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How did the turnpike system work?

By the 17th century, roads throughout England were in a very poor state. In theory parishioners had to give three or four days free work per year for the maintenance of high roads which passed through their parish. In practice, no-one likes to work for nothing, and maintenance was skimped.

By the turn of the 18th century a solution to the problem was found by groups of landowners and other wealthy people agreeing to finance the improvement and resurfacing of roads in return for the right to charge each user. For each stretch of road an Act of Parliament was required to authorise what became know as turnpike trusts. Between 1708-1750 more than 400 Road Acts were passed. There were over 5,000 turnpike tollhouses.

The usual arrangement was for the tollhouses to be built and owned by the Turnpike Trusts. The trusts were responsible for the upkeep of the roads and made sure they had a regular income by letting the tollgates to individuals. These tenants paid an annual rent to the trust and in return, they were allowed to keep the tolls they collected at the gate. The turnpike system was unpopular. Most people saw little improvement in the quality of the roads, resented the frequent halts, and above all, hated paying the tolls!

We do not know of a record of the tolls at local turnpikes, but as an example, the tolls taken in 1860 at the Upton-upon-Severn tollgate were:

- For every Horse, Ass, Mule or other Beast or Cattle drawing any coach, Landau, Barouche, Chariot, Chaise, Hearse, Litter ot other Carriage with springs: 6d

- For every Horse, Mule or other Beast or Cattle drawing any Waggon, Wain, Cart, or other such like Carriage having the Tire of the Wheels therof of a less breadth than six inches: 5d

- For every Ass drawing any Waggon, Wain or Cart: 3d

- For every Horse, Ass, Mule or other Beast or Cattle drawing any Carriage used for the Carrying or conveyancing of Timber or other Heavy goods: 1s 0d

- For every Horse or Mule Laden or unladen and not drawing: 1½d

- For every Ox, Cow or neat Cattle (except Calves): 0½d

- For every Calf, Hog, Sheep or Lamb: 0¼d

As railways came into use in the 1830s and 1840s, the receipts at the tollhouses rapidly dropped. Most tollhouses were sold off in the 1880s when the turnpikes were closed.

What about Hungerford?

Hungerford lay at an important junction of several roads:

- the east-west London to Bath road, which became the Speenhamland to Marlborough Turnpike,

- the north-south Oxford to Salisbury road, which became the Besselsleigh to Hungerford Turnpike and the Hungerford to Leckford Sousley Water Turnpike.

- the north-west road to Swindon, which became the Swindon to Hungerford Turnpike.

The setting up of Turnpike Trusts all took many years, partly due to opposition from users who did not wish to pay for improvements and from others with vested interests. There were twelve Acts passed between 1707 and 1756 for improvements to the complete length of the road from London to Bath (via Chippenham) - and this for one of the country's busiest roads!

In rural west Berkshire and Wiltshire improvements came later than in towns. The road from Newbury to Marlborough, passing through Hungerford and Savernake was said to be so dreadfully muddy that it was almost impassable in spring and autumn as well as in winter, and so narrow in places that coaches and carriages could not pass each other.

The Speenhamland to Marlborough Turnpike:

An Act, the Speenhamland to Marlborough Turnpike Act, for repairing and widening this road was passed in 1726, but little seems to have been done to improve the road until a renewal act was obtained in 1744.

Until then an alternative route, known as the Ramsbury Narrow Way, continued to be well-used. This route split from the modern A4 east of Hungerford, passed along Radley Bottom, Leverton, to Ramsbury, then from the west side of Ramsbury Manor along what is now named "Sound Bottom" on the OS maps.

It is marked clearly on Ogilby's map of 1670, part of which is shown in the Photo Gallery.

The 1726 Speenhamland to Marlborough Trust included two Earls, a Baron, a Viscount and four Baronets amongst its trustees, and the wording of their act made it clear that they intended to stand no nonsense from the peasantry! All persons who by law were chargeable towards repairing the roads should remain chargeable and do their respective works as before they ought to have done, it said, and there was no mention of compounding.

When this trust was renewed in 1744, another clause was inserted saying that parish surveyors must bring lists of names of persons obliged to do statute work and that the trustees would allot work as they saw fit. Each team of men and horses was to work three days a year and the fines imposed for each day of absence were three shillings for each horse and one shilling and sixpence for each labourer.

Toll gates were set up as soon as each trust went into action, and often consisted of a temporary barrier until a proper gate had been made and erected. The gate-keeper too might have to put up with a makeshift shelter until his cottage was built.

Each trust usually erected two main gates placed at strategic positions across their piece or road, but not necessarily at either end. Their aims were to catch as many travellers as possible and to try to prevent them from taking alternative routes.

The Speenhamland to Marlborough Trust specified a gate on the section of road passing through the north of Kintbury parish, between the smith's shop and the lane leading to Ramsbury (i.e. the old road through Radley Bottom and Leverton), but this gate was later moved a mile to the east into Welford parish near the Halfway House. It is shown in the Photo Gallery, and was demolished only c1962-64. The trust also had a gate about 1½ miles west of Froxfield, near Harrow Farm.

Milestones are another potent reminder of the days of turnpike trusts. Each trust adopted its own style of milestone. They began to be erected in the 1740s. The Photo Gallery includes one of the Speenhamland to Marlborough Trust milestones near Hungerford.

The Besselsleigh to Hungerford Turnpike:

The road between Oxford and Salisbury was also important in the 17th century. The road north from Hungerford towards Oxford (now the A338) passed through Wantage, before joining the Swindon to Oxford road (now A420) near the village of Bessels Leigh before reaching the outskirts of Oxford.

