Were the men guarding the tolls waiting for such a despicable act? On another note, I read the holes were so bad a whole cart could fall into them, with little poking over the edges.
    Great post. Love this stuff.

  3. J.A., thank you for this.

    Some bits of road were far more heavily used and therefore subject to more frequent repair and generally better upkeep. The Great North Road is one such--it ran up from London through to York and onto Edinburgh. It forms the basis of the A1 in Britain today. Another such is the Great Road to Bath, which went from London to Bath and onto Bristol. The Great Road to Portsmouth which ran through Ripley was another of the better maintained roads.

    And Hollywood films notwithstanding, the amount of galloping one actually does really isn't that much--not if you expect the horse to keep going for a longish journey. It takes too much energy and beyond the toll gates, well, it would be private property and if one galloped over some farmer or landowner's field and destroyed his crops, that'd be trespass and a crime...

  4. Thanks for the information, M.M.

  5. Interesting post! I spent many a road trip on the Pennsylvania turnpike, which began construction in 1937 (so a little later than the ones you describe in UK! But ironic that ours were emerging as yours were ending) I think we only have turnpikes in a handful of states (NJ, Ohio, PA), and every time I'd say you'll have to take the turnpike, people from other parts of the US would say, 'what's a turnpike?" But there's a turning part to them (at least originally) isn't there? I always imagine they were something like a capstan on a ship, but maybe that's a faulty image. Do you know what the first ones looked like?

  6. Yes, the name came from the fact you were originally turning a gate that typically had some sort of sharpened pike-like affair on it. So you were literally "turning pikes". Though after that you just had a lot of them being standard-issue gates that could be opened and closed, but you're still 'turning' the gate when you open them.

    I haven't personally seen a capstan-style design and, in general, it seems like it'd be unnecessary given the way most of them were constructed, but I can't say for certain they never used that style.

    I found this flickr collection that has some images of various gates and designs, most of these those are from the 18th-century or later.

  7. Great post. I occasionally envy English historical fiction writers for all of the old resources in our own language. Writing about the Continent, where old books are in a multitude of foreign languages, has proven to be a challenge. But I do love a challenge! :)

  8. I can feel you on that. My two main periods of interest are the English Regency (easy resources) and Heian Japan (not so easy resourcces).

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.