A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 23

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[ 312 ]



The inherent defects of the turnpike system must in themselves have been fatal to its permanent continuance, irrespective of the influence of the railways, which did not kill the turnpikes so much as merely give them the coup de grace.

No one can deny the adequacy of the time that Parliament had devoted to the kindred subjects of roads and waggons. By 1838—and only a few years, therefore, later than the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway—Parliament had passed no fewer than 3800 private and local turnpike Acts, and had authorised the creation in England and Wales of 1116 turnpike trusts, controlling 22,000 miles of road. But the whole system was hopelessly inefficient, wasteful and burdensome, besides being as unsatisfactory in its administration as it was in its results.

Managed or directed by trustees and surveyors under the conditions detailed in Chapter X, the actual work on the turnpike roads was mainly carried out by statute labour, pauper labour or labour paid for out of the tolls, out of the receipts from the composition for statute duty, or, as a last resource, at the direct cost of the ratepayers, who were thus made responsible for the turnpike as well as for the parish roads.

Statute labour was a positive burlesque of English local government. Archdeacon Plymley says in his "General View of the Agriculture of Shropshire" (1803): "There is no trick, evasion or idleness that shall be deemed too mean to avoid working on the road: sometimes the worst horses are sent; at others a broken cart, or a boy, or an old man past labour, to fill: they are sometimes sent an hour or two too late in the morning, or they leave off much sooner than the proper time, unless the surveyor watch the whole day."

In the article already quoted from the "Westminster [ 313 ]Review" for October, 1825, it is said: "Statute labour on the parish roads is limited to six days work and on the turnpikes to three. But it is now found generally expedient to demand or take money in lieu of labour, according to a rate to be fixed by the justices in different places.... In practice the statute labour was frequently a farce, half of the time being spent in going and returning and in conversation and idleness."

An authority referred to in Postlethwayt's "Dictionary" (1745) had suggested that criminals condemned to death for minor offences should, instead of being transported, be ordered to do a year's work on the highway. He further recommended, in all seriousness, that arrangements should be made with the African Company for the importation of 200 negroes as road-repairers, they being, as he said, "generally persons to do a great deal of work." Failing criminals and negroes, some of the parishes did employ paupers, gangs of whom were to be seen pretending to work at road-mending, and getting far more degeneration for themselves than they did good for the roads.

In 1835 Parliament abolished both statute labour and statute labour composition, thenceforward wholly superseded by highway rates as applying to the whole of the minor roads for which the parish was responsible.

Bad as the statute labour system had been, its abolition involved a loss to the turnpike trusts estimated at about £200,000 a year; and this was a serious matter to trustees whose financial position was becoming hopeless in view of their liabilities and the discouraging nature of their outlook. Such discouragement was due in great part to the advent of the railways, but not entirely so, the Select Committee of 1839 on Turnpike Trusts saying in their report that "the gradual decline in the transit on turnpike roads in some parts of the country arises not only from the railways formed but from steam vessels plying on rivers and as coasting traders"; and they added: "Whenever mechanical power has been substituted for animal power, the result has hitherto been that the labour is performed at a cheaper rate."

The cost of making and repairing turnpike roads, especially under the primitive conditions still widely retained, notwithstanding the improved methods introduced by Telford [ 314 ]and McAdam, was in itself a most serious item, apart from the excessive expenditure on administration. Dr James Anderson says on this subject in the issue of his "Recreations" for November, 1800:—

"I have been assured, and believe it to be true, though I cannot pledge myself for the certainty of the fact, that there is annually laid out on repairs upon the road from Hyde Park to Hounslow considerably above £1000 a mile. A turnpike road cannot be made in almost any situation for less, as I am told, than £1000 per mile; but where it is of considerable width, as near great towns, it will run from £1500 to £2000 per mile; and in annual repairs, including the purchase price of materials, carting them to the road, spreading, raking off, and carting away again, from £100 to £1000 a mile."

