Roads, for longer than people could remember, were nothing more than dirt tracks that turned to mud in the winter and baked rock hard in the summer. Either way, movement along these ‘roads’ was difficult and at certain times of the year, practically impossible.
By law, every parish had to look after the ‘roads’ that ran through their area. Men were meant to work for 6 days every year to maintain and repair the roads. However, very few villagers travelled, therefore they were not particularly interested in doing this task especially as it – and roads – seemed to offer them no benefits.
But the growth of the Industrial Revolution needed a good transport system and in 1663, Parliament passed what was known as the Turnpike Act. This was originally only used in three counties to see if it worked. The act allowed magistrates in these three counties to charge people for using roads in these counties and the money raised was spent on properly maintaining these roads. The success of this scheme meant that the 1663 Act was the first of hundreds throughout the country.
Private companies called Turnpike Trusts were established. The first one was created in 1706. The public was given the opportunity to invest in these companies. The money raised by charging people to use the roads was split between profits for the share holders and the cost of maintaining the roads in the control of the trust. People had to pay what was called a toll to use the roads. Toll gates were established through which people and carriages had to pass before continuing with their journey.
Before turnpike trusts, people had been used to using what passed for roads for free. Now, the roads may have been better but many people objected to paying a toll. Some would even jump over the toll gate to avoid paying. To decrease the chance of this happening, spikes (or pikes) were put at the top of the gates – hence the title turnpike trusts.
In some parts of the country, the toll gates were so unpopular, that they were destroyed. Parliament passed a law that meant anyone who was caught destroying a turnpike could be executed. Those in power in Parliament were also those who had invested large sums of money in turnpike trusts – hence why the sentence for those who destroyed turnpikes was so savage.
Two men are credited with improving the roads of Britain – Thomas Telford and John McAdam.
Telford believed in building roads that would last and needed little repair. His roads cost a lot of money and they took a long time to build – but they lasted.
McAdam’s roads were cheaper as they were not as ‘fussy’ as Telford’s. McAdam’s were hard wearing and he believed that the weight of the traffic using his roads would press down the road and make it stronger. As his roads were cheaper, they were more in demand by the turnpike trusts. To this day, McAdam’s input into improving our road system, is remembered with his name being ‘given’ to tarmac.
Did the new roads benefit the country ?
The new manufacturing class – those who needed an improved transport system to move their finished products around – were pleased as they had most to gain.
Those in the cities were less pleased, as turnpikes increased the cost of getting livestock to markets in the cities and the price of transporting them was added to the final cost of the meat. Hence, the cost of living increased and this hit the poorest the most.