A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 10

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The fundamental principle of the turnpike system was that of transferring the cost of repairing main roads from the parish to the users.

The mediæval practice, under which the roads were maintained by religious houses, private benevolence and individual landowners, had, of course, still left the common law obligation that each and every parish should keep in repair the roads within its own particular limits, the Act of Philip and Mary, with its imposition of statute duty, being, in effect, only a means for the regulation and carrying out of such requirement. The parishioners were even indictable if they failed to keep the roads in repair.

But in proportion as trade and travel increased, the greater became alike the need for good roads and, also, the apparent injustice of requiring the residents in a particular parish to do statute labour on roads, or to pay for labour thereon, less in the interest of themselves and their neighbours than in that of strangers, or traffic, passing through on the main road from one town to another. In effect, also, whether such requirement were reasonable or not, the work itself was either not done at all or was done in a way that still left the roads in a condition commonly described as "execrable."

The principle that the users should pay for the main roads by means of tolls was thus definitely adopted; but the obligation in regard to other than main roads still rested in full with the parish. It was not, however, until the passing of 24 Geo. II., c. 43, that turnpike roads were mentioned as distinct from "highways," this being the accepted designation for roads for which the parish was responsible. When the adoption of the turnpike system became more general, that is to say, about the year 1767, the turnpike roads were maintained—or were supposed to be maintained—by tolls, and the [ 78 ]statute labour and contributions in lieu thereof were mainly appropriated to the cross roads constituting the parish highways, on which no turnpikes were placed; though certain proportions of the statute labour or statute labour contributions also became available for turnpike roads which could not otherwise be properly maintained.

At first there was a pronounced disinclination on the part of the public in various parts of the country to tolerate toll-bars. It might be supposed that, the state of the roads having generally been so deplorable, everyone would have welcomed their amendment under almost any possible conditions. Defoe, at least, was enthusiastic over the prospect of better roads that turnpikes foreshadowed. Alluding to them in his "Tour," he says: "And 'tis well worth recording, for the Honour of the present Age, that this Work has been begun, and is in an extraordinary Manner carry'd on, and perhaps may, in a great Measure be compleat within our Memory, as to the worst and most dangerous Roads in the Kingdom. And this is a Work of so much general Good that certainly no publick Edifice, Alms-house, Hospital or Nobleman's Palace, can be of equal Value to the Country with this, nor at the same time more an Honour and Ornament to it."

But there was another point of view which is thus expressed by Whitaker in "Loidis and Elmete": "To intercept an ancient highway, to distrain upon a man for the purchase of a convenience which he does not desire, and to debar him from the use of his ancient accommodation, bad as it was, because he will not pay for a better, has certainly an arbitrary aspect, at which the rude and undisciplined rabble of the north would naturally revolt."

Objections to turnpikes had been further fomented by demagogues who went about the country proclaiming that the gates which were being put up were part of a design planned by the Government to enslave the people and deprive them of their liberty.

Not only did many individuals in various parts of the country refuse to use the turnpike roads, or to pay toll if they did use them, but in some instances the gates were destroyed, by way of making the protests more emphatic. In 1728 it was thought necessary to pass a general Act against "ill-designing and disorderly persons" who had "in various parts of this [ 79 ]Kingdom associated themselves together, both by day and by night, and cut down, pulled down, burnt and otherwise destroyed several turnpike gates and houses which have been erected by authority of Parliament for repairing divers roads by tolls, thereby preventing such tolls from being taken, and lessening the security of divers of her Majesty's good subjects for considerable sums of money which they have advanced upon credit of the said Acts, and deterring others from making like advances." Persons convicted of such offences were—without any discretion being given to the justices—to be committed for three months' imprisonment, and were, also, to be whipped at the market cross. These penalties appear to have been unavailing, since we find that four years later the punishment, even for a first offence, was increased to seven years' transportation.

