How we turned against the turnpike toll roads

By Neil Prior
BBC News

Image source, Rischgitz/Getty Image
Image caption,
A Punch cartoon of the Rebecca Riots

There were celebrations 120 years ago at Llanfairpwll on Anglesey, when the last ever turnpike toll road in Britain was removed after more than 200 years under the hated system.

Turnpike roads were named after the frame of pikes that could be turned to allow horses through.

It was fitting that the final toll road to be returned to public ownership was in Wales, as arguably it was here where the system brought both the most benefit and the most hardship.

Between 1839 and 1842 farmers in mid and west Wales waged the Rebecca Riots against the tolls which threatened their livelihood.

Although 50 years before, the spread of the turnpikes had helped kindle a fledgling industrial revolution in the south Wales valleys.

But after surviving decades of protests, the turnpike trusts were eventually rendered obsolete by the railways and canals their roads had helped to build.

By the late 1600s British roads were in an appalling state, having had no major investment since Roman times.

Image source, Hulton/Getty
Image caption,
'A lady is inconvenienced by her wide crinoline skirts, and her gentleman friend has to call a local man to open the turnpike gate for her to pass'

In 1656 the boroughs of Hertfordshire, Huntington and Cambridgeshire faced bankruptcy with the cost of maintaining the Great North Road into London, so they lobbied parliament for the right to raise tolls to pay for the upkeep.

The system spread throughout the 18th Century, until at their height in the early 1800s, about 1,000 trusts controlled 18,000 miles (29,000 km) of road in England and Wales.

Transport expert Professor Stuart Cole said nowhere was their impact felt more than in Wales.

"Until the turnpikes, Britain, and in particular Wales, was entirely dependent on rivers and the sea for transport, but with the new roads Wales suddenly became important.

"In the north, Thomas Telford's Holyhead Road - now the A5 - became vital in supplying troops to Ireland, and the time taken for mail coaches to travel to London almost halved, from 45 hours to 27.

"In south Wales the new tarmacadam roads helped start the iron and coal industries. Whilst there wouldn't be mass extraction until the railways, the roads were significant in allowing equipment to be brought in to the coalfields to at least start the process of industrialisation."

But these gains came at a cost to ordinary people, as corruption spread amongst the poorly regulated turnpike trusts.

Image source, Hulton Archive
Image caption,
Turnpikes were another name for toll roads - with payments taken at the gate

"Side bars" were introduced to catch farmers who only used sections of the roads between turnpike gates, and tolls rose so rapidly it was said the price of carting a load of lime out of Cardiff was 10 times greater than the cost of buying it in the first place.

Dissatisfaction with the turnpike trusts peaked in 1839, when groups of farmers disguised in women's clothes ripped down toll gates in what came to be known as the Rebecca Riots.

Although historian Professor Chris Williams believes it isn't necessarily fair to lay the blame for all the farmers' grievances at the toll gates.

"Some turnpike trusts certainly did abuse their power, and the tolls did have an impact on the livelihood of the farmers, but the situation was much more complex than that.

"The farmers were facing poor harvests and falling prices for their produce thanks to easing of restrictions on foreign imports, but at the same time their tithes, tolls and poor rates were increasing.

"The turnpikes were just the visible face of a much wider problem, a tangible object on which the protesters could vent their frustration."

Nevertheless, as a result of the Rebecca Riots the Turnpikes act of 1844 amalgamated Welsh trusts and reduced tolls.

Although it proved something of a hollow victory for Rebecca, as by then the rapid spread of railways throughout Wales was already forcing the turnpikes into bankruptcy.

The Local Government Act of 1888 handed responsibility for roads back to councils, with the very last turnpike trust at Llanfairpwll wound up in 1895.

More on this story

Around the BBC