Chapter 1.

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“Road: a path or way between different places, or leading to some place.”




All roads lead to Rome.

Throughout the Roman Empire there existed a network of well engineered public roads (viae publicae).  Unlike the principal English roads of the medieval period and into the 18th century, which were often impassable in wet weather, a well-drained Roman road provided all-weather use:

“The public roads were accurately divided by milestones, and ran in a direct line from one city to another, with very little respect for the obstacles either of nature or private property.  Mountains were perforated and bold arches thrown over the broadest and most rapid streams.  The middle part of the road was raised into a terrace which commanded the adjacent country, consisted of several strata of sand, gravel, and cement, and was paved with large stones, or, in some places near the capital, with granite.  Such was the solid construction of the Roman highways, whose firmness has not entirely yielded to the effort of fifteen centuries.  They united the subjects of the most distant provinces by an easy and familiar intercourse; but their primary object had been to facilitate the marches of the legions; nor was any country considered as completely subdued, till it had been rendered, in all its parts, pervious to the arms and authority of the conqueror.”

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Vol. 1), Edward Gibbon (1782).

Although the Roman road network supported commerce, its principal aim was to enable the Empire to maintain control over its widespread provinces by linking them to Rome, [1] and its outlying administrative and military centres (such as, in Britain, London, Chester, York and Hadrian’s Wall) to each other.  By this means, armies, military supplies, government officials and communications could move as swiftly overland as was possible for the age.

Pre-Roman roads in Britain.

From the earliest times, one of the strongest indicators of a society’s level of development has been the extent of its road system.

When the Romans first reached Britain in 55 BC, archaeological evidence in the form of imported wine and olive oil amphorae, and mass-produced Gallo-Belgic pottery suggests that a thriving trade had already developed between south-eastern Britain and the near Continent.  There can be no doubt that the Romans found some form of roads, for the extent to which our Iron Age tribes had developed trading relations would have required them. [2]  Such roads were probably little better than bridleways beaten out by travellers making their way as best they could from place to place, taking lengthy detours en route to cross rivers at fords, choosing high ground to avoid the bogs of the valleys, and deviating from a straight course wherever they encountered an obstacle.  Nevertheless, they were adequate for meeting the meagre trading demands of the age.

In Julius Caesar’s  account of his second visit to Briton in 54 BC, he mentions finding roads.  Following a battle at a ford on the Thames during his campaign against the British king Cassivelaunus, Caesar mentions that Cassivelaunus sent out his chariots from the woods into which he had withdrawn, using all the well-known roads and paths to attack the Romans, who were then plundering the British crops and cattle. [3]  From this and other evidence it is apparent that roads of a standard worthy of Caesar’s description as such did exist, and it is likely that parts of the later Roman-British road network were a consolidation and improvement of what the Romans found when they eventually invaded our shores in force.

Roman roads in Britain.

Julius Caesar did not linger.  It was not until 43 AD that the Roman conquest of Britain under the Emperor Claudius began in earnest, following which the Romans remained masters of the larger part of our island until c.410 AD, when the last of their military forces withdrew to help counter the increasing attacks by Germanic tribes along the Empire’s eastern borders.

During almost four centuries of colonisation, the Romans built cities and erected many private and public works, both civil and military, the remains of which attest to their skill and power as architects and civil/military engineers.  They also constructed our first properly engineered roads, which, judging from archaeological evidence in the form of coins, they constructed mostly during the early period of their occupation.  Features of the Romans’ major roads echo those of today’s motorways, for, unlike our later meandering roads, they followed direct ― but not necessarily straight ― routes, distances along which could be judged from milestones, while fresh horses, food and accommodation might be obtained from way-stations located at intervals. [4]

At its height (c.180 AD) the Roman road network in Britain comprised over 2,000 miles of major roads in addition to thousands of miles of minor roads. [5]  Archaeological evidence demonstrates that Roman roads were well constructed; the engineers who built them appreciated the need for a solid, load-bearing foundation that needed to be kept dry, and thus firm.  Following their departure from our shores these principles were forgotten until rediscovered by our military (for we too built military roads, to subjugate the Jacobite Scots) and civil road builders of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Roman road construction.

The common features of Roman roads were a metalled surface (e.g. gravel, or sometimes paving slabs [6]) laid on a compacted foundation of earth and stone between drainage ditches.  This arrangement varied in width from, for minor roads, some 15 feet, to twice that for major roads.  However, construction did not follow a hard and fast rule, but varied according to the builder, when the road was built, the types of building materials readily available, and the road’s importance.  The author of Robinson Crusoe had occasion to observe Roman road construction during his tours of Britain; he was impressed with what he saw:

“The causeways and roads, or streetways of the Romans, were perfect solid buildings, the foundations were laid so deep, and the materials so good, however far they were obliged to fetch them, that if they had been vaulted and arched, they could not have been more solid.  I have seen the bottom of them dug up in several places, where I have observed flint stones, chalk stones, hard gravel, solid hard clay, and several other sorts of earth, laid in layers, like the vein's of ore in a mine; a laying of clay so as solid binding quality, then flint stones, then chalk, then upon the chalk rough ballast or gravel, till the whole work has been raised six or eight foot from the bottom; then it has been covered with a crown or rising ridge in the middle, gently sloping to the sides, that the rain might run off every way, and not soak into the work.  This I have seen as fair and firm, after having stood as we may conclude, at least 12 or 1600 years, as if it had been made but the year before.”

A Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain, Vol. II. by Daniel Defoe (1725).

With the exception of motorways and trunk roads, most British roads today are sinuous, although Chesterton’s poem probably doesn’t reflect the true cause:

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
 The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
 A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
 And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
 A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
 The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

From The Rolling English Road, G.K. Chesterton (1913).

