A modified form of this entry originally appeared on the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog where I am now an official contributing member. Although I focus on Regency and later Georgian England, the EHFA blog covers the entirety of English history. I encourage you to check it out.
Everybody likes to complain about roads. When I moved from Arizona to Wisconsin, the first thing I did was complain about the "horrid bumpy roads" of the Midwest. Sure, it's a bit unfair to be too critical given climate conditions of my current home region, but we all need something to complain about, right? I, like many people, just take it for granted that quality roads should be available to me.
Perhaps quality roads and easy of transport seem not all that worthy of special attention. Many ancient civilizations, after all, had developed fine road networks. At the dawn of the Georgian age, however, the quality of many roads in England left much to be desired.
First, let's take a step back and consider many roads prior to the 18th century. During this period, the resources and funds for road maintenance were maintained mostly at the parish level. Paving of any form certainly was limited outside of most cities.
The mostly parish-level support system was adequate for making sure various local roads were decent, but the system didn't do much to maintain the quality of distant roads and the intermediate roads connecting various far-flung locales. The net result was a haphazard system of road improvements of varying quality. A sort of transportation-centered tragedy of the commons. Wheeled travel was often unpleasant and dangerous. Rugged road conditions and holes could easily lead to accidents. As my fellow EFHA compatriot Katherine Pym noted recently, there were reported cases where holes on some roads were large enough to swallow up a cart. That's a rather severe pot hole!
Inclement weather only made things worse and England is far from an arid country. It was somewhat difficult to drive a coach through a muddied mess. Riding a horse was more practical, but not necessarily comfortable or practical depending on one's circumstances. Horses don't like huge wagon-sized holes either.
Ironically, economic improvements, along with the accompanying transportation of heavier amounts of goods, also contributed to wear and tear on many a poor-quality road. Even if the Georgian-era traveler ignored the poor quality of the roads and the difficulties associated with weather, there also was the unpleasant issue of highwaymen. The increase in traffic and trade travel, particularly in the environs of London, hadn't been lost on the criminal element. The lack of an organized police force, let alone anything akin to a highway patrol, only contributed to the problem. A swift, mounted criminal could waive a pistol and demand that someone, “Stand and deliver!” often with impunity despite the threat of execution or transportation to Australia.
Things began to turn around for the often poor, sad, and unsafe roads of England at the beginning of the 18th century because of the Turnpike Acts. Following up on earlier parliamentary acts, in 1696, the first Turnpike Act was enacted, the first of many to follow.
So what were these Turnpike Acts, why did they have to pass so many, and what did they have to do with road quality and highwaymen? These acts established Turnpike Trusts. These trusts were granted the responsibility of taking care of a certain portion of a road, but also granted them several legal tools to do this, including two of particular importance: the right to collect tools and to control access on roads through the use of both gates and men. The name itself comes from gates’ designs that involved pike-like constructions on crossbars that could be rotated, though not every tollgate necessarily had such a design, and now, of course, the turn has evolved into just a general term for toll room.
The trusts each could handle their various roads and road sections as they saw fit, so many would farm out the actual administration of the trusts to other enterprising people. These sort of trust subcontractors, as it were, could then do their best to efficiently run the trusts for a profit.
In the early years of the system, the various turnpike roads weren’t necessarily all that better maintained than before, but techniques advances lead to general quality improvements, particularly in the latter half of the 18th century, which, in turn, fueled a massive expansion of the system, with a general slowing of expansion with the coming of the 19thcentury. Although there were nearly one thousand trusts in place by the end of the Regency, and thus the tail end of the Georgian era, in 1820, it’s important to note that the majority of roads in England were still maintained by parishes and other local entities. That being said, many major important roads were under the control of turnpike trusts.
While the trusts, in general, contributed to road improvements that helped reduce transport times and the general quality and safety of travel, they also improved general security. Although there were other contributory factors, the rise of the turnpike system, particularly on high traffic roads, greatly contributed to the decline of highwaymen. The presence of so many guarded gates made post-robbery escapes far more difficult. It wasn't as if they couldn't avoid the gates, but a combination of inconvenience and just more watchful people being about helped complicate the logistics of the crime and escape.
Although, like so many things, the decline of the turnpike system was multi-factorial, the most fundamental contributory factor was the rise of a more efficient and swift means of mass transit: the railroads. By the end of the 19th century, a stronger central government, municipalities, and county councils took down the gates and took over the responsibility of maintaining the roads. Only a smattering of smaller private roads, tolled bridges, tolled tunnels, and the newer M6 Toll remain as the descendants, direct and indirect, of the extensive system that once covered tens of thousands of kilometers.