The Beginning of the Turnpike Roads in Georgian England


The Hyde Park Gate in London, erected by the Kensington Turnpike Trust. This was the first toll point encountered along the Bath Road, upon leaving London. ~ Public Domain ~ Turnpike_trusts#/media/ File:Hyde_park_turnpike_toll_ gate.jpg

 The roads leading into London were placed under the control of individual turnpike trusts during the first 30 years of the 1700s in England. My mid century, cross-routes were added to the list under turnpike trusts. The roads, especially those leading toward Wales and the northwestern shires were turnpiked, many roads placed under the same trust authority. Roads, for example in the southern sections of Wales were grouped by counties under a single trust for each. The 1770s saw connecting roads, those over bridges, and those leading to growing industrial areas, as well as the roads in Scotland brought under the auspices of trust authorities. More than 1000 turnpike trusts were created during the 1800s. According to E. Pawson’s (1977) Transport and Economy: the turnpike roads of eighteenth century England, “About 150 trusts were established by 1750; by 1772 a further 400 were established and, in 1800, there were over 700 trusts. In 1825 about 1,000 trusts controlled 18,000 miles (29,000 km) of road in England and Wales.”

Taxing the people who used the roads seemed the fairest means of improving them so new trusts and renewals of older legislation took root in 18th Century England. Overseeing the upkeep and administration of turnpikes was left to each individual parish. The parish exacted a toll on the users of the road, hopefully in proportion to the “wear and tear” upon the road’s surface. We must recall that at this time the roads were often in poor shape: deep ruts, icy in winter, poor drainage during a rainstorm, dry and cracked in the summer heat, etc. 

Parliament expected each trust authority to raise loans for road repair, erect milestones it indicate directions and mileage to the next town or parish, erect gates and tollhouses. “Rules of the Road” grew out of common and courteous practice. One drove on the left, for example. The turnpike trusts could change the charge based on weather conditions. They might charge a bit more to wet down the roads during the summer to keep dust at a minimum. General Turnpike Acts dealt with the administration of the trusts and restrictions on the width of wheels – narrow wheels were said to cause a disproportionate amount of damage to the road.


Poster advertising the letting of tolls, 1826. Unknown – National Library of Wales ~ Public Domain ~ File:To_Be_Let_The_Tolls_Cribbin,_ Llanfihangel_and_ Pencader_Gates_1826.jpg

Each trust authority employed a local lawyer/solicitor as clerk, a treasurer and a surveyor. When the road passed a particular estate or cut across a gentleman’s land, the landowner had a say in the road’s condition. 

Not everyone paid the same toll to cross the turnpike: The size of the vehicle and the number of horses drawing it determined the amount of the toll. The weight of the load also affected the toll exacted at some tollhouses. Some tollhouses used a weighing machine to determine the weight of the wagon and its load. If so, a ticket was produced so the driver could present it to each of the subsequent tollhouses he encountered upon his journey. 

220px-ThomasTelford.jpg By the early 19th Century turnpike trusts had made major highway improvements. Thomas Telford reorganized the existing trusts along the London to Holyhead Road and oversaw the construction of large sections of new road. Telford was a Scottish civil engineer, architect and stonemason, and a noted road, bridge and canal builder. After establishing himself as an engineer of road and canal projects in Shropshire, he designed numerous infrastructure projects in his native Scotland, as well as harbors and tunnels. Such was his reputation as a prolific designer of highways and related bridges, he was dubbed The Colossus of Roads (a pun on the Colossus of Rhodes), and, reflecting his command of all types of civil engineering in the early 19th century, he was elected as the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a post he retained for 14 years until his death.

“By 1838 the turnpike trusts in England were collecting £1.5 million p.a. from leasing the collection of tolls but had a cumulative debt of £7 million, mainly as mortgages. Even at its greatest extent, the turnpike system only administered a fifth of the roads in Britain; the majority being maintained by the parishes. A trust would typically be responsible for about 20 miles (32 km) of highway, although exceptions such as the Exeter Turnpike Trust controlled 147 miles (237 km) of roads radiating from the city. On the Bath Road for instance, a traveller from London to the head of the Thames Valley in Wiltshire would pass through the jurisdiction of seven trusts, paying a toll at the gates of each. Although a few trusts built new bridges (e.g. at Shillingford over the Thames), most bridges remained a county responsibility. A few bridges were built with private funds and tolls taken at these (e.g., the present Swinford Toll Bridge over the Thames).” (Turnpike Trusts)

Coaching routes followed the main roads, those that were better maintained, but only a small portion of the roads under the authority of the various trusts were overseen with care…only about 12%. Packhorses were the only means to transport goods along the roads and pathways not part of the turnpike system. Tollhouses were generally situated at cross roads where the toll keeper had a good view of the gates, the roads, and the traffic. Unfortunately for many travelers, the toll keeper was not always available: away from his post, asleep, inebriated, or off taking care of his own business. As they were only paid an average of 9s per week, one can imagine they were not always as diligent as they should have been. According to the Regency Collection, “This changed in the 1770’s when the operation of the turnpikes was “farmed” out to the highest bidder at auction (an early example of privatisation). This meant that the “farmer” paid annual rent to the trust, but kept the tolls collected. He would either run the tollgate himself or appoint a gate-keeper.”

Daniel Defoe commented as such on the subject of toll gates in the early years of the 18th Century:
“…Turn pikes or toll bars have been set up on the several great roads of England, beginning at London and proceeding thro’ almost all those dirty deep roads in the Midland Counties especially; at which, turn pikes all carriages, droves or cattle and travellers on horseback are oblig’d to pay an easy toll; that is to say, a horse a penny, a coach three pence, a cart fourpence, at some six to eight pence, a wagon six pence, in some a shilling. Cattle pay by the score, or by the herd, in some places more. But in no place is it thought a burthen that ever I met with, the benefit of a good road abundantly making amends for the little charge the travellers are put to at the turn pikes…”.

List of Turnpike Trusts with details of their size and income collected in a table can be found HERE.


Map of the Turnpike Tollgates in London 1801. ~ J. Cary – Old London Maps at ~ Public Domain ~ via Wikipedia


Bogart, Dan. “Turnpike Trusts and the transportation revolution in the 18th Century” 

“Roads 1750-1900,” The History Learning Site 

“Turnpike Trusts,” Schools History 

“Turnpikes and Toll,” UK Parliament


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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1 Response to The Beginning of the Turnpike Roads in Georgian England

  1. John R. Haralson says:

    Reblogged this on johnrobertharalson.

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