This First Act to turnpike this route was passed in 11 Geo3 c97 - 1771, as the "Besselsleigh (or Besselsleigh to Hungerford) Turnpike Act". The Act expired in 1878. The interest bearing debt in 1824 was £4,000 and the income from tolls in the same year was £325. The length was 22 miles. There were four main gates in 1840, with one side gate or bar.

The Hungerford tollhouse (also shown in the Photo Gallery) was on Eddington Hill, as the road rises up the hill out of Eddington village. It is clearly shown (and labelled) on the 1882 OS map.

The Hungerford to Leckford Sousley Water Turnpike:

The  southern part of the Oxford to Salisbury road was turnpiked (as the "Hungerford to Leckford Sousley Water Turnpike Trust") in 1772 and disturnpiked in 1866 (VCH Wiltshire). (It is thought that Leckford Sousley Water refers to what is now known as Southly Bridge at Collingbourne Ducis). The route went past the Nags Head near Marten, and on over Fair Mile and Collingbourne Shears. There are several milestones still visible on the verge of the A338 south of Hungerford, and one on the Fair Mile south of Marten is a Grade II listed monument.

One record suggests that a tollhouse for this turnpike stood just south of Hungeford near the modern entrance to Beacon Farm (at OS ref SU6733), but further research through original Turnpike Trust documents is needed to be sure of this.

There are several milestones still visible on the verge of the A338 south of Hungerford, and one on the Fair Mile south of Marten is a Grade II listed monument.

In keeping with the usual arrangement of the trusts letting the licence to a tollkeeper who would recoup his funds by collecting the tolls on his length, we have a record of the licence for the Hungerford to Leckford Turnpike, sold in 1800. The Reading Mercury of 13 Jan 1800 advertised:

"Sale of the Hungerford to Leckford Turnpike licence: "To be Sold for £400: The principal Sum of £480 secured by mortgage of the Tolls, arising from the Turnpike Road leading from Hungerford in the county of Berks to Leckford, otherwise Soudley Water, in the county of Wilts; Also the sum of £109 7s due on the 21st December 1799, for interest of the said sum of £480.

The Tolls (exclusive of the expences of collecting) amount annually to the sum of £80, and the whole principal debt on the road amounts only to £986.

The Vendor for the last four years has received £36 9s per annum; and there is every reason to believe that a purchaser would for the above sum of £400 receive for the nine succeeding years the annual sum of £36 9s at which time the arrear of interest would be liquidated, and the purchaser will receive 5 per cent for the said principle sum of £486 till the same is paid off.

For the particulars apply to Messrs Hall and Ryley, Attornies, Hungerford."

The Swindon to Hungerford Turnpike:

The route north-west to Swindon (15 miles) was turnpiked in 1814. There were 5 main gates on the route.

The end of Turnpikes:

By the early Victorian period toll gates were perceived as an impediment to free trade. The multitude of small trusts were frequently charged with being inefficient in use of resources and potentially suffered from petty corruption.

The railway era spelt disaster for most turnpike trusts. Although some trusts in districts not served by railways managed to increase revenue, most did not.

The debts of many trusts became significant; forced mergers of solvent and debt-laden trusts became frequent, and by the 1870s it was feasible for Parliament to close the trusts progressively without leaving an unacceptable financial burden on local communities.

From 1871, all applications for renewal were sent to a Turnpike Trust Commission. This arranged for existing Acts to continue, but with the objective of discharging the debt, and returning the roads to local administration, which was by then by highway boards.

The Local Government Act of 1888 gave responsibility for maintaining main roads to county councils and county borough councils. When a trust was ended, there were often great celebrations as the gates were thrown open. The assets of the trust, such as tollhouses, gates and sections of surplus land beside the road were auctioned off to reduce the debt, and mortgagees were paid at whatever rate in the pound the funds would allow.

It is thought that the Eddington Turnpike fell from use between 1888 and 1895.

The last toll-gate in England closed in 1895.

The Halfway tollhouse was demolished c1962-64.

Water pumps were placed at strategic intervals, especially in towns, to damp the surface and reduce dust and dirt in summer months. Several photographs of Hungerford show the pumps. One resident (later Mrs Barbara Hope) recalled that "the sound of the watering-cart going up and down the street heralded to us children the start of summer".

Photo Gallery:

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- Part of Ogilby's Map of 1670 showing the main roads near Hungerford

- Speenhamland to Marlborough Turnpike Trust milestone near Hungerford, May 2009

- Eddington Turnpike Gate c1850. This tollgate lodge stood at the bottom of Folly Hill, opposite the later entrance to St Saviour's Church.

- Part of the 1882 OS Map showing the position of the Eddington Turnpike Gate marked by "Eddington T.P."

- Charnham Street c1905 showing water pump (installed c1904) in right foreground

- The castellated tollhouse on the Bath Road towards Newbury near Halfway

- The "Old Turnpike House between Hungerford and Newbury" c1905 [Tomkins & Barrett, Swindon] (Kindly provided by Michael Smallwood)

- The tollhouse on the Bath Road towards Newbury near Halfway

- The halfway Tollhouse House c1940 (Kindly provided by Michael Smallwood)

- The halfway Tollhouse House, undated

- The halfway Tollhouse House c1950 (Kindly provided by Michael Smallwood)

- The halfway Tollhouse House being demolished c1962-64 (Kindly provided by Michael Smallwood)

- A milestone in the verge on Eddington Hill - on the Besselsleigh to Hungerford Turnpike [Mar 2016]

See also:

- More on Coaching

- A Survey of the Milestones in West Berkshire - RJ Hart, Berks Archaeological Journal, Vol 67