How Did Trackways Evolve into Turnpike Roads? 

The onset of the turnpike movement and the establishment of turnpike trusts altered the transportation landscape across Britain.

First established in the early 1700s, and gaining particular prominence throughout the 1800s, turnpike trusts were created with the aim to improve and better manage Britain’s roads.

As many routes had previously been poorly managed due to lacking parish funds, the turnpike trusts were set up by individual Acts of Parliament with the power to collect tolls from travellers on the roads and use these to fund road improvement and maintenance efforts.


In the 1830s, when turnpike trusts were at their strongest, there were 30,000 miles of turnpike roads in England and Wales. These roads had a combined 8000 toll gates and side bars and were overseen by 1000 turnpike trusts. 

However, while the introduction and establishment of the turnpike movement may have marked one of the largest and most comprehensive road management and improvement programs since the Romans marched across Britain, they were certainly not the beginning of roadways in Britain.

Read More: Iron Age Roads: There’s no Such Thing as a Modern Road

The UK’s towns, cities, and villages had been linked by a complicated network of roads and trackways for centuries before the beginning of the turnpike movement.

So what happened to these ancient roadways and how did the turnpike movement impact travel across the UK?

Roman Roads, Dark Age Decay and Anglo-Saxon Trackways 

When Rome marched on Britain’s shores in the first century, they brought with them incredible developments in architecture and infrastructure, one of these developments was roads.

Roman Road Dorset
On the former Roman Road, Durnovaria – Vindelis (Dorchester – Portland)

Far from the trackways made of earth and wood that had been carved across Britain prior to the Roman invasion, Rome created complex  and well maintained paved roadways that facilitated easy and quick transportation for Roman troops and travellers alike. 

Read More: Do You Live Near One? Turnpike Roads & Cottages

However, much like a lot of the infrastructure that Rome built across the British countryside, when the age of Roman Britain ended, so did the meticulous maintenance of Roman roads.

During the Dark Ages, Roman roads began to fall into a state of decay.

In some cases roads were dug up for the materials to be repurposed, roads were also sometimes purposely destroyed as they were in the way of fields that were to be used for agricultural purposes.

In other instances, Roman roads simply fell into neglect and were reclaimed by nature. 

Under the Anglo-Saxons, while roads were technically considered the legal property of a ruling monarch, the maintenance of roads and bridges became the responsibility of landowners.

Drover's Road near Latteridge, South Gloucestershire, England.
Drover’s Road near Latteridge, South Gloucestershire, England.

The well maintained and sophisticated roadways of Roman Britain had become a distant memory by the Anglo-Saxon period. In this era, roads were often unpaved and lacked proper drainage.

Read More: The Forgotten Roman Roads

Wet weather could make roads muddy and impassable and if a road became too difficult to use it was common practice to simply walk, ride, or drive wagons beside the roadway rather than actually on it.

Road Legislation in the Medieval Period 

The Middle Ages saw the first introduction of a fee resembling a toll be put in place in Britain.

Known as ‘passage’ or ‘pontage’ a fee was introduced in the Norman period that had to be paid to cross some manors or pass over some of the bridges in England.

This system did come to be somewhat exploited by the ruling class, with reports of bridges being specifically constructed in order to charge passage fees to travellers. 

Interesting design as the arches aren’t even, later additions or repairs after heavy floods.

The first formal documentation of road legislation also dates to the Medieval Period. In the late 1200s, The Statute of Winchester required the maintenance of roads as an obligation and requirement of the manor and its tenants.

Read More: Drove Roads, What are They?

The statute stated that the Court Leet could order tennants’ to remove obstructions from the road. As the feudal period came to an end, the roadways of Britain again saw a period of neglect and decline.

As the British population and governing body felt the full impacts of years of wars, revolutions, a changing religious environment.

WW2 jeeps down a track

The decimating plagues, including the Black Death that claimed the lives of a huge percentage of the British population.

Read More: Ridgeways, our Prehistoric Road System Before Roman Roads

As a result, there were fewer travellers on the road, fewer available funds to upkeep roads and fewer resources devoted to road maintenance. By the early 1500s, the state of many of Britain’s roads had dramatically declined. 

The Bridges Act of 1530 and the Highways of Elizabeth I 

The 1530 Bridges Act was the first of a series of Acts of Parliament that were enacted throughout the sixteenth century.

The Act ensured the maintenance and upkeep of bridges and it was a requirement of the inhabitants of the local area to fund this upkeep.

packhorse bridge
The Essex Bridge (part) at Shugborough, Staffordshire The stone packhorse bridge across the River Trent was built in 1550 by the Earl of Essex for Queen Elizabeth I so she could go hunting near the village. It has low parapets to avoid impeding the wide loads on the horses. Originally it had 40 arches, fourteen of which remain.