In contrast, Roman roads were definitely not of the reeling, rolling and rambling variety, although the common belief that they always followed a perfectly straight line over hill and dale is an exaggeration; it is truer to say that they were direct, rather than straight:

“In an open country like much of the south of England, the general course of the Roman roads is often wonderfully direct, perhaps not deviating more than a quarter or half-a-mile from an absolutely straight line in 20 or 30 miles.  But even here between the extreme points there are many pieces of straight road not quite in the same line, and where a difficulty, such as an unnecessary crossing of a river, or a steep hill which need not be passed over, could be avoided by leaving the straight line, it was generally done.  Where steep-sided valleys had to be crossed the road winds down and up, and resumes the straight line on the other side.  In a broken country, or along valleys, a winding course to suit the ground was usually followed, and in a hilly country straightness is sometimes not a characteristic at all.”

Roman Roads in Britain, Thomas Codrington (3rd edition, 1918).

Road administration under the Romans.

Of equal importance to road engineering is that of maintenance and repair.  Much is known about the centralised road administration that existed in Italy, but application of the Italian model to Roman Britain is a matter of conjecture.  If it was followed, it is likely that Roman trunk roads were managed nationally. [7]  Financing public road building would have been a government responsibility, but the responsibility for regular repair and maintenance rested with designated imperial officials, the curatores viarum.  These officials were tasked with fund-raising, for which there were a number of methods available.  The local civitas (county) authorities through whose territory the road passed would be expected to contribute to its repair, as would citizens with an interest in a road; high officials might distribute largesse to be used for roads; and the censors (who were in charge of public morals and public works) were expected to contribute to repairs from their own resources.  In towns, citizens were expected to pay for the maintenance of the road outside their property.




It is impossible to estimate accurately the full extent of our Roman road network, [5] for following the Empire’s departure from our shores, the military and administrative purposes for which their roads had been the essential infrastructure ceased, and in the following centuries our Roman roads fell into decay.  The materials from which they were built were sometimes dug up and used for other purposes, sections of road sank into the ground or were washed away through lack of maintenance, sections were ploughed up for agricultural use, and on those routes leading to Roman outposts that no longer served any purpose, nature soon regained control and vegetation forced its way through the road bed until it was entirely consumed by undergrowth . . . .

“They shut the road through the woods
 Seventy years ago.
 Weather and rain have undone it again,
 And now you would never know
 There was once a road through the woods
 Before they planted the trees.
 It is underneath the coppice and heath,
 And the thin anemones.
 Only the keeper sees
 That, where the ring-dove broods,
 And the badgers roll at ease,
 There was once a road through the woods.”

From The Way through the Woods,
by Rudyard Kipling (1910).

It is generally accepted that no roads of the solid construction and straight alignments of those of the Roman were built until well into the eighteenth century (see chapter 10).  That said, some Roman roads did continue in use until long after the end of Roman rule, although not in the condition in which the Romans left them: [8]

“The Laws of Edward the Confessor recite four of these great roads, Ermine Street, Watling Street, Icknield Street, and Fosse Way, as especially under the King’s peace, and relate that two of them ran lengthwise of the kingdom, two across.  Three of these were recognized in the reign of William the Conqueror.  Ermine was the great northern road which ran from London to Lincoln and thence on to North Britain; Watling Street ran north-westward from Dover and neighbouring ports through London and the heart of the country to Wroxeter (Uriconium) and North Wales; Icknield Street ran southwest from the country of the Icent eastward of Cambridge to Devon, connecting with Fosse Way not very far from Exeter.” [9]

Roman Roads in Britain, from The Geographical Review, Volume 11.

The laws this extract refers to seem chiefly aimed at preventing robbery and establishing these four former Roman roads as public property by extending to them the privileges of pax regis, the King’s Peace. [10]  A further point to mention is that these road names (e.g. Watling Street) are not Roman; in contrast to surviving routes in Italy and in other Roman provinces within Western Europe, the original names of our Roman roads are not known through lack of written and inscribed sources.  The names we have today were acquired during the early Middle Ages, and are of Welsh or Anglo-Saxon derivation.

The Anglo-Saxons: the ‘trinoda necessitas’.

During the two centuries following the Roman departure, England was invaded, first, by Germanic tribes referred to collectively as the Anglo-Saxons; then, towards the end of the 8th Century began further waves of invasion by peoples mainly from Denmark.  Collectively known as the Vikings, these later invaders settled in the north and east of England.

A gradual outcome of the battles fought between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings during the 9th and 10th centuries was that England became unified under one king.  In 927, the Anglo-Saxon Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, became the first king of England.  The line of succession then continued — alternating between Anglo-Saxon and Danish families, and with some disruptions — until ended in 1066 with the Norman conquest of England.  But it is from the late Anglo-Saxon period that English law began to develop.

Under the Anglo-Saxons, landowners were required to yield to the king three services referred to collectively by historians as the trinoda necessitas (or simply trinoda).  These were ‘bridge-bote’ (the repair of bridges and roads), ‘burgh-bote’ (the building and maintenance of fortifications), and ‘fyrd-bote’ (service in the militia, known as the ‘fyrd’ [11]).  Rulers rarely exempted subjects from their obligations under the trinoda necessitas, because the provision of these services was the lifeblood of the kingdom.  Thus, there was an obligation on landowners to maintain bridges and roads, although by this date, in speaking of roads, we must disregard the Roman road with its cambered metalled surface and drainage ditches.  The purpose of a road was no longer to permit distances to be covered as quickly as possible for governmental purposes, as it had been under Roman rule, but to connect the increasing number of inhabited places with each another.  To the people of England in this and succeeding centuries, a ‘highway’ meant nothing more than a legal and customary right of way, from place to place, across the lands of others, what in law today would constitute an ‘easement’.

