Buildings, FEATURED

Do You Live Near One? Turnpike Roads & Cottages

Turnpike is a name you will see on many old cottages if you take a closer look, it is telling you of its past.

The Broad Wheel Act of 1767 was brought into being to protect our highways that were for all intents and purposes dirt tracks at best and impassable muddy tracks at their worse.

Animal power was the method for transporting goods with ox and horse teams pulling heavy laden wagons. The Mail Coaches and their routes opened travel across the county and country, this in turn started the industry of coach travel and you will see how big this became with the amount of 18th and 19th century Coaching Inns in our towns.

Turnpike cottage
A clue to its past.

This hooved traffic was bringing destruction to our highways. Narrowed wheeled wagons, carrying too much weight being pulled by small ox or horse teams were recognised as the cause.

The beasts of burden, and horse teams had to dig deep to get the loads through the mud, ruts, and potholes in the highways – it was costly and inefficient. Pre Turnpike Trusts, the locals would have to give 6 days a year to the lord for road maintenance.

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Turnpike Roads

The Broad Wheel Act of 1767 set out to overcome this issue. It was suggested large ox or horse teams should be used to spread the load and wheels to be minimum of 9 inches.

When Emperor Charles VI visited England in 1703, his 50 mile journey from London to Petworth took three days, during which the Imperial Coach overturned 12 times. To complete the journey, Sussex labourers were hired to walk alongside the coach to keep it upright and force it through quagmires”. ~
coultershaw co uk

The Old Toll House, Athelhampton, Dorset. It belonged to the Wimborne and Puddletown Turnpike Trust.
The Old Toll House, Athelhampton, Dorset. It belonged to the Wimborne and Puddletown Turnpike Trust.


Road development in the UK was not centralised but managed in a piecemeal way by local enterprise. Toll roads were so-called because local bodies were able to levy a fee or toll to use the road which allowed for maintenance and improvements to the surface and other key features. The name ‘turnpike’ developed from the physical barrier used to prevent traffic from passing until the charge had been paid.

The first turnpike in the country was authorised by a 1663 Act of Parliament and introduced charges to a section of the Old North Road.

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During the first 70 years of the 18th century, a large network of turnpike roads was developed across England and Wales.

The majority of turnpike roads were approximately twenty miles in length and were created to facilitate longer distance travel rather than movement from one village or parish to the next. Most local roads remained toll-free. Around one-sixth of English roads in the 18th century operated under the turnpike system.

Why Were These Roads Called Turnpike Roads?

A turnpike was created of pikes which was a military weapon comprising a pointed metal head on a long wooden shaft. Pikes were used to build a frame that could stop the passage of horse-drawn transport but also turn to allow a vehicle through once the charge was paid.

This was the only way that levies could be imposed upon road usage. The fee was referred to as a toll which is why these roads are also called toll roads.

The Turnpike Keeper

The tolls were collected at the turnpikes by the turnpike-keeper. You know the expression ‘toll booth’? Initially the turnpike-keeper would collect the appropriate toll for using the Trust’s road. The keeper would live in a house that came with the job next to the turnpike.

Toll keepers were sometimes know as ‘pikemen’ (no not the Pikemen of the Civil War), and even though of the lowly classes, they were entrusted with much cash from the daily tolls. As a rule, the turnpike cottages were single story buildings, with just two rooms.

They had no running water or electric and would have been lit by candlelight and lanterns. You can imagine the turnpike-keeper as a grumpy, whiskered chap smoking a clay pipe.

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Something distinctive you will notice about turnpike cottages is their shape; half – hexagonal so that the windows faced in the direction of all routes approaching turnpike. This is why you will mainly find the turnpikes and cottages on crossroads and junctions.

Tolls varied from a few pence to more than a shilling and the rate depended upon the number of horses pulling the cart or carriage and sometimes the number of wheels on the vehicle. For drovers moving unladen or non-drawing livestock, the rate was calculated on every score of animals.

Horsington Turnpike, Somerset


The very early turnpike schemes were administered by Justices of the Peace or magistrates. The earliest Act is documented in 1663 when a section of the Great North Road was turnpiked between Wadesmill in Hertfordshire and Stilton in Huntingdonshire.

In 1656, the boroughs of Huntingdon, Hertfordshire, and Cambridgeshire were facing bankruptcy with the cost of maintaining the Great North Road into London so they lobbied Parliament for the right to raise funds for the upkeep of the road.

Check the beautiful names of the wagons. Tolls were often tripled on a Sunday.

Then there was a hiatus until 1695 when another Act created a turnpike road from Shenfield to the port of Harwich in Essex. The Turnpike Act of 1707 paved the way for the first trust run turnpike road which was a section of the main London to Chester road between Fornhill and Stony Stratford. By 1750, most of the main roads from London were turnpiked.

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17th century

Turnpike trusts were set up by individual acts of Parliament which gave power to the trustees to collect road tolls. Trustees were empowered to erect turnpike gates in order to collect the tolls from users outside the parishes through which the road passed.

They would then combine this with resources from within the parishes to maintain and improve the road. Turnpike trusts were in their infancy in the 17th century with the major development of toll roads taking place in the 18th century driven by local initiatives to improve vehicle routes and commerce. A separate Act of Parliament was required to create each trust.

turnpike cottage
Derelict Park Lane turnpike cottage, Bishops Waltham, Hampshire. The town once had four turnpikes

At the peak of the turnpike road network in the 1830s, there were over 1,000 turnpike trusts across the UK controlling around 30,000 miles of toll road. The last turnpike Act was passed in 1836 by which time there had been a total of 942 Acts of Parliament to create new turnpike trusts in England and Wales.

Actual turnpikes numbered around 8,000. The concept was so successful, it was exported around the British Empire and appeared in diverse locations including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa.