The trustees generally raised loans to meet their first expenses, payment of interest being guaranteed out of the tolls levied; but though, at one time, and especially before the competition of railways became active, the security was regarded as adequate, an unduly costly management, combined with decreasing receipts from tolls, resulted in the piling up of huge financial liabilities which the trusts found it impossible to clear off in addition to meeting current expenditure. The Select Committee on Turnpike Trusts in 1839 reported on this subject: "The present debt of the turnpike trusts in England and Wales exceeds £9,000,000, and it is annually increasing, in consequence of the practice prevailing in several of the trusts of converting the unpaid interest into principal, the trustees giving bonds bearing interest for the amount of interest due." At this time there were no fewer than eighty-four trusts which had paid no interest on loans for several years, and there were said to be some trusts which had paid no interest for sixty years. Sir James McAdam, son of John Loudon McAdam, informed the Select Committee of 1839 that the amount of unpaid interest on the trusts at that time was £1,031,096.

In order to improve their financial position, the trustees generally adopted the expedient either of seeking Parliamentary authority to increase their tolls or of setting up the largest possible number of toll-gates along their own particular bit of road. In either case it was the road-user who paid.

The Select Committee of 1819 reported that in the three [ 315 ]preceding Sessions ninety turnpike trusts, seeking renewal of their Acts, had asked for authority to increase their tolls on the ground that they could not pay their debts without the assistance of Parliament. The alternative to an increase of tolls was carried so far that it became customary for the trusts to set up a toll-gate wherever there was the slightest excuse for so doing.

"In some places," says J. Kearsley Fowler, in "Records of Old Times," "as, for instance, my native town of Aylesbury, the place was literally hemmed in like a fortified city,—not even an outlet to exercise a horse without paying a toll." There were, he tells us, seven different trusts to maintain at Aylesbury alone.

Mr George Masefield, a solicitor residing at Ledbury, Herefordshire, said when giving evidence before the Select Committee on Turnpike Trusts in 1864 that in the twenty-one miles between Ledbury and Kingston, a journey he frequently made, he had to go through eight turnpike gates. In the eight miles' journey to Newent he passed through four gates and paid three times; and in the thirteen miles to Worcester he went through six gates and paid at five.

In Gloucestershire, said the "Morning Star" of September 30, 1856, "it sometimes happens you have to pay five turnpikes in twelve miles"; though such were the inequalities of the burden that in some other counties, said the same paper, one could go for miles without paying anything.

These inequalities had been previously pointed out in the "Westminster Review" article. In speaking of the practice followed in the location of turnpikes, the writer declared that "gates are sometimes placed so as to tax one portion and exempt another, so as to make strangers and travellers pay, while those who chiefly profit by the roads, and who destroy them most, are exempted." He further said that "the Welsh, with their characteristic cunning, have contrived to exempt their own heavy carts and to levy their tolls on the light barouches of unlucky visitors"; that one might see, in Scotland, three toll-gates, and all to be paid, in the space of a hundred yards; that one might, as against this, ride thirty miles without paying one toll; and that "the inhabitants of Greenwich pay the tolls for the half of Kent."

London in 1818 had twelve turnpike trusts for 210 miles of [ 316 ]road. The tolls they collected in that year amounted to £97,482; the expenses were £98,856, and the accumulated debt of the dozen trusts was £62,658.

On the Middlesex side of London there were 87 turnpike gates and bars within four miles of Charing Cross, or, including the Surrey side, a total of 100 within a four-mile radius. "Let the traveller drive through the Walworth gate southward," says J. E. Bradfield, in his "Notes on Toll Reform" (1856), "and note how every road, every alley, every passage has its 'bar.' The inhabitants cannot move north, east, south, or west without paying one toll; and some of them cannot get out of the parish without two tolls. The cry at every corner of Camberwell is 'Toll.'" The position of Walworth and Camberwell does not, however, appear to have been at all exceptional. In Besant's "Survey of London" it is stated that a map of London and its environs, published in 1835, shows that it was then impossible to get away from town without going through turnpikes. On every side they barred the way.