An artist’s impression of an unmade road in wet weather.

Thus, by perpetual use, a well-trodden track was formed; this was the ‘road’, while the ‘highway’ was the legal right of passage along it. [12]  If the track became too bad to be used, the traveller could simply move onto the adjacent land, whether cultivated or in grass.  As the roads of this age were used almost exclusively by man and beast, and as this liberty of changing the path would only need to be exercised during wet weather, when the track became an impassable mire, the practice was not the serious detriment to local farming interests that it would be to-day.  Indeed, it suggests that rather than repair a road by filling in potholes and clearing drains, the problem was simply bypassed in the same way that by-passes were built in more recent times to avoid congested town centres (Tring being an example).

But despite the lack of a hard, well-drained road surface, reasonably fast journeys do appear to have been possible.  In 1066, King Harold’s army in returning from its victory over the Vikings at Stamford Bridge, marched from York to London in a week or less, while in later periods our medieval kings (particularly John) with their large retinues routinely managed twenty miles a day while moving from one royal residence to the next. [13]  Nevertheless, passable roads continued to depend on dry weather.



The Norman conquest.

Prior to the Norman Conquest, land was considered the absolute property of its owner and not subject to any rent, service (excepting the trinoda necessitas), or acknowledgment to a superior.  But under Norman feudalism the allodial lands that had characterized much of Anglo-Saxon land ownership were removed.  All land became the property of the crown and was held in exchange for whatever services or labour a tyrannical monarch or lord chose to impose on his underlings. [14]

So far as the traveller was concerned, the Norman Conquest brought change.  Under the Anglo-Saxons, the sovereign was considered the guardian of public property; thus, all public roads and bridges were considered his, and he had a duty to enact services for their preservation as part of the trinoda necessitas.  Under the feudal system imposed by the Normans, the emphasis changed from promoting the common good to augmenting crown revenue.  Thus, tolls — known respectively as ‘passage’ and ‘pontage’ — were levied upon travellers and their goods as they passed through certain manors and over certain bridges.  The erection of new bridges built with a view to collecting pontage for purposes other than for its maintenance and repair must have become a particular grievance, for an exemption from it is included in Magna Carta (1215) “. . . . that neither a town, nor particular person, shall be distrained or compelled to build bridges, or embankments to rivers except those which are of old time, and by right of special contract, tenure, or prescription, obliged to it; and that none be compelled to make new bridges, where none ever were before, otherwise than by act of parliament.”

Early road legislation.

The earliest legislation specifically affecting our roads was enacted during the reign of Edward I.  The Statute of Winchester (1285) recognised the upkeep of roads as a manorial obligation, the responsibility for which fell upon the tenants, who could be ordered by the Court Leet to scour their ditches and remove obstructions.  But in other respects the Statute appears to have been aimed more at crime prevention than road maintenance, for it required “that highways leading from one market town to another shall be enlarged where as bushes, woods, or dykes be, so that there be neither dyke nor bush whereby a man may lurk to do hurt within two hundred feet of the one side and two hundred feet of the other side of the way”, so allowing room for detours around ruts and other obstructions.  How well this obligation was discharged — and to what extent it was enforced by the Court Leet when it wasn’t — remains generally obscure.  But from what is known about the extent of travel in this period, the law appears to have been reasonably effective in operation, for . . . .

“The innumerable local markets, and still more, the periodical great fairs, must have required huge concourses of travellers from longer or shorter distances.  We get, in fact, from Piers Plowman and Chaucer, from the municipal and manorial records, and from the pictures of the period, a vision of a really enormous amount of ‘wayfaring life,’ which seems to indicate the existence all over the kingdom of quite passable bridleways.  Of wheel traffic, indeed, there was comparatively little, and that of the most primitive kind.  Every one travelled on foot or on horseback, and nearly all goods were carried on the backs of animals.  Heavy materials were taken by water, going by small boats far up the most insignificant streams.”

English Local Government: the History of the King’s Highway, Webb (1913).

The decline of feudalism.

Economic changes during the 12th and 13th centuries — principally cash payment replacing payment in kind — resulted in the feudal system falling into decline.  Some serfs, by engaging in trade, were able to substitute payment in cash for their feudal obligations, thus becoming tenant farmers.  This gradual change was hastened by the Black Death (1348-50), with its attendant increase in labour costs, and the Wars of the Roses (1455–1485), which weakened the nobility; indeed, the accession of Henry VII in 1485 and the commencement of the strong Tudor monarchy is generally accepted to mark the end of the Middle Ages.

During the two centuries following the Black Death, there was a gradual decline in travelling; as the use of roads diminished, so did the resources applied to their maintenance.  This decline can be attributed to several causes:

i. the Black Death reduced the population of England by upwards of 30%, thereby reducing numbers of road users;

ii. the Wars of the Roses resulted in a redistribution of property and a consolidation of the landed estates, which resulted in less travelling to and fro by the aristocracy and their retainers;

iii. with the dissolution of the monasteries and the break with Rome, pilgrimages and journeys to Rome connected with appeals to the Pope ceased.  Bands of travellers making pilgrimages also gradually declined;

iv. the agricultural revolution, with its substitution of livestock for arable cultivation, meant that less farm produce needed to be carted to market.

