The way in which Toll Roads changed the English Landscape

© 2001 Andrew Wager

This essay reviews the direct effects that toll roads had on the English landscape and the less direct effects that occurred as a result of improved communications. Examples from two turnpikes that passed through Thorpe in Derbyshire are used to illustrate some of the conclusions.

Before the end of the seventeenth century[i],[ii] the roads were maintained by each parish. An Act of 1555 required the appointment of an unpaid 'Surveyor of the Highways' to serve for a year. This officer was empowered to raise local rates and had the responsibility of supervising the local people who provided statute labour to maintain the roads. This arrangement lasted until 1835 when paid surveyors for groups of parishes were introduced. By the eighteenth century the amount of traffic on the through roads had increased beyond the capabilities of the parishes to maintain them. The answer to the problem was to create toll roads financed through turnpike trusts. These were established through private Acts of Parliament from the end of the seventeenth century. The acts appointed trustees who were in turn empowered to appoint surveyors, repair the roads using statute labour and other means, erect gates, appoint toll collectors and mortgage the tolls. The impact of the turnpikes can be judged from Figure 1 and Figure 2 which show the enormous growth in the toll road network in the middle of the eighteenth century and the reduction in coach journey times between 1750 and the 1830s. Not only did financing of major roads change but there were also developments in the methods of road building with which McAdam[iii] and Telford[iv] were particularly associated. The reduction in journey times illustrated in Figure 2 was the result of these developments rather than the creation of the turnpike trusts. Indeed  'some turnpikes had no drains and consisted merely of piles of rubble thrown on to the highway'[v]. During the eighteenth century there was an increasing rate of creation of turnpikes until it became a 'mania' between 1750-72[vi] that resulted in around 15,000 miles of road being gated and tolled. The mileage had risen to about 20,000 by 1830.

The effect on peoples' lives must have been dramatic. Within a couple of generations the country shrank to a third of its size or less judged by the time it took to reach ones destination - if you were well off. The turnpikes did not reduce the cost of travel significantly, so those who could not afford coach travel continued to walk, presumably in the dust of increasingly busy roads.

The biggest physical impact was the changes of route that were introduced in order to make things easier for heavily laden vehicles. Better-graded routes replaced the direct ones and many of these changes are still in use today. The turnpikes in the Thorpe area illustrate this very well. Burdett's Map[vii] of 1767 (Figure 3) shows the original routes taken by the local turnpikes and the subsequent routes that were taken to avoid the hills and valleys that required additional horses to negotiate them. In both cases the modern 'A' roads follow the later routes and the original routes are left as minor gated roads or tracks. Figure 4, Figure 5 and Figure 6 show part of the Thorpe-Blythe Bridge turnpike. One-hundred-and-seventy years after it was 'thrown open' (i.e. tolls were no longer exacted) the road between Thorpe and Blore is a little used, barely maintained public road as far as the River Dove and a farm track up to Coldwall Farm at Blore. Examples like this short stretch of turnpike, which was superseded by other routes and was never integrated into the modern road network, is a route unchanged since its construction towards the end of the nineteenth century.

Turnpikes not only introduced major changes in routes but they also caused substantial improvements to cater for new requirements in transport. The wagon depicted in Figure 7 would have required a great deal of road width. This may not have been typical of the Thorpe area, but the Blythe Bridge turnpike was known as the 'coal road'[viii] presumably with loads of coal being carried into the area north of Ashbourne from the Staffordshire coalfield. Lime from the many small kilns that can still be seen today was perhaps carried on the return journey together with flints for the mill at Cheddleton. Figure 7 shows a wagon with very wide wheels. The width of wagon wheels was apparently a serious issue in the early nineteenth century. Narrow wheels caused damage to the road surface that was reflected in the tolls charged. On the Matlock Bridge to Chesterfield turnpike in 1823 tolls were fifty per cent greater for wagons with wheels narrower than six inches[ix].

The local evidence from the Blythe Bridge turnpike suggests that the route was widened. It is clear that Coldwall Bridge was doubled in width and the causeway on the Staffordshire side added. Hayhurst[x] considered that the bridge was originally 'hump-backed' (perhaps a packhorse bridge?) before it was widened and the level run created (Figure 10). Hey[xi] observes that 'the new turnpike roads were designed to cater for wheeled traffic, and though the early ones merely followed the old routes, the steepest gradients were eventually avoided and bridges were widened or rebuilt'. Emery[xii] describes the improvement of the road from Woodstock to Chipping Norton about 1800 'by ploughing up the whole length of it, and the furrow thus ploughed was six miles in length, the team ploughing the whole length from end to end. Along this road moved a great volume of traffic from Oxford to Birmingham and the Midlands; twenty two four-horse coaches passed through Enstone each day and night, many of them changing teams there, and at least half-a-dozen heavy waggons did likewise'.

In Thorpe the original route of the Blythe Bridge road may have been changed to avoid two narrow lanes (Figure 9). This change seems to have occurred between the creation of the turnpike in 1762viii and the surveying for Burdett's map of 1767. Dodd8 reports that the new road ('D') was made in 1765, so the widening of the bridge and other changes in alignment were perhaps made at the same time.

The turnpikes also brought new buildings into the landscape. Tollkeepers cottages were built, one of which survives in Thorpe ('C' in Figure 9). They were in general small and cheaply made - 'to erect a turnpike house and one gate near Blore, the same as at Oakamoor, for £42.10.0d'[xiii] consisting of a single storey with a minimum of rooms located right beside the road. Where they survive they have often been completely rebuilt (Figure 11). Figure 12 and Figure 13 show such cottages in the latter part of the turnpike era.