In the case of a stage-coach with four horses running every day between London and Birmingham, the tolls paid amounted to £1428 in the year. At one gate on the Brighton road the tolls collected came to £2400 in the year, and of this amount £1600 was from coaches. The payment of these tolls was a serious tax on the coaches, though an important source of revenue for the turnpike trustees; and in proportion as the coaches were taken off the roads, owing to the competition of the railways, the financial position of the trusts became still worse. Mail-coaches were exempted from tolls in England, though they had to pay them in Scotland.

The amount of the tolls varied according to the trusts or the locality. Kearsley Fowler says that in Aylesbury for a horse ridden or led, passing through the gates, the toll was 1½d.; for a vehicle drawn by one horse, 4½d.; for a carriage and pair, 9d., and so on. The tolls, he adds, fell with particular hardship on farmers, and became a tax on their trade. When sending away their corn or other produce with a waggon and four horses they paid, in some instances, 1s. 6d. or 2s. 3d. If, as often occurred, the waggon passed through two gates in eight or nine miles, the payments came to 3s. or 4s. 6d. If the waggon returned with coal or feeding stuffs it had to pay the same tolls over again.

[ 317 ]Nor did the toll-payers get anything like value for their money. About fifty per cent of the amount received by the trustees, either direct from the tolls or from the persons farming them, went in interest and management expenses; and although the remainder might be spent on road repairs, a good proportion of this was wasted because of the inefficient way in which the work was too often done. Mr Wrightson, a member of the Special Committee of 1864, declared that every toll-gate cost on an average £25 a year, and that every turnpike trust had, on an average, five toll-gates. The total number of trusts in 1864 was stated in the Fifteenth Annual Report of the Local Government Board (1886) to be 1048. An average of five toll-gates for each would give them a total of 5240; and an average cost of maintenance of £25 a year for this number of toll-gates gives a total of £131,000 a year as the cost simply of toll-gate maintenance, apart from salaries of official staff and other items. Mr R. M. Brereton, surveyor for the county of Norfolk, said in the course of his evidence before the Select Committee of the House of Lords on the Highway Acts (1881): "In Norfolk we collected £15,000 a year for tolls, but we only spent £7000 a year of that actually on the roads."

It might even happen that, after costs of management and payment of interest had been met, there was no balance left for road maintenance. In the Report of the Select Committee of 1839 on Turnpike Trusts it is stated that in several instances the creditors of the trusts had exercised the power given to them under the General Turnpike Act (3 Geo. IV., c. 126) of taking possession of the tolls to secure payment of their mortgage or bonded securities and the interest due to them. "The result," says the report, "must be to throw the burden of repairs and of the maintenance of such roads on the several parishes through which they pass. Should such measures now taken by some creditors become general throughout the kingdom, the proprietors and holders of land will not only have to pay the tolls as usual, but must also be called on to defray the expense of keeping the road in a proper state for the public use, by an additional highway rate to be levied on the parishes where the tolls paid by the public are seized by the creditor."

In addition to management expenses, expenditure on the roads and payment of interest, allowance had to be made [ 318 ]for the profits expected by those to whom the trustees farmed the tolls, offering them by auction to the highest bidder. The contractors generally had a private understanding among themselves as to the terms they were prepared to give. One of them, Lewis Levy by name, farmed from £400,000 to £500,000 of turnpike tolls within a radius of from sixty to eighty miles of London; and we may assume that he would not have gone into the business on so large a scale as this unless it had brought him an adequate return.