These factors had the effect of reducing the number of human travellers, while increasing the number of beasts being driven to market, beasts that preferred the soft-going of an otherwise bad road surface for waggoners (the roads used regularly for those particular trades sometimes acquired the names of ‘sheepdrove’ or ‘oxdrove’, while trades in malt and in salt resulted in roads named ‘maltway and ‘saltway’).  Thus, by the sixteenth century, road maintenance that had been carried out by the manorial estates had diminished, while those who acquired the monasteries following their dissolution felt less inclined than their more pious forbears to fulfil that obligation.  To fill the gap, more importance began to be placed on the gifts of individuals and corporate bodies, such as boroughs and craft gilds, but this did not halt the decline in the quality of main roads.



The highway laws of Henry VIII.

In this period we see the first Acts of Parliament aimed at placing bridge and road maintenance permanently on a  national footing.  Indeed, some of the provisions laid down in these Acts, together with later modifications, applied well into — and when concerning the role of the parish, almost throughout — the nineteenth century.

First came the Bridges Act of 1530.  This was designed to safeguard the upkeep of bridges, which at that time were often of timber construction requiring regular maintenance and repair.  In essence this Act:

i. empowered Justices of the Peace, where necessary, to arrange for the repair or rebuilding by, or at the expense of, those who were responsible for their maintenance; but in cases where the maintainer could not be established . . . .

ii. the cost was to fall on either the inhabitants of the town or city where the bridge was situated, or, if it lay outside a town, then the shire or riding as a whole, and in such cases . . . .

iii. the Justices of the Peace were empowered to take measures for taxing every inhabitant in the area for a reasonable sum to cover the cost of the work required, and to appoint two surveyors to oversee the work.

Then in 1555 came The Highways Act.  This placed the burden of maintaining those sections of roads within parish boundaries that ran to market towns — in effect, main roads — on parishes.  It also placed the supervision of road maintenance on an elected surveyor.

In essence, this Act required every parish, each year (in Easter week), to elect “two honest persons” of the parish to serve as ‘Surveyor of Highways’, and they were to be responsible for putting the Act into effect.  The Surveyors were, in turn, to announce in church on the first Sunday after Easter, four days (which had to fall before the 24th June) on which highway maintenance was to be carried out, and during those four days the entire parish was to work on highway upkeep.  The Act stipulated the contribution that each parishioner was to make:

i. every person, for every ploughland [an area of land] they held in the parish, and every other person keeping a draught [a ploughing team] or plough there, was to provide a cart or wain [a type of horse- or oxen-drawn, load-carrying vehicle, used for agricultural purposes] equipped for the work, and two able-bodied men, on a penalty of 10s per draught.  The Surveyors could, at their discretion, require a further two men instead of the cart;

ii. every other householder, as well as every other cottager and labourer free to labour, was to send themselves or a substitute able-bodied labourer to work for the four days, on a penalty of 12d per day apiece. All labourers were to provide their own equipment, and bound to work for eight hours each day upon the roads.

The highway law of Elizabeth I.

In 1562, under Elizabeth, the provisions of the Highways Act were extended, the statutory period of work being increased from four days labour per person to six. [15]  Surveyors were empowered to take debris from quarries and to dig for gravel without the landowner’s permission, and Justices of the Peace at Quarter Sessions were empowered to investigate and fine surveyors in cases where they were in dereliction of their duties.  But despite the threat of legal sanction there was little incentive for the six days to be spent in useful toil; and, unsurprisingly, the surveyors were rarely up to the task:

“It sometimes happened that the surveyors did not fulfil their obligations, and the penalty had to be imposed upon them by the Justices, who were empowered to inquire and determine the amount of such offences.  At times the surveyor was an innkeeper, and after the men had worked a short time on the road, if they would go to his house and drink he would withdraw them from their work and allow them to spend the rest of the day there in a disorderly manner.  Doubtless this is the reason why innkeepers were, at a later time, prohibited from being surveyors.” [16]

The Development of Transportation in Rural England, W. T. Jackman (1916).

Even a cursory study of the history of roads quickly reveals a self-evident truth, that all developments create two crucial administrative problems — who is to do the work and who is to pay for it?  In this respect the law failed to recognise that a road maintenance plan that focused on the parish as the administrative unit, placed the burden on an organisation geared towards addressing parochial problems, not those affecting long-distance travellers passing through the parish on their way to distant towns and cities.  Many rural parishes could not at any rate afford to maintain the sections of main roads within their boundaries, even assuming that those on which the task fell knew how to accomplish it.  This problem only disappeared — and even then, gradually — with developments in central and local government administration, and in taxation and finance, which only took place during the second half of the 19th century.


The Great North Road, showing its ploughed up condition in the pre-turnpike age.


Heavier traffic and damage limitation.

As the 17th century progressed, trade that in earlier times had been mainly between adjacent market towns began to extend further afield to connect the interior with our growing seaports and the capital.  With this growth came more wagons, the wheels of which, together the hooves of the horse or ox teams harnessed to them, further damaged road surfaces.  Thus, in 1622, James I issued a royal proclamation that prohibited the use of four-wheeled wagons, or the carriage of more than a ton in weight.  The problem was that wagons carrying “excessive burdens so galled the highways, and the very foundations of bridges, that they were public nuisances.” [17]

Early wagon traffic.

As the 17th century progressed, the impact of inadequate road engineering and maintenance coupled with an increasing weight of wagon traffic worsened road conditions.  It became apparent that the arrangements for road repair first put in place by Henry VIII, together with the restrictions on road use imposed by James I, were by now inadequate.  Thus, in 1661, Charles II. issued a further royal proclamation [Appendix I.] to address the problem of waggoners’ damage to the roads . . . .