But the hostility increased rather than diminished. In the "Gentleman's Magazine" for 1749 there is an account of some turnpike riots in Somerset and Gloucestershire which began on the night of the 24th of July and were not suppressed until the 5th of the following month. A start was made with the destruction of the gates near Bedminster by "great numbers of people." On the following night a crowd bored holes in the gates at Don John's Cross, a mile from Bristol, blew up the gates with gunpowder, and destroyed the toll-house. Cross-bars and posts were erected next day, in place of the gates, and the turnpike commissioners took it in turns to enforce payment of the tolls. At night "a prodigious body of Somersetshire people," armed with various instruments of destruction, and some of them disguised in women's clothes, went along the roads to an accompaniment of drum-beating and much shouting, demolished the turnpikes, and pulled down the toll-houses. Re-erected, the gates were guarded by a "body of seamen, well armed with musquets, pistols and cutlasses"; but two nights afterwards the rioters were out again, this time with rusty swords, pitch-forks, axes, guns, pistols and clubs. They demolished and burned some turnpikes which had been put up a third time, and destroyed others besides. By August 3 "almost all the turnpikes and turnpike-houses" in the neighbourhood of Bristol had been demolished; but a report dated Bristol, August 12, says: "By the arrival of six troops of dragoon guards on the 5th, [ 80 ]we are secured from all insults of the country people who immediately dispersed and posts and chains are again erected, and the tolls levied, but the turnpikes are fixed nearer the city."

The revolt in Yorkshire referred to by Whitaker occurred in 1753, four years later than the disturbances in the west. At Selby the inhabitants were summoned by the bellman to assemble at midnight, with hatchets and axes, and destroy the turnpikes. They obeyed the summons, and any gate left unprotected was soon level with the ground. In the neighbourhood of Leeds the rioting was especially serious. Whitaker says concerning it:—

"The public roads about Leeds were at that time narrow, generally consisting of a hollow way that only allowed a passage for carriages drawn by a horse in a single row, and an elevated causeway covered with flags or boulder stones.

"The attempt to improve this state of the public roads excited great discontent among the lower classes of the people, who formed the design of pulling down all the turnpike bars in the neighbourhood."

They pulled down, or burned down, as many as a dozen in one week; and when some of the rioters had been arrested, and were on their way to York Castle, their friends attempted a rescue, following this up by assaulting the magistrates and breaking some windows. Troops were called out, and, warnings and the firing of blank cartridge being of no avail, ball cartridges were used, with the result that two or three persons were shot dead, and twenty-two were wounded, some fatally.

Whatever the justification for the turnpikes that gave rise to this popular discontent, the way in which the system itself was developed was certainly open to criticism.

The precedent set by the Act of Charles II. in the grouping together of several counties, and in conferring on the justices the powers of chief control, was wholly disregarded. Instead of even an improvement on this procedure being effected by the creation of a national system of turnpike roads, directed by some central authority, and responding in regard to internal communication to the wants of the country as a whole, there was called into being an almost endless number of purely local trusts, each taking charge of, as a rule, from ten to [ 81 ]twenty miles of road, each concerned only in its own local, or even its own personal, interests, and each operating under conditions that involved an excessive expenditure with, too often, the most unsatisfactory of results for the general public.

The defects of the system thus brought about were well recognised by various authorities at a time when they were still being experienced to the full.

The Select Committee appointed by the House of Commons in 1819 to consider the subject of public highways said in the course of their report:—

"The importance of land-carriage to the prosperity of a country need not be dwelt upon. Next to the general influence of the seasons ... there is, perhaps, no circumstance more interesting to men in a civilised state than the perfection of the means of interior communication. It is a matter, therefore, to be wondered at, that so great a source of national improvement has hitherto been so much neglected. Instead of the roads of the Kingdom being made a great national concern, a number of local trusts are created, under the authority of which large sums of money are collected from the public, and expended without adequate responsibility or control. Hence arises a number of abuses, for which no remedy is provided, and the resources of the country, instead of being devoted to useful purposes, are too often improvidently wasted."

Writing in 1823, Dehany said in reference to the Act of 1663, "It is to be regretted that this plan of passing one Act applicable to a considerable district, and carrying it into execution under the superintendence of the magistracy, was not pursued, instead of parcelling out the roads into smaller divisions, with independent bodies of trustees"; while the "Westminster Review," in its issue for October, 1825, argued that the whole system of roads should be one, and continued:—

"Such a work might have been thought the duty of the Government most interested in it; but that Government seems generally to be otherwise occupied. Leaving all to individual exertion, it perhaps often leaves too much; since there are matters in which individual exertion has an insufficient interest, while there are others which it is unable to accomplish without unjustifiable sacrifices. We do not desire the perpetual, nor even the frequent interference of Government, that is most [ 82 ]certain; but there is an useful medium between the intermeddling of some of the continental states and that neglect, or, rather, discountenance, which our own throws on numerous matters where its aid would be of use, and which, without that aid, cannot be accomplished.... The freedom of universal communication is the object, and it is to little purpose that one portion of a road be good if the other is impassable. It is a national and not a private concern."