The ultimate result of these various conditions was that the sum total of the indirect taxation thus collected from the public was not only great in itself, and out of all proportion to the benefits received, but was inadequate to cover an expenditure already swollen to abnormal proportions. In his evidence before the Select Committee of 1839 Sir James McAdam stated that in 1836 the gross income of the different roads was £1,776,586, and the expenditure for the year was £1,780,349, exceeding by £3,763 the whole of the income. In Lancashire alone the turnpike tolls came to £123,000 a year.

Collection of this considerable revenue from the community had, of course, been duly authorised by Parliament; yet the trustees were under no obligation to account for the moneys they received. Not only was there free scope given for jobbery, embezzlement and malpractices in general, but the turnpike commissioners could, as the "Edinburgh Review" pointed out in 1819, abuse their trust and yet go on levying tolls, keeping possession of the road and defying complaints. The writer on "Roads" in "Rees' Cyclopædia" (1819) further declares that "either from bad management, from party influence or from chicanery and ignorance of surveyors and contractors, the roads in many places are not only laid out in the most absurd direction but are so badly constructed and kept in so wretched a state of repair that they are almost impassable."

On the other hand, the great advancement in coaching, and the higher speeds attained by the coaches during the first three decades of the nineteenth century suggest that the improvements introduced by Telford and McAdam could not have been without good effect on the chief of the main roads, at least, however inefficient the making and repairing of the turnpike and parish roads in general may still have remained. [ 319 ]All the same, and in spite of the greater road traffic, the financial difficulties into which the trusts drifted and the burdensome nature of the tax imposed by the toll-system on traders, agriculturists and the public were beyond all doubt.

Various attempts were made to improve the position of the trusts.

A Committee of the House of Commons recommended in 1821 that Continuance Bills for the periodical renewal of Turnpike Acts should be exempted from fees. Another Committee made a like recommendation in 1827, and subsequently a measure was passed scheduling in an annual public statute the continuation of any trusts on the point of expiring.

Then, as there was so obviously an excessive number of trusts, with a consequent undue expenditure on management, a Committee which sat in 1820 strongly recommended the consolidation of turnpike trusts around London. An Act consolidating those on the north of the Thames was passed, the preamble thereof reciting no fewer than 120 other Acts of Parliament which the new measure superseded.

In 1833, 1836 and 1839 other Committees recommended a general consolidation of trusts; but little, apparently, was done in this direction in England, though in several counties of Scotland, as mentioned in the Report of the Select Committee of 1864, the system was greatly improved by the appointment of Road Boards which, by a consolidation of various trusts and the association of several counties for the repair and maintenance of roads, effected a material diminution in the expenses. In Ireland, also, the abolition of the system of statute labour in 1763, the placing of the business of roadmaking under the control of the grand juries, and the meeting both of the cost of road repairs and the payment of interest on the existing debts out of the rates of the counties and baronies led to better roads being provided at a less burdensome cost.

By a General Turnpike Act passed in 1841, justices were authorised, on proof being given to them of a deficiency in the revenue of a turnpike trust, to order the parish surveyor to pay to the trust a portion of the highway rates, to be laid out in actual repairs on parts of the turnpike road within the parish.

Bondholders petitioned Parliament that any deficiency [ 320 ]in their profits owing to railway competition should be made good by the railway companies; but although this principle was already being enforced, in effect, in the case of many of the canal companies, it was not adopted in that of the turnpike trusts.

The various measures resorted to did no more than afford temporary relief to the trusts, and, in the meantime, the obligation cast upon the community of having to support so inefficient and so wasteful a system was found to be intolerably vexatious and burdensome.

While some persons were praising turnpikes because of such improvement as they had effected on the roads, the "Gentleman's Magazine" of May, 1749, had spoken of them as "a great disadvantage in our competition for trade with France, where they have excellent roads without turnpikes, which are no small tax on travellers and carriers." Not only were the tolls a tax on all commodities carried by road, but they constituted, to a large extent, an unprofitable tax, because so considerable a proportion of the total amount collected went to the support of officials, contractors, lessees, toll-gate keepers and others, who lived on the system, and so small a proportion—after allowing for money wasted—was usefully spent to the direct advantage of the traders in facilitating actual transport. The Committee of 1864 condemned the whole system of turnpike tolls as "unequal in pressure, costly in collection, inconvenient to the public, and injurious as causing a serious impediment to intercourse and traffic."