“Our High-ways and Bridges are at this present grown into great decay, and very dangerous for Passage, We have upon due examination found, that the said Decays are occasioned by the common Carriers of this Realm, who for their singular and private profit, do now usually Travail with Carts and Wagons with four Wheels, drawn with eight, nine, or ten Horses or more, and do commonly therein carry sixty and seventy hundred weight at one burthen at one time, which burthen and weight is so great and excessive, as that the very Foundations of Bridges are in many places thereby shaken, and the High-ways and Cawseys Furrowed and Ploughed up by the Wheels of the said Carts and Wagons so overladen, and made so deep, and full of dangerous Slows and Holes, as neither can Passengers Travail thereby in Safety, nor the Inhabitants or Persons by Law bound to repair them, be able to undergo so great a charge.”

From A proclamation To Restrain the Excessive Carriages in Wagons and four-Wheeled Carts, to the destruction of High-ways, 16th August 1661.

But this did not address the shortcomings of each parish’s annual road maintenance bash, because the . . . .

“. . . . quantum of labour might have been sufficient, or nearly so, at the time of its enactment, for the intended purpose; but as traffic still farther increased, and heavier carriages were adopted, wider and stronger roads became necessary, requiring more labour to make and repair them, than the laws enforced, or could be reasonably demanded; and also the want of a more general and effectual superintending power — in process of time rendered the former provisions quite inadequate for maintaining the public roads in sufficient repair.  This caused turnpikes to be resorted to, by levying tolls either to defray the expense of repairing the former roads, or to remunerate those who embarked their money in making new lines.”

Strictures on Road Police, by William Grieg (1818).

Thus, even important roads fell into a shocking state of disrepair.  In his biography on the civil engineer Thomas Telford, that doyen of Victorian biographers, Samuel Smiles, describes one dreadful section of road thus:

“As late as 1736 we find Lord Hervey, writing from Kensington, complaining that ‘the road between this place and London is grown so infamously bad that we live here in the same solitude as we would do if cast on a rock in the middle of the ocean; and all the Londoners tell us that there is between them and us an impassable gulf of mud.’  Nor was the mud any respecter of persons; for we are informed that the carriage of Queen Caroline could not, in bad weather, be dragged from St. Jamess Palace to Kensington in less than two hours, and occasionally the royal coach stuck fast in a rut, or was even capsized in the mud.”

The first turnpike road.

We need to return to the earlier century to encounter what was to prove the beginning of road improvement, the first ‘turnpike’ road.  The name ‘turnpike’ is derived from a defensive frame of pikes that can be turned to allow the passage of horses, although in the context of road administration the name refers to a gate set across the road, which is used to halt traffic until the appropriate toll is paid to the gate-keeper.

The first such scheme was intended for use on a section of the Great North Road (London to York and Edinburgh, forerunner of the A1) which had become “very ruinous”.  The extent of the measures necessary to return the road to a usable condition were such that they required money, together with an Act of Parliament to provide it.  The Act’s Preamble informs the reader that . . . .

“. . . . the auntient Highway and Poast Roade leading from London to Yorke, and soe into Scotland, and likewise from London into Lincolnshire lyeth for many miles in the Countyes of Hertford, Cambridge and Huntington, in many of which places, the Roade, by reason of the great and many Loades, which are weekly drawne in Waggons through the said places, as well by reason of the great Trade of Barley and Mault, that cometh to Ware, and so is conveyed by water to the City of London, as other Carriages, both from the North parts, as also from the City of Norwich, Saint Edmunds Bury, and the Towne of Cambridge to London, is very ruinous, and become almost impassible, insomuch, that it is become very dangerous to all His Majesties Leige people that passe that way.”

An Act for repairing the Highwayes within the Countyes of Hertford Cambridge and Huntington (15 Car. II., C. 1, 1663).

Although it only applied to a section of the Great North Road, and its impact was by no means immediate, this Act turned out to be the precursor of many similar turnpike Acts.  Between them, they were to have a far-reaching impact on road transport by turning road building and repair into a business that better harnessed administrative and technological advances.  Until the growth of public railways began in the 1840s, turnpike trusts were to lower transport costs, reduce journey times, and improve the quality of service for all road users through building straighter and wider roads, better wearing road surfaces, and easier gradients.

The earlier conditions of six days statute labour per annum, per parishioner — or a cash sum in lieu — spent on road repair, remained in force from earlier Acts, as did the appointment of surveyors, although the local Justices of the Peace took over this task from parish councils.  Thus, the answer to who was to do the job? remained the same; the big change was who was to pay? ― the road user.

Although ‘pavage’ grants had been used for maintaining some main roads from as early as the 14th century, they had been of limited duration, usually three to five years.  Under the terms of the 1663 Act, which at first remained in force for 11 years, surveyors were authorised to raise money by charging road users according to a scale of tolls set out in the turnpike Act . . . .

For each  horse … … … … … … … … …  1d.
   coach … … … … … … … … … 6d.
   wagon … … … … … … … … … 1s.
   cart … … … … … … … … … 8d.
Foe each score of  sheep or lambs … … … … … … … … … 1s. 2d.
   oxen or neat cattle … … … … … … … … … 5d.
   hogs … … … … … … … … … 2d.

. . . . and they were also permitted to raise loans against the security of the tolls to be collected, all the proceeds to go towards the costs of improving and maintaining the road.

That said, the 1663 Act was to have had limited success.  There is no evidence that it was implemented for more than a short period in Cambridgeshire, and never in Huntingdonshire.  But on the Hertfordshire section of the road, conditions improved to the extent that the formerly impassable road was described as being “to the satisfaction of all who travel that way.” [18]  In 1665, the term of the Act for Hertfordshire was extended from 11 to 21-years, [19] but the Act was not renewed when it expired, leaving the road to return its previously “impassable” condition.  Thus, in 1692, the powers of the justices were revived and continued by two further Acts, until, in 1733, the administration of the road was placed in the hands of a board of trustees and with this change commenced the turnpike era proper.