Under the conditions actually brought about it was left for any group of landowners and others in any particular district where better roads were needed to apply to Parliament for an Act authorising them to raise a loan in order to meet the initial cost of making or repairing a road, and to set up gates or bars where they could enforce payment of tolls out of which to recoup themselves for their expenditure and meet the costs of maintenance. Theoretically, these were simply temporary expedients, and the turnpike trustees, having once provided a good road, and got their money back, would take down the toll-gates again, and leave the road for the free use of the public. Hence every Turnpike Act was granted only for a limited period, generally about twenty years, and had to be renewed at the end of that term if, as invariably happened, the debt on the road had not been cleared off, and the need for toll-collection still remained. The cost of procuring the periodical continuance of all these Acts was, in itself, a not inconsiderable burden on the finances of the trusts. In, for example, the twenty-four years from 1785 to 1809, the number of Turnpike Acts, whether new Acts or renewals of old ones, passed by the Legislature was no fewer than 1062.

One result of the excessive localisation of the turnpike system was that trusts of absurdly large proportions were created to look after absurdly small stretches of road. "The fundamental principle," says a writer in the "Edinburgh Review" for October, 1819, "is always to vest the whole management in the hands of the country gentlemen; and, as they act gratuitously, it has been the policy of the law to appoint in each act a prodigious number of commissioners—frequently from one hundred to two hundred, for the care of ten or fifteen miles of road; and thus a business of art and science is committed to a promiscuous mob of peers, squires, farmers and shopkeepers, who are chosen, not for their [ 83 ]fitness to discharge the duties of commissioners, but from the sole qualification of residence within a short distance from the road to be made or repaired."

That the best interests of the community could be served under these conditions was an impossibility. The "Edinburgh Review" declares, in fact, that the whole time of the meetings of turnpike trusts was "occupied in tumultuous and unprofitable discussions, and in resolving on things at one meeting which run a good chance of being reversed at the next; that the well informed and civilized commissioners become very soon disgusted with the disorderly uproar, or the want of sense, temper or honesty of some of their companions; and that the management finally falls into the hands of a few busy, bustling, interested persons of low condition, who attend the meetings with no idea of performing a public duty, but for the purpose of turning their powers, by some device or other, to the profit of themselves or of their friends or relations."

The writer of the article on "Roads" in "Rees' Cyclopædia" is no less condemnatory of the whole system, speaking of the "violent disputations and bickerings" at the meetings of the trustees, where, he says, "a proposed new line of road or, perhaps, the repair of an old one, will sometimes be contested with as great keenness and vehemence as if the parties were contending whether Great Britain shall be a monarchy or a republic."

Each trust, again, had its own organisation, with attorney, treasurer, clerk and surveyor; and one may assume that each of these individuals, in turn, was inspired by no greater sense of public duty than were many of the trustees themselves, and was much more concerned in what he could make out of the business for himself than in helping to provide through routes of communication in the interests of the community. The surveyors were, generally speaking, hopelessly incompetent. The short length of road in charge of a trust and the consequent limitation of the amount received for tolls did not, as a rule, warrant the payment of an adequate salary to a really qualified man, and the individual upon whom the courtesy title of "surveyor" was conferred was often either the pensioned servant of a local landowner or some other person equally unfit to be entrusted with those functions of [ 84 ]road-management which the trustees, whether as the result of their mutual differences or otherwise, generally left in his hands. The "Edinburgh Review," in the article already quoted, declares that "the state of the roads displays no symptoms of well qualified commissioners. They leave the art and science of the business to their surveyor—who is commonly just as much in the clouds as themselves as to his own proper calling. With a laudable veneration for his forefathers, he proceeds according to the antient system of things, without plan or method; and fearing no rivalry, and subject to no intelligent control, he proceeds, like his predecessors, to waste the road money on team work and paupers, and leave nothing for the public like a road but the name and cost of it."

Nevertheless, the turnpike system, defective in itself, badly administered, and burdensome to the toll-payers, did bring about an improvement in roads which previously had too often received little or no attention; and this improvement, as will be shown in the chapter that follows, had a material influence on trade, travel and social conditions; though it was not to attain its maximum results until the turnpike roads had been supplemented by a further system of scientific road-making and road-repairing.