We have seen that Mace calls the road to Scotland a “highway,” and the terms “highroad” or “highway” are common enough; but what really is a highroad? or rather, how did the term originate?

Such a road is usually understood to be a main artery of traffic between important towns, but that was not precisely the original meaning, which indicated the physical character of the road rather than its geographical status.  “High roads” were originally in fact, causeways constructed across, and above the level of, marshes and low-lying lands, and the term was therefore excellently descriptive.  The changed meaning no doubt arose from the fact that, as it would scarcely ever have been worthwhile to build embanked roads for the purpose of connecting obscure villages out of the way of trade, consequently the “high ways” and the “high roads” only came into existence between important centres.  

But this highly specialised meaning was destroyed when Turnpike Acts and Highway Acts began to be passed.  The first Turnpike Act, one relating to the road to the North, referred to the Shoreditch, Stamford Hill, Ware, and Royston route, which joined the Great North Road at Alconbury Hill.  It was passed in 1663, and authorised a toll-gate at Stilton, among other places.  In the preamble to this Act we find the road spoken of as “the ancient highway and post-road leading from London to York and so into Scotland.”  

Later Acts providing for the collection of tolls on the main roads and for the formation of Turnpike Trusts, whose business it was to collect those tolls and with them keep the “turnpike” roads in repair, named them “turnpike roads”; while other legislation, culminating in the General Highway Act of William the Fourth, perpetrated a delightful paradox by especially designating by-roads “highways.”  

The cardinal difference, in the eyes of the law, was that a turnpike road was a main line of communication, to be maintained in proper order throughout its length by taxes collected from the users of the road; while highways were only local roads for local use and to be maintained by the respective parishes in which they were situated.  The ways in which these parish roads were kept in repair were sufficiently curious.  “Statute labour” preceded highway rates, and was so called from a statute of Philip and Mary providing for parish road-surveyors, and for men, horses, carts, and materials to be supplied by the farmers at their orders, for repairs.  “Statute labour” survived in a fashion until the passing of the General Highway Act of 1835, when it was wholly superseded by rates.  

In later days parishes united and formed Highway Boards, just as they formed Poor Law Unions; and choosing a surveyor, levied a common highway rate.  These surveyors were not always, nor often, competent men.  They were, in fact, generally elected by the Boards or the Vestries from some necessitous inhabitants little above the status of the broken-down old men who were paid a trifle to break or spread stones in order to keep them from being burdens to the parish in the workhouse.  These surveyors were appointed, and work done in fear of the parishes being indicted and heavily fined for the dangerous condition of their roads, but it is obvious that they must have been very badly repaired in those times.  Nowadays the roads are all highways, since the turnpikes have been abolished, and their repair, outside the boroughs, is the business of the County Councils.

Before Macadam and Telford appeared upon the scene, the office of road-surveyor was very generally looked down upon.  No self-respecting engineer, before the time of these great men, condescended to have anything to do with roads.  It is true that a forerunner of Macadam and Telford had appeared in Yorkshire in 1765, when “Blind Jack of Knaresborough” began the construction of the Boroughbridge and Harrogate road, the first of the long series for which he contracted; but he was not an official road-surveyor, nor by profession an engineer.  He was, in fact, an engineer born and wholly untaught.

Next: To be decided

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History of Roads



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Tales of the Road: This section tells what was it like to travel by stage coach in the mid 1800s.

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Travel in England is inseparably connected to the state of our roads. This section looks at the history of British roads.

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Wheeled transport evolved over many years. This section looks at how coaches developed.

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