By the King.

A PROCLAMATION To Restrain the Excessive Carriages in Wagons and four-Wheeled Carts, to the destruction of High-ways.


Whereas it appertaineth to Us to have special Care, that the common High-ways, and Bridges, leading from place to place within this Realm, might be kept in due repair for the ease and good of Our Loving Subjects;

And observing notwithstanding the good provision of Our Laws in that behalf made, and the conformity and forwardness of Our Subjects in so Publique and Necessary a Work, That Our High-ways and Bridges are at this present grown into great decay, and very dangerous for Passage,

We have upon due examination found, that the said Decays are occasioned by the common Carriers of this Realm, who for their singular and private profit, do now usually Travail with Carts and Wagons with four Wheels, drawn with eight, nine, or ten Horses or more, and do commonly therein carry sixty and seventy hundred weight at one burthen at one time, which burden and weight is so great and excessive, as that the very Foundations of Bridges are in many places thereby shaken, and the High-ways and Cawseys Furrowed and Ploughed up by the Wheels of the said Carts and Wagons so overladen, and made so deep, and full of dangerous Slows and Holes, as neither can Passengers Travail thereby in Safety, nor the Inhabitants or Persons by Law bound to repair them, be able to undergo so great a charge:

Where heretofore all common Carriers usually went with Carts of two Wheels onely, wherewith they could not well carry above twenty hundred weight at once, or there abouts, which the Bridges, Cawseys, and ordinary High-ways, did and might well bear without any great damage to the same:

We therefore intending the Reformation of the Premisses, and it having been resolved by the Advice of the Judges formerly taken herein, That by the Law of this Our Realm, the said excessive and extraordinary kind of Carriages, whereby Our High-ways are thus destroyed, are common Nusances and Annoyances against the Weal-publique, and an offence against Our Crown;

Do hereby streightly charge, require and command, that no common Carrier, or other person or persons whatsoever, shall hereafter use, go, or travail with any Cart or Wagon made with four Wheels, to be drawn with above five Horses at once along their Journey, unless they go all two abrest, in which case they are limited to no number, that the High-ways and Bridges may hereafter receive the less damage thereby, upon pain of incurring Our high Displeasure, and to receive condign punishment, as contemners of Our Royal Will and Commandment, and to be further prosecuted and punished for the said Nusances and Annoyances, by Fine and such other ways, as the Laws of this Our Realm have provided against Offenders in that kind:

To which end, We do hereby expresly charge, as well Our Judges, as Our Atturney-General, to exact and require the extremity of Our Laws in that behalf; And that every Offender contrary to this Our Proclamation shall for his contempt be prosecuted in Our Court of Kings Bench, and other Courts whereunto the Cognisance thereof shall belong, by Information or Indictment, and thereupon be Fined and proceeded against according to their demerit;

Nevertheless, Our Intent, Will, and Commandment is, And we do hereby streightly charge, command, and prohibite, that no common Carrier whatsoever shall by colour hereof take occasion to Inhance or raise the prices of Carriage from any part or place within Our said Realm, under pain of Our Displeasure, and upon complaint thereof to Us, or Our Privy Councel made, to be further punished; as shall be thought fit and just according to Law.

And lastly, We do hereby Will and Require all Mayors, Sheriffs, Justices of Peace, and other Our Officers and Ministers in all Counties and Priviledged Places whatsoever within this Our Realm, that they, and every of them in their several Offices and Places, do from time to time provide and see to the due execution of this Our Pleasure and Royal Commandment; and that they discover and make known all offenders herein, that they may be severely punished for their contempts, as also that they neglect not, but continue the repaire and maintenance of High-ways, Bridges and Cawseys within this Our Realm, according to the Laws, Statutes and Ordinances now in force, as they tender Our Pleasure, and will answer the contrary at their utmost perils.

Given at Our Court at Whitehall, the Sixteenth day of August, 1661, in the Thirteenth year of Our Raign.

God save the KING.



1. “All roads lead to Rome” - the earliest English form of this saying appears to be “Right as diverse pathes leden the folk the righte wey to Rome,” which appears in Treatise on the Astrolabe (Prologue, II. 39–40), 1391, by Geoffrey Chaucer.  In Britain, the main Roman roads radiated from London, as does the modern road and rail (but not the canal) network.
2. Writing in about 15 AD, the Greek historian and geographer Strabo referred to British exports of grain, cattle, gold, silver, iron, hides, slaves and hunting dogs (for which there was a market in Gaul).  Julius Caesar also refers to a civilised population:

“The interior portion of Britain is inhabited by those of whom they say that it is handed down by tradition that they were born in the island itself: the maritime portion by those who had passed over from the country of the Belgae for the purpose of plunder and making war; almost all of whom are called by the names of those states from which being sprung they went thither, and having waged war, continued there and began to cultivate the lands.  The number of the people is countless, and their buildings exceedingly numerous, for the most part very like those of the Gauls: the number of cattle is great.  They use either brass or iron rings, determined at a certain weight, as their money.  Tin is produced in the midland regions; in the maritime, iron; but the quantity of it is small: they employ brass, which is imported.”

Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War) book V, para. XII., Macdevitt’s translation.