In Wales popular dissatisfaction with the great increase of toll-gates had led in 1843-4 to the "Rebecca riots," bands of men 500 strong, their leaders disguised in women's clothes, promenading the roads of Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire and Breconshire at night and throwing down the offending gates. It was only with considerable difficulty and much bloodshed that the disturbances were eventually suppressed by a strong force of soldiers. A commission appointed to inquire into the matter found there was a genuine grievance, and an Act of Parliament was passed which consolidated the trusts in South Wales, regulated the number of toll-gates there, and provided for the extinction of the debt on the roads by the advance of about £200,000, at three per cent interest, by the [ 321 ]Public Works Loan Commissioners, to be repaid by terminable annuities within thirty years. The loan was duly paid off by 1876.

Inasmuch as English traders and travellers simply grumbled and paid, and refrained from demonstrating as the more emotional Welshmen had done, they had to wait longer for any material relief from the grievances from which they, also, were suffering.

Down to 1864 the duty of deciding in what order turnpike Acts should be permitted to expire, instead of being renewed, was, as Mr George Sclater-Booth (Lord Basing), formerly President of the Local Government Board, informed the Select Committee of the House of Lords on the Highway Acts, when giving evidence before them in 1880, one of the functions of the Home Office, and the Home Office, he said, "was timid at that time in allowing these turnpike trusts to lapse." Pressure was brought to bear on the department with a view to effecting a more rapid extinction of the trusts; though the ratepayers had not then realised the results to themselves of the cost of maintenance of disturnpiked roads being thrown on the parish.

Following on the report of a Special Committee of the House of Commons, recommending that the Turnpike Acts should be allowed to expire as rapidly as possible, a House of Commons Turnpike Committee was appointed in 1864 to take over the whole business from the Home Office. Thenceforward this Committee prepared every year a schedule of turnpike trusts which they thought should expire, the schedule being embodied in an annual Turnpike Acts Continuance Bill which was duly passed by Parliament. So great was the zeal shown by the Committee that from 1864 roads were disturnpiked at the rate of from 1000 to 1700 or 1800 miles a year. "This," said Mr Sclater-Booth, "has been most distinctly the policy of representative members of the House of Commons, and not the policy of the Government of the day, except in so far as the Government of the day has foreborne to exercise any interference with the Turnpike Continuance Act in Parliament."

While the reduction in the number of turnpike trusts had been an undoubted boon to users of the roads, it had thrown heavy burdens on the local ratepayers. For a period of a [ 322 ]century, at least, most of them had, in effect, and except in certain circumstances, been relieved by the turnpike system of their common law obligation to keep main roads in repair; but in proportion as the trusts expired the obligations in respect to maintenance fell back again on the parishes. Under, also, old enactments which still remained in force, not only land and houses but many other kinds of property—stock-in-trade, timber and "personal estate" generally—were assessed for highways and other purposes. These conditions remained until 1840, when an Exemption Act suspended the power of levying rates on stock-in-trade, and other changes in the law of assessment were made subsequently.

With the greater activity, from the year 1864, of the House of Commons Turnpike Committee the burdens on the unfortunate parishioners became heavier than before; and in the Turnpike Continuance Act of 1870 there was inserted a clause to the effect that the cost of repairing any roads disturnpiked after the passing of that Act should be borne by the highway district, where there was one, and not by the parish. In 1874 and 1875 the House of Commons Turnpike Committee "made very strong complaints," Mr Sclater-Booth stated in his evidence, that they would not have proceeded so fast as they had done, and would not have recommended Parliament to allow so many miles of road to be disturnpiked year by year, if they had not felt satisfied that the Government would have provided some remedy for the injustice they occasioned. "They seemed to me," the witness continued, "to have had no compunction in causing the injustice to be occasioned before any remedy was provided for it; but, having permitted that injustice to take place, they complained year after year of the action, or, rather, of the non-action, of the Government in not applying a remedy for these grievances."

