THE BCH ARCHIVE
LOCAL HISTORY FOR
And The Surrounding District
What Were Turnpikes?
A turnpike is literally a defensive frame of pikes that can be turned to allow passage of horses, but in this context it refers to a gate set across the road to stop carts until a toll was paid. Empowering trustees to erect turnpike gates was the most successful mechanism for ensuring that the costs of improvement and maintenance of a road was financed by the beneficiaries. During the first seven decades of the 18th century a comprehensive network of turnpike roads was created across Britain. These linked the major centres of population by highways which were, in principle, reliably financed and operated for the benefit of long distance commercial traffic, rather than to satisfy the limited needs within individual parishes. Although the turnpikes receive much attention, only one sixth of English roads were turnpiked (Hartmann 1927). The majority of the roads and lanes remained the responsibility of the parish and were toll-free. These were repaired solely by Statute Labour until the General Highways Act of 1835. Enclosure of the old open fields during the 18th century created new, often straight, local roads and rationalised the more chaotic, ancient patterns.
The End of the Turnpikes
Many turnpike trusts were wound up under General Acts of Parliament between 1873 and 1878. The transfer of resources and sale of assets to repay loans were supervised by the Local Government Board which acted as arbiter in the case of disputes. Toll-houses were sold, gates torn down and responsibility for the main roads passed to Highway Boards. Bond-holders were paid off with any residual funds, though some did not get a satisfactory return on their investment. For instance investors in the Harwell to Streatley Turnpike Trust were repaid less than a half of their capital and bondholders received less than a fifth of the face value of their investment in the Stokenchurch Trust. In contrast the Besselsleigh Trust was proud to handover the roads free of debt though some of the Highways Authorities who inherited responsibility for the road complained that they were in "a uniform (bad) state of repair throughout".
Under the Highways Act of 1878 all disturnpiked roads became "Main Roads" as did some ordinary highways. By the Local Government Act of 1888 the entire maintenance of main roads was thrown upon the County Councils.
The pattern of our present road network owes much to decisions taken by the turnpike trustees. Although the structure of the roadway differs enormously from the gravel and stone surface of the turnpike, the line of many main roads was set by the Turnpike Acts of the 18th century. Some roads may have declined in status but most are still passable for wheeled vehicles. The major exceptions are where military aerodromes were constructed over the old roads. At Abingdon the Shippon road was cut, at Brize Norton the Burford road was changed and at Benson the main Henley road was diverted closer to Wallingford through Crowmarsh. Ironically several new by-passes have reverted to the lines of much older tracks, abandoned at the time of turnpiking. For instance the eastern by-pass of Swindon and the Cricklade by-pass follow the line of the Roman, Ermin Way.