The Highway Act followed in the 1550s and similar to the Bridges Act it was designed as a means to monitor and maintain sections of sixteenth century roads.

During the reign of Elizabeth I in 1562, the Highways Act was further expanded.

These extensions required roads to be maintained to an even higher standard. However, these acts were far from perfect.

Read More: Ancient Trackways: Walking in the Footsteps of Neolithic People

As the onus of maintaining the roads was the responsibility of the parish and its inhabitants, many rural parishes struggled with funding repairs and maintenance.

There was also the issue that as specialist labourers were not responsible for maintaining the roads, parishes may not have had workmen that were skilled in this particular trade. 

The Turnpike Movement and Trouble at the Tollgates 

The first turnpike road was authorised in 1663, and a large number of turnpike trusts sprung up across England over the next two centuries.

The idea was for the trusts to act on a not-for-profit basis to maintain roads, and as such, there were maximum limits placed on the tolls that could be charged.

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.

The first act created a turnpike on the Great North Road between Stilton in Huntingdonshire and Wadesmill in Hertfordshire. 

Turnpike roads were fitted with gates or similar obstructions that remained closed until a turnpike fee was paid.

Read More: A Trip Along Watling Street, The Longest Roman Road in Britain 

The income generated from the turnpikes was then reinvested into repairing, maintaining, and improving the roads on which they were placed, as well as building new sections of road that were either more direct routes or bypassed poor sections of roadway. 


Turnpikes were rapidly implemented on major roads. Almost every major route into London was fitted with turnpikes by the mid 1700s, and a period known as ‘turnpike mania’ took place between 1751 and 1772.

In just this twenty year period turnpike trusts would come into effect for over eleven thousand miles of road. By 1836, when the last Act was passed, turnpike trusts were responsible of roughly a fifth of the entirety of the road network. 

turnpike cottage
Tadworth Turnpike in 1870

While the turnpike trusts were put in place to improve roads for public use, not everyone in historic Britain was fond of this new development. For the economically disadvantaged, turnpikes proved an unwelcome added expense for using the roads.

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This was particularly the case for poorer rural farmers that were required to use the roads on a frequent basis to take crops and livestock to market.

This dissatisfaction culminated in what became known as the Rebecca Riots. During this period of unrest, men disguised themselves as women and launched attacks on toll gates.

The men identified themselves as ‘Rebecca and her daughters’, it is thought in reference to a Bible passage in which a woman named Rebecca speaks of needing to ‘possess the gates of those who hate them.’

What Happened to Roads that Didn’t Have Turnpikes

While turnpikes became a prominent feature along the transportation routes of eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain, there were, of course, roads in which turnpikes were not implemented.

Many rural roads remained just that, rural

These were normally smaller, less used and arguably less important routes. The advantage that these roads held for travellers was the fact that they didn’t come at a cost for use, however this doesn’t mean that they were always the most desirable choice.

Read More: Meare Heath Trackway: A Bronze Age Structure

While some of these roads were maintained, others began to fall into disrepair and neglect and some saw usage decrease as better maintained and direct roads under the turnpike trusts were favoured by travellers. 

The Decline of the Turnpike Period

The late 1800s marked the decline of turnpike trusts across the UK. The system that had once been commended for its effectiveness in creating better roadways began to be plagued by inefficiency and accusations of corruption.

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

Many trusts also began to fall into debt. The railway also created a major blow for turnpike trusts as this new, quick and convenient form of transportation began to overtake slow and cumbersome coach travel for long distance journeys. 

Read More: What are Long Barrows?

By the twentieth century, turnpikes had largely become a relic of the past, however they did create a lasting legacy in UK transportation and road networks.

Many of the major routes still used today were once turnpike roads, while some of the smaller roadways across the UK may be surviving historical roads that were not part of the turnpike movement.

Infrastructure including roadside markers and old toll houses found across the UK countryside may also be a leftover feature constructed by turnpike trusts. 

An Impact on Britain’s Roads 

The introduction of turnpike roads marked a changing landscape in the British transportation industry.

It adapted antiquated systems for road management and provided a framework for maintaining, building, and managing vital roadways across Britain.

wooden blocks used as a road
One of the growing issues of growing horse traffic was the noise their hooves made on the stone surfaces, along with the noise of the cast iron rims of the cart wheels. A solution to this was wooden roads made of blocks of wood.

As turnpikes began to be installed across the country, many smaller roads that were not involved in the movement saw reduced usage and poor levels of maintenance.

While the introduction of turnpike roads and turnpike trusts was largely effective in providing better roads, it was not universally popular with travellers, particularly those from poorer communities, unhappy with the increased cost to use the roads. 

While the turnpike movement was far from perfect and did fade into non-existence in the twentieth century, the introduction of turnpikes had a lasting impact on the legacy of Britain’s roads.