The increased traffic on the roads also led to the creation of coaching inns, which were often large with extensive stabling (Figure 14). Dodd[xiv] believes that 'in the mid-1830s there were over 3,000 coaches … 150,000 horses and 30,000 men' so the requirement for stabling and related accommodation must have been substantial. Although these coaching inns are particularly noticeable where they are isolated in the rural landscape, they also survive in urban landscapes (Figure 15) where the majority of them must have been located. Dodd[xv] notes that a traveller from Blackburn to London in 1824 took refreshments at Manchester, supper at Leek and breakfast at Northampton - presumably all at coaching inns in these towns.

As well as these major relics of the turnpikes other traces also survive. Trees and hedges (Figure 8) and many milestones mark the old routes. Figure 16 shows a milestone on the Thorpe-Blythe Bridge turnpike.  They were set up as a result of Acts of Parliament passed in 1766 and 1773[xvi].

The creation of toll-roads had a direct effect upon the landscape as described above but there were also less direct effects. The original motivation for the creation of turnpike trusts was presumably to make a profit although many of the original trustees must have seen the opportunity to improve their own trade through the improved transport. Once the roads had been improved there were secondary effects. Emery[xvii] explains the effects of a new turnpike on Nuneham Courtenay - '…it was decided to turnpike and improve the [London to Oxford road] in 1736, making the place more accessible. The original village stood above the Thames, but in Lord Harcourt's eye its "tumble down clay-built" houses gathered around the green were ripe for demolition. They were pulled down…' Similarly at Middleton Stoney [xviii] 'under the personal direction of Lady Jersey … the village road was extinguished in favour of the Oxford-Brackley turnpike. Such dramatic consequences were widespread as many landlords began to take a new interest in their villages when long distance commuting from London became possible. Improved communications started in the turnpike era, were enhanced by the railways in the nineteenth century and have continued to the present day when many villages are dormitory extensions of the cities.

The opposite consequence can be found where geographic effects - usually steep gradients - routed traffic away from the original turnpikes. The Thorpe-Blythe Bridge turnpike is one instance. The improved gradient on the Swinscoe Hill (Figure 3) meant that traffic and revenue were diverted in 1830. The Ashbourne-Buxton route had already been diverted to avoid Thorpe which was thus left without through traffic to dwindle to a commuter village with little local trade. The sections of turnpike from Thorpe to Calton Moor and Thorpe to New Inns (Figure 3) have been preserved more or less as they were at the end of the turnpike era. Elsewhere the same effect has had more dramatic consequences. At Burford[xix] (Figure 17) the 'new turnpike road to Gloucester bypassing the town to avoid the steep pitches imposed by the site' left the town much as it was in the eighteenth century thus preserving most of the town's original form.

Like the canals and the railways, toll roads made their mark on the English landscape over a relatively short period of time - between 1700 and 1850. Many of the signs can still be found and in a few places where turnpikes were never incorporated into the modern road network they can still be traced as they were in the nineteenth century.


1.        Peakland Roads and Trackways by AE Dodd & E M Dodd, 1982

2.        Atlas of British Social and Economic History Since c. 1700 Ed. Rex Pope, 1990

3.        The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History Ed. David Hey, 1996

4.        Historical Atlas of Britain Ed. Malcolm Falkus & John Gillingham, 1981

5.        The Blythe Marsh to Thorpe Turnpike by E. M Dodd from N Staffs Journal of Field Studies 5 (1965), 1

6.        Coldwall Bridge by R. Hayhurst [From ‘Derbyshire Miscellany’ No 7. 102, 1957]

7.        The Oxfordshire Landscape by Frank Emery, 1974

8.        Packmen, Carriers and Packhorse Roads by David Hey, 1980



[i] Peakland Roads and Trackways, p 130

[ii] The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History p218, p454

[iii] See for example the work of John Loudon McAdam who was born in Scotland in 1756. … he developed new theories about road-building systems. He argued that bare, dry soil was perfectly strong enough to take the weight of the kind of traffic contemporary roads carried; all you had to do was keep it dry. So he dispensed with the heavy, carefully laid foundations which had been the basis of all metalled roads since the Romans. Instead, he ensured that the roadbed was raised, with adequate drainage to carry away rainfall, and concentrated on laying tightly packed layers of small stone - the stone to be carefully graded for optimum packing. Further, he reckoned that the best way to compact this surface was to let traffic do the work - with additional aggregate being added to correct imperfections revealed in this way. © David Craig []

[iv] See for example the account of Telford's work on the Holyhead road in 'The Shropshire Landscape' by Trevor Rowley, 1972

[v] Historical Atlas of Britain, p 197

[vi] Atlas of British Social and Economic History, p 99

[vii] Facsimile published by Derbyshire Archaeological Society, 1975

[viii] The Blythe Marsh to Thorpe Turnpike by E. M Dodd from N Staffs Journal of Field Studies 5 (1965), 1

[ix] Peakland Roads and Trackways, p 134

[x] Coldwall Bridge by R. Hayhurst [From ‘Derbyshire Miscellany’ No 7. 102, 1957]

[xi] Packmen, Carriers and Packhorse Roads p 101

[xii] The Oxfordshire Landscape, p 145

[xiii] The Blythe Marsh to Thorpe Turnpike by E. M Dodd from N Staffs Journal of Field Studies 5 (1965), 1

[xiv] Peakland Roads and Trackways p 131-2

[xv] Peakland Roads and Trackways p 133-4

[xvi] Peakland Roads and Trackways p135

[xvii] The Oxfordshire Landscape, p 128

[xviii] The Oxfordshire Landscape, p 169

[xix] The Oxfordshire Landscape, p 201