…. Turnpike roads. The first turnpike trust was established in 1663 to repair and maintain a particularly badly worn fifteen mile stretch of the Great North Road between Wadesmill and Royston in Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. It was not until the 1690s that the number of new Turnpike Acts rose from one, with four in the 1690s, to ten in the 1700s (including Bath in 1707), twenty-two in the 1710s and forty-six in the 1720s (including Bristol in 1721). By 1750, most of the major through routes in England had been turnpiked, although no turnpike roads had yet been authorised in Cornwall, Devon or Dorset. The most active period for the formation of turnpike trusts was between 1751 and 1772, when 389 new Acts were passed with the London road from Exeter turnpiked in 1753 and from Truro in 1754, with trusts soon set up in most of the towns of the counties of Devon, Cornwall and Somerset to supervise the neighbouring highways.
Making a road a turnpike was essentially a legal change, rather than a physical one; some Acts were never implemented and others were only partly enforced. The amount of effort put into improving a turnpike road might vary considerably from one stretch of the road to another, depending upon the amount of traffic and the tolls generated.
At first, the improvement of the roads was often less obvious than the nuisance of paying a toll. Not until after the Battle of Waterloo did John Loudon McAdam’s method of surfacing, and the engineering of totally new routes, bring a real revolution and make the full development of coaching possible. At the peak in the 1830s, over 1000 trusts administered around 30,000 miles of turnpike road in England and Wales, taking tolls at almost 8000 tollgates.
In the West Country, about a quarter of the toll houses still exist and a fine looking building built by the Modbury Turnpike Trust in around 1823 can still be seen (above) in Yealmbridge.
Shire Books have published a book about Turnpike Roads – first in 1992 and updated in 2008 – by Geoffrey Wright and there is also a website available with information about Turnpike Roads in England. Further information about turnpike roads in the West Country and indeed other topics relating to tracing your West Country ancestry can be found in a recent 2013 publication.