“Cassivellaunus, as we have stated above, all hope [rising out] of battle being laid aside, the greater part of his forces being dismissed, and about 4,000 charioteers only being left, used to observe our marches and retire a little from the road, and conceal himself in intricate and woody places, and in those neighbourhoods in which he had discovered we were about to march, he used to drive the cattle and the inhabitants from the fields into the woods; and, when our cavalry, for the sake of plundering and ravaging the more freely, scattered themselves among the fields, he used to send out charioteers from the woods by all the well-known roads and paths, and, to the great danger of our horse, engage with them; and this source of fear hindered them from straggling very extensively.  The result was that Caesar did not allow excursions to be made to a great distance from the main body of the legions, and ordered that damage should be done to the enemy in ravaging their lands and kindling fires only so far as the legionary soldiers could, by their own exertion and marching, accomplish it.”

Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War) book V, para. XIX., Macdevitt’s translation.

4. Distances along Roman roads were marked out by milestones, usually called milliaria, from which comes our word ‘mile’:

“The word comes from the Latin word for 1000, mille, because originally a mile was the distance a Roman legion could march in 1000 paces (or 2000 steps, a pace being the distance between successive falls of the same foot).  There is some uncertainty about the exact length of the Roman mile.

Based on the Roman foot of 29.6 centimetres and assuming a standard pace of 5 Roman feet, the Roman mile would have been 1480 meters (4856 feet); however, the measured distance between surviving milestones of Roman roads is often closer to 1520 meters or 5000 feet.”

A Dictionary of Units of Measurement, Russ Rowlett, University of North Carolina.

Roman milestones were stone pillars, usually cylindrical or oval in cross-section but there were other shapes.  There was no standard for the information they offered the traveller, which ranged from a place name with distance to nothing other than the existence of the pillar, although its position probably implied a distance between adjacent stones.  A milestone (c. 120-211 AD) unearthed on a farm at Llanfairfechan in Gwynedd ― nearly seven miles from the Roman fort at Caerhun (Kanovium) ― bears an inscription, which in translation reads The Emperor Caesar Trajan Hadrian Augustus [117-138], pontifex maximus in his fifth year of tribunician power, father of his country, thrice consul: from Kanovium 8 miles.  A cylindrical sandstone (c. 300 AD) unearthed at Middleton in Cumbria and bears the letters ‘M (ilia) P(assuum) L III’ i.e. ‘approxiamately 53 miles’.  As much of the present A683 running through Middleton originally lay on the course of the Roman road linking the fort at Burrow with that at Low Borrow near Tebay, the 53 miles is probably from Carlisle.  Examples found near Leicester on the Fosse Way in 1771, and at Lincoln in 1879, merely give the name and title of the reigning emperor.

Other than milestones, way-stations (mansiones, from the Latin manere — to pass the night) were also dotted along the course of trunk roads at which the traveller might obtain accommodation, food and drink and a change of horses.  They were placed at intervals of a day’s journey apart (approx 30kms) along the major roads, and were designated as places where official travellers including couriers could obtain refreshment, sleep and change their horses.  They sometimes offered two classes of rooms; one for ordinary travellers and one for those on government business.  Some had adjacent blacksmiths and other workshops, bathhouses, other storehouses and markets, and some had barracks for troops.

The example at Godmanchester (near Huntingdon, Cambs.) was a half-timbered structure, 95 metres long, its lower half being of substantial masonry walls.  It stood at the junction of Ermine Street and two military roads.  A gravel road — heavily rutted from traffic — led from Ermine Street to the main gate, beyond which lay stables.  In the centre of the building was a colonnaded court with a garden.  On the east and west sides of the courtyard were bedrooms, and on the south a reception room and dining hall, the latter being decorated with mosaic floors and painted walls.  Adjoining the dining hall was a kitchen, outside the back of which were lavatories.  Mansiones may also have served as toll-houses, at which were collected tolls exacted on goods being carried on public roads.

Smaller way-stations called mutationes, primarily intended for those on government business, were placed at intervals between the mansiones; here, horses could be changed and refreshment obtained.  There were also wayside inns where the traveller could procure food and lodging for himself and his horse.
5. English Heritage estimates that by AD150 at least 10,000 miles of Roman road of all types had been built, widely distributed across England (but with the exception of Cornwall, so far as is known).  Other authors, including Graeme J. White (The Medieval English Landscape, 1000-1540) and the R.A.C. give the same estimate.
6.  The term road metal is derived from the Latin metallum, which means both ‘mine’ and ‘quarry’.  ‘Metalling,’ is the application of compacted gravel for form a hard and durable road surface. It is known to have been used extensively by the Romans in road construction.  More recently, metalling became the name for stone chippings mixed with tar to form a road surface.
7. If this was so, it was our only centrally managed trunk road network until the Ministry of Transport took control when set up in 1919.
8. It is known that parts of some of our major roads today follow the alignment of their Roman predecessors.  In this locality, for example, parts of the A41 between Aylesbury and Bicester follow the alignment of Akeman Street.  But often, where a Roman road remained in use, it will in time have had later roads built over it, in the process burying or destroying archaeological evidence of its existence.  Codrington has this to say about the course of Akeman Street in this locality:

“AKEMAN STREET to Cirencester. — A road bearing the name of Akeman Street crosses Iknild Way near Tring, and is supposed to have come from Verulam [Verulamium - southwest of the modern city of St Albans].  From half-a-mile west of Tring it lies for five miles in a straight line through Aston Clinton to a mile east of Aylesbury, pointing between a high hill (686 feet) between Tring Park and Wiggington, and high ground (340 feet) near Waddesdon, and the same line is taken up for a mile by the present road on the west of Aylesbury.  On to Waddesdon there is nothing to show the course, but further on short lengths of parish boundaries along the present road seem to indicate that it follows generally the course of Akeman Street.”