The Trustees of Turnpike Trusts

Trustees were usually local dignitaries, merchants, and often clergy, people of good standing who were appointed to run the scheme. In turn, they would nominate a clerk and a treasurer to manage the funds plus a surveyor to actually look after the highway. These were paid roles although trustees were not paid – perhaps they received free road usage as a perk!

How Was the Money Used?

Turnpike roads were run by not-for-profit trusts and raised regular income, all of which was used to maintain and upgrade that particular road. Trustees were able to mortgage against the prospect of future income and undertake some serious road improvements which allowed transport to move more reliably and quickly.

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Drainage was a big target for funds, roads were widened, and gradients improved. New sections of roads were built to bypass unsuitable areas, and cuttings, embankments, and bridges were developed.

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, heavy goods were still being moved by water but before the advent of the railways, everything else went by road. As the Industrial Revolution increased the development of many towns and cities, an efficient road network became even more important.

The Demise of Turnpike Roads

Turnpike roads began to decline in usage with the arrival of the railways and the increasing usage of canals to move goods. Then, there was a General Act of Parliament in 1873 followed by the Highways Act of 1878 which wound up the turnpike trusts and removed their responsibility for maintaining this road network.

Tollhouses were sold, turnpikes removed and responsibility for the main road network passed to the Highways Board. The sale of assets like houses was used to repay the loans but in some cases, there were considerable losses and plenty of disputes.

A familiar sight. From 1767 milestones that informed travellers of direction and distance were made compulsory. It also helped the coaches and mail coaches keep on schedule. A good example of ‘nothing new in life, just old ideas recycled’ as the Romans did this on their roads.

Some bondholders did not receive an adequate return on their investment. Investors in the Harwell to Streatley Turnpike Trust only received half of their original capital investment. In the Stokenchurch Trust, bondholders only received a fifth of their investment. However, some roads were handed over debt free.

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Known as ‘Main Roads’

The condition of the roads passed to the Highways Board varied considerably. Turnpike roads became known as ‘main roads’ and in 1888, the Local Government Act passed the responsibility for the maintenance of these roads to County Councils.

The very last turnpike road was removed in Wales in 1895 when locals celebrated at Llanfairpwll on Anglesey.

The system had become roundly hated in this area. Between 1839 and 1842, farmers in mid and west Wales raged against the tolls in a series of public disturbances called the Rebecca Riots, maintaining that the tolls threatened their livelihoods.

Kynant Tollgate near, Welshpool, Wales.

Side bars were introduced to catch out farmers who only used sections of the road between turnpike gates. The Rebecca Riots saw groups of farmers dressed in women’s clothes rip down toll gates.

It was rather ironic as prior to the arrival of the turnpike trusts, Wales had been completely dependent on the sea and rivers for transport. Turnpike roads revolutionised the movement of goods in Wales; the time taken for mail coaches to travel to London was nearly halved from 45 hours to 27.

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Ten Times as Much

New tarmac roads helped the fledgling coal and iron industries and began the expansion of industrialisation, but local turnpike trusts were often corrupt which sowed the seeds of resentment in local Welsh communities. Tolls rose so rapidly that it was reputed that carting a load out of Cardiff cost ten times more than the cost of the goods in the first place.

turnpike cottage
A former turnpike and the home of the turnpike keeper. He would work in all weathers 365 days a year.

As a result of the Rebecca Riots, the Turnpikes Act of 1844 was introduced which amalgamated the Welsh trusts and lowered tolls. Rather ironically, the advent and spread of the railways throughout Wales were already ushering some of the turnpike trusts into bankruptcy.

The ability of the railways to traverse the challenging Welsh landscape couldn’t be matched by the turnpike roads so the Rebecca Rioters were to experience something of a hollow victory.

What survives today?

The current main road network owes a lot to the system of turnpike roads created in England and Wales throughout the 18th century. Radically different in appearance and form, nonetheless, the route of these roads can still be followed today in the modern road network.

The development of bases and airfields during the Second World War changed the road network quite significantly, and the demand for bypasses during the later years of the 20th century as traffic flows increased exponentially altered some of the old networks.

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However, rather ironically, some bypasses have reverted to much older routes to avoid the centre of towns and villages, ancient rights of way abandoned when the turnpike roads first came into existence.

The bypass to the east of Swindon and the Cricklade bypass follow the line of the old Roman road, Ermin Way. Evidence of turnpike roads is clearly visible everywhere just by reading road names such as Turnpike Lane, Toll Lane, and the names of the former turnpike houses or toll cottages.

There is a huge amount of information and documentation online about where these roads ran and the location of the turnpikes and tollhouses, many with illustrations.

This is a milestone that all turnpike roads had along their length. This has clearly been thumped by the head of a hedge cutter by the contractor cutting the hedges. This stone could be from the 1750s, if not, then certainly early 1800s. It has saddened me.

Rebecca Riots in 1843

Commemorative stones have been placed at the sites of two tollgates in Pontarddulais which were attacked as part of the Rebecca Riots in 1843. One is at Bolgoed near the Fountain Inn and the other is near the train station, for keen students of turnpike trust history. Toll roads were developed at a time when the motor car was a distant dream, and no one would have ever foreseen the volume and type of traffic that would use them several decades later.

However, the concept of charging for road use is still very much alive and current with fees for crossing bridges like the Dartford Crossing and the Severn Bridge, using tunnels and the first new major toll road in the UK, the M6 toll or Midland Expressway.

Even the relatively new London Congestion Charge is really just an old toll in disguise, modern technology removing the need for a physical barrier and allowing for a wholly virtual process of identifying vehicles and collecting money.

Turnpike roads and trust are certainly one of the biggest single influences on the development of our current road network and the mechanism of charging for road usage and upkeep is something that isn’t going to go away.