In the late 1600s politics and trade were both leading to more people travelling so pressure to improve the roads was growing. After much discussion it was decided that the problem of poor roads would only be solved if road building could be made profitable and the only way to do that was to make travellers pay to use them. This was an idea that had already been put before Parliament back in the 1620s, and had been turned down. But now its day had come.
Groups of businessmen were encouraged to form companies called Turnpike Trusts and these were granted permission by Parliament to build and maintain roads. Gates were set up at strategic points which travellers had to pay to pass through.
The first Turnpike Act was passed in 1663. It related to the road to the North, via Shoreditch, Stamford Hill, Ware, and Royston, which joined the Great North Road at Alconbury Hill, and referred to it as “the ancient highway and post-road leading from London to York and so into Scotland.” It authorised a toll-gate at Stilton, among other places.
The term "turnpike" was used because the gate used to control traffic resembled the barriers once used to defend against cavalry attacks. The turnpike was a horizontal barrier with a row of sharpened spikes fixed to it. It could be rotated (turned) to open it.
Many Turnpike Trusts followed. Their roads were named “turnpike roads” and were defined as “a main line of communication to be maintained in proper order throughout its length by taxes collected from the users of the road”. Between 1700 and 1750 Parliament established over 400 Turnpike Trusts.
Local roads were designated “highways” and were to be maintained locally by parish road-surveyors. “Men, horses, carts, and materials” had to be supplied by farmers. This system survived until the General Highway Act of 1835 put road repairs on to local councils paid for by rates.
The quality of the roads built by the Turnpike Trusts varied enormously. Some spent very little on their roads whilst others made every effort to provide a good service. Also, the technologies used to deal with geological features, drainage, and the effects of weather, were all in their infancy and so road construction improved slowly.
In 1765, the Harrogate Turnpike Trust employed John Metcalf, the blind roadmaker, to build a three-mile stretch of road in Yorkshire. Although blind since the age of six, he was able to make an extremely good road. He was aware of the importance of good drainage and dug ditches along the sides of his convex roads, which considerably reduced flooding. Metcalf’s road was so successful that he was commissioned to build a series of roads that were able to carry heavy wagons and withstand wet weather. He used rafts to build roads across bogs and was an astute surveyor, able to calculate materials and costs accurately. He went on building roads across the north of England and these gave manufacturers and commercial travellers easier access to markets and canal and ports. The mix of better roads and easier (and therefore cheaper) access to markets began to drive road building like never before.
Another important road builder was Thomas Telford. Like the Romans, he laid large stone blocks as a foundation for his roads. He then spread layers of large and small stones. Telford's method was based on the idea that vehicles could assist rather than destroy roads. He pointed out that by using small stones on the surface of the road, the more traffic that used the road, the more tightly compacted the stones would become. He also did a lot of work straightening roads and reducing the steepness of many hills by using embankments and cuttings. Telford's roads were very impressive, but they were also expensive and the Turnpike companies found it difficult to make profits from this method of road building.
Eventually another Scottish engineer, John Macadam, came up with a cheaper method of making good roads. He realised that the secret is not heavy stone foundations but to spread a series of thin layers of small angular stones over a subsoil base. After each layer was laid, it was left for a while so that the weight of vehicles using the road could compact the stones together. The final surface was a binding mixture of small gravel and clay on the surface. Together with a camber to allow the rain to run off, these 'macadamised' roads were not only economical to build but they enabled horses to pull three times the load they could on other road surfaces. Wagons and coaches could also travel much faster on this surface.
McAdam and his sons were employed as general surveyors (consultant engineers) to many of the main turnpike trusts in southern England. They recommended the building of new sections of road to avoid obstructions, eased steep slopes and directed the relaying of existing road-beds with carefully graded stones to create a dry, fast-running surface (known as Macadamising).
The result of the improvements made by Telford and McAdam, together with improved coach design to take advantage of these better roads improved communications immensely. In the 1820s the journey time of the London to Holyhead mail coach was reduced from 45 hours to just 27 hours, and in 1843 the London-to-Exeter mail coach could complete the 170-mile (270-km) journey in 17 hours. During this time, the best mail coach speeds rose from 5-6mph (8–10km/h) to 9-10mph (14–16km/h).
The Great North Road at Highfield before Turnpikes. It was deeply rutted and very wide.
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Britain’s roads were pretty impassable for most of our history. Coach travel was very difficult until they improved
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