Roman Roads in Britain, Thomas Codrington (ed. 1919).

9. One cannot be certain which of two possible routes the laws of Edward the Confessor referred to.  Icknield Street ― or Ryknild Street as it is called today to avoid confusion with the pre-historic Icknield Way ― is a Roman road, which runs roughly from south-west to north-east England, from the Fosse Way at Bourton on the Water in Gloucestershire to Templeborough in South Yorkshire (although the known road ends at Templeborough, it almost certainly continued to Doncaster (Danum) to join a branch of Ermine Street to York).  It was built as a road, whereas the Icknield Way was a pre-historic track that was in use in Roman times, although there is no convincing evidence that it was metalled and rebuilt to Roman standards (see Chapter 5).

The word ‘Street’ has its origins in the Latin strata, meaning a paved road.  Old English applied the word to Roman roads in Britain, such as Ermin Street, Watling Street, etc.  In contrast, a ‘Way’ was regarded as unpaved, such as the Icknield Way, which was a mere track ― often a series of parallel tracks.  However, the distinction between ‘Street’ and ‘Way’ is not hard and fast.  The Fosse Way is never called a ‘Street’, although it was certainly built as such.
10. From the departure of the Romans until the accession of the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan (grandson of Alfred the Great) in 927, when a comparatively stable line of monarchy was established over England, it is unlikely that public roads were always recognised as ‘public’, for the country had been divided into petty states that existed amidst the anarchy and confusion resulting from numerous interests competing for power.  Extending the King’s peace (Pax Regis) to these highways made it clear that they were public property and subject to the law of the land.
11. King Harold raised an army to fight the Danes at Stamford Bridge and the Normans at Hastings by this means.  The fyrd was composed of men who owned their own land, and were equipped by their community to fulfil the king's demands for military forces.  For every five hides, or units of land nominally capable of supporting one household, one man was supposed to serve. It is estimated that, as a whole, England could furnish about 14,000 men for the fyrd.
12. An interesting footnote appears in Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s The Kings Highway, which enlarges on the legal meaning of ‘highway’ (as it applied in 1913 when their book was published):

“Thus ‘the right of the public in a highway is an easement of passage only — a right of passing and re-passing.  In the language of pleading, a party can only justify passing along, not being in, a highway’ (Law of Highways, by William W. Mackenzie, 16th edition, 1911, p. 2).  Hence it has been expressly held that there is no right to use a highway for racing, or for a public meeting (ibid.); nor may a man stand still on the road to shoot pheasants flying over it (R. v. Pratt, 1855, 4 E. and B. 860).  He may not even walk up and down so as maliciously to interfere with others’ rights (Harrison v. Duke of Rutland, 1893, 1 Q.B. 142), — see The Common Law of England, by Blake Odgers, 1911, vol. i. pp. 7-10.  It is only inferentially that it has quite recently been suggested that a passenger along a highway may lawfully stop to rest on it for a short time, or to take a sketch (per A. L. Smith, L. J. in Hickman v. Matsey, 1900, 1 Q.B. 756).  Any other use of a highway is a trespass.

But in legal definitions, as in common parlance, the term highway is now used to denote the land as well as the easement.  ‘The term highway in its widest sense comprises all portions of land over which every subject of the Crown may lawfully pass’ (
Law of Highways, by W. W. Mackenzie, 16th edition, 1911, p. 1).”

English Local Government: the History of the King’s Highway, Sidney and Beatrice Webb (1913).

13. Most medieval governments were always on the move, holding court wherever the weather and food or other matters were best at the moment.
14. The difference is that between ‘allodial’ and ‘feudal’ land tenure.  Allodial lands are the absolute property of their owner and are not subject to any rent, service, or acknowledgment to a superior.  There was a considerable amount of allodial land in England before the Norman Conquest, but it disappeared under the new rulers to be replaced by feudal land tenure.  In the pyramidal feudal system, the king was owner of all land.  He doled out packages of land to lesser lords beneath him, who in turn doled out portions of their land to their lesser tenants, and so on.  In each case tenants held their land in exchanged for some form of service to their overlord.
15. The six days compulsory unpaid ‘statute labour’ provision was to remain in force until abolished by the Highways Act of 1835, which empowered each parish to levy a rate and appoint a salaried official for road maintenance.
16. This prohibition occurs in the Highways and Turnpike Roads Act, 1753 (26 Geo. 2, c. 30) . . . .

XX. And it is hereby further enacted, That no person or persons who shall keep any victualling-house, alehouse or other house of publick entertainment, or who shall sell any wine, cyder, beer, ale, spirituous or other strong liquors by retail, shall be capable of taking, holding, or enjoying any place or places of trust or profit under the trustees of any act of parliament made or to be made for erecting turnpikes respectively, or of farming the tolls thereby granted and made payable, during such time as he shall keep such victualling-house, alehouse or other house of publick entertainment, or shall sell any wine, cyder, beer, ale, spirituous or other strong liquors by retail.

17. By the King. A Proclamation to restrain the excessive carriages in Wagons and four wheeled Carts, to the destruction of the Highways [Windsor 6 August 1622] . . . . Such restriction continues to the present day. In the UK, with some exceptions, the maximum vehicle weight is 44 tonnes gross (truck, fuel and load).
18. From the Preamble of the Act of 1665 (16 & 17 Car. II, c. 10), in which the term of the 1663 Act was extended from 11 to 21-years (quoted in Jackman, Vol. I., p. 63).
19. In nearly every subsequent turnpike Act, authority was given for the collection of tolls for 21-years and for borrowing money on the credit of the expected tolls at a rate of interest, so that road repairs could be carried out quickly.


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