No effective remedy was, in fact, provided until 1882. Early in the Session of that year notice was given in the House of Commons of a resolution which declared that "in the opinion of this House immediate relief should in some form be afforded to ratepayers from the present unjust incidence of rates appropriated for the maintenance of main roads in England." Mr Gladstone undertook that something should be done in conformity with the spirit of this resolution, and thereupon a grant designed to cover one-fourth of the cost of maintaining [ 323 ]disturnpiked roads was made annually by Parliament down to the year 1888, when the relief granted was increased to one-half of the total cost by a further sum of £256,000 allocated by Mr Goschen to the same purpose from his Budget for that year.

The actual expenditure under these successive grants is shown in a Report on Local Taxation made, in 1893, by Mr H. H. Fowler (afterwards Lord Wolverhampton). The amounts there given are as follows:—

1883 167,165
1884 195,649
1885 205,965
1886 229,490
1887 237,123
1888 498,797
Total £1,534,189

After the passing of the Local Government Act of 1888 the grants were discontinued, the said Act providing that from the 1st of April, 1889, all main and disturnpiked roads should, with certain exceptions (and as distinct from parish highways), be maintained by the county councils.

Parliament had thus at least broadened out the ratepayers' burden in respect to road maintenance by spreading the charges over a larger area; and it was, also, affording a very considerable measure of relief to the road-users in freeing them from the obligations to pay tolls for the keeping up, not simply of the roads, but of a machinery as costly as it was inefficient. There was still a third set of interests to be considered, as represented by those who had lent money to the turnpike trusts for road construction or repairs, in the expectation of getting a fair return. The proportions of the turnpike debt, the falling-off in tolls, and the mismanagement of the system generally made the outlook for the bondholders very unfavourable; but the best that was possible, in the circumstances, was done for them.

Under an Act passed in 1872 it was laid down that, for the purpose of facilitating the abolition of tolls on any turnpike [ 324 ]road, the highway board and the trustees might mutually agree that the former should take upon itself the maintenance and repair of such road, and, also, pay off and discharge either the entire debt in respect thereto or such sum by way of compensation as the Local Government Board, after an inquiry, might determine. By a further Act, passed in 1873, highway boards were authorised to raise loans for the more effective carrying out of this arrangement, while Clifford states in his "History of Private Bill Legislation" that "there have, also, been Acts confirming more than 200 Provisional Orders passed to arrange the debts of these unlucky trusts, extinguish arrears of interest, allow compositions, and generally make the best of some very disastrous investments."[1]

How rapid the actual decline in the number of trusts was from the year 1864, when the House of Commons Turnpike Committee came into existence, is shown by the following figures, taken from the annual reports of the Local Government Board for 1886 and 1890:—

December 3, 1864 1048 20,589
January 1, 1886 0020 700
Janu" 1890 0005 77

Of the five survivals on January 1, 1890, three were to expire in that same year and one in 1896, leaving only one the fate of which was then undecided. It may be assumed that by the end of 1896 the system of turnpikes on public (as distinct from private) roads, which had for so long a period played so prominent, so vexatious, and, in many respects, so unsatisfactory a rôle in inland communication, had wholly disappeared.

Turnpike roads, no less than canals, undoubtedly conferred great advantages on the growing trade and industries of the country. Each, however, had its serious drawbacks and disadvantages, and, in the result, the shortcomings of the turnpikes, added to the shortcomings of the canals, gave still greater emphasis to the welcome offered by traders to the railways which were to become, to so large an extent, substitutes for both.

  1. The turnpike trust loans still outstanding on the 25th of March, 1887, amounted to £92,000.