Highway maintenance before the era of turnpike roads
The common law responsibility for the maintenance of public roads in the middle ages lay with the tenants of each manor and was enforced, albeit often ineffectively, by the manor court. By the sixteenth century, with the decline of manorial courts in regard to local administrative matters, responsibility for highway maintenance began to be undertaken by parish vestries and in the middle of that century it was statutorily laid upon them by the Highways Act of 1555 (2 & 3 Phil. and Mary c. 8). In each parish a surveyor of highways was to be elected (after 1691 the surveyor was appointed by the justices of the peace) to direct the application of labour and materials for repair of the roads. The Act imposed on the more substantial householders the duty of providing two men and a cart with a team of draught-animals (oxen or horses) to haul road materials and on lesser householders the obligation of personal labour or the provision of a substitute on four days a year (increased to six days in 1563 by 5 Eliz. c. 13). This system of enforced labour, unpaid and lacking sustained direction by a competent person, was hardly adequate even for the repair of local roads and was in most cases quite incapable of maintaining major traffic routes.
Beginnings of the turnpike road system
In the seventeenth century the system of parochial maintenance of roads was brought under increasing strain, particularly in parishes through which roads of national importance ran. A Bill presented in February 1621/2 proposed to relieve the burden on parishes responsible for part of the Great North Road between Baldock in Hertfordshire and Biggleswade in Bedfordshire by imposing a graduated scale of tolls on various sorts of traffic at Edworth Hill (Toplers Hill, about three miles south of Biggleswade) for an initial period of five years. The revenue from the tolls was to be employed in repairing the road under the supervision of surveyors or overseers who were to be appointed by the Lord Chancellor and Lord Treasurer, but the form of administration was not precisely indicated. The Bill was defeated and no further proposals of this kind were brought before Parliament in the next forty years, but the idea of making travellers contribute to the repair of roads was raised on several occasions in Herfordshire during that period.
Standon and several other parishes on the Old North Road in Hertfordshire were persistently presented at Quarter Sessions for failure to keep the road in repair, despite performing double the statutory requirement of labour, and in 1646 and 1660 appeals were made for assistance. Perhaps as a result of this an Act was passed in 1663 (15 Chas. II c. 1) which authorised the justices of the peace in Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire to impose various rates of toll on traffic on the Old North Road in their respective counties for a period of eleven years. In Hertfordshire a toll-gate was erected at Wadesmill but intended toll-gates at Caxton (Cambs.) and Stilton (Hunts.) were not effectively established. In Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire the Act was virtually a dead letter and even in Hertfordshire it does not seem to have been very fully or efficiently operated. An extension of the initial term was granted to the Hertfordshire justices in 1664-5 (16 & 17 Chas. II c. 10) but for some years their powers were in abeyance until revived by an Act of 1692 (4 Wm. and Mary c. 9).
No other turnpike road was established in England until 1695 and only six such Acts were passed in the next ten years. In each of these cases the administration of the road was controlled by Quarter Sessions but most of the turnpike roads established from 1706 were placed under the authority of trustees, consisting of prominent local gentry and leading burgesses, including but not confined to justices of the peace. The supposed advantage of establishing trusts rather than vesting responsibility in Quarter Sessions was that a body specially created for the task might be expected to give it greater attention and so produce more effective results. Within a few years this form of administration was adopted for all new turnpike roads and in many cases roads which had previously been under the control of Quarter Sessions were transferred to turnpike trusts (such was the case in Hertfordshire with the Wadesmill Turnpike in 1733).
The Acts establishing turnpike trusts tended to follow a similar pattern but were by no means uniform in content and there were frequent anomalies in the powers granted to different trusts. Necessarily common features were the appointment of the original trustees, the property qualification required of additional trustees, power to erect gates on the turnpike road and across roads leading into it, the rates of toll to be charged, the power to raise loans on security of the tolls, the right to a share of statute labour and to obtain materials, and the power of compulsory purchase of land for road improvements. Some Acts specified the location of toll-gates, either the positions in which they were to be established or the places between which they were not to be set up, granted certain local exemptions from toll or allocated the proportions of expenditure in repair of particular stretches of road.
The Acts were always temporary, usually for a period of twenty-one years from the date of passing, but in early eighteenth century Acts the exact date of commencement is not always clearly expressed (the date of royal assent is not recorded on printed Acts until 1793). Until towards the end of the eighteenth century the term and powers of trusts were often extended well in advance of the expiration of the existing term and the extension was added to the existing term rather than being calculated from the passing of the extending Act. From the 1790s it was more usual for the existing term and often also the powers to be repealed and the trust reconstituted on a new footing. Standing orders of the Houses of Parliament and the operation of committees on renewal Bills ensured greater uniformity in the powers granted to turnpike trusts and the Acts became filled out with standard clauses.
Acts relating to the turnpike roads in Hertfordshire are listed at the end of the introductions to the records of each trust. It should be noted that several of the early Acts are now cited by session and chapter numbers differing from those formerly in use, and the former numbers are indicated here in square brackets. Some early Turnpike Acts were categorised as private measures, which are numbered separately from public Acts, but for most of the eighteenth century they were included with the general statutes, which are cited in arabic numerals. From 1798 a distinction was made between public general Acts and public local (and personal) Acts. Acts establishing or continuing turnpike trusts were included in the latter category and are now properly cited in roman numerals, though this practice did not become standard for some time and other forms of numeration may be found in the Acts themselves. Unless otherwise indicated, the Acts of each trust are to be found among its records but public general Acts to which reference is made are to be found in the volumes of statutes.
Operation of turnpike trusts
The purpose of turnpike trusts was to maintain the roads under their authority in a serviceable condition, principally out of the revenue derived from tolls on those who used the road. The collection of tolls could be undertaken either by gate-keepers directly employed by the trust or by those appointed by persons to whom the tolls might be leased. The leasing of tolls supposedly had the advantage of providing the trust with a regular and assured income and economy in management. Leasing was quite common in the eighteenth century and was increasingly favoured in the nineteenth, especially after the procedure was regulated by the General Turnpike Act of 1822 (3 Geo. IV c. 126). In periods when this method was adopted the accounts record only the monthly rents received from the lessees and not the sums actually taken at toll-gates, but when trusts employed their own collectors there are often detailed accounts of the tolls taken at each gate, sometimes classified according to the various kinds of traffic.
Tolls were not the only resources available to turnpike trusts. In order to obtain capital for road improvements, trusts were empowered to raise loans by mortgaging the anticipated income from tolls, paying interest on the advances. Holders of mortgages could sell or assign them to others and the changes of ownership were often endorsed on the mortgage deeds as well as being recorded in registers which trusts were required to keep. Mortgagees had the right to take possession of the toll-gates and administer the revenue themselves if their interest was not paid, but this right appears to have been asserted only once in regard to Hertfordshire trusts.
Trusts were entitled to a share of the statute labour which parishes were obliged to perform on the highways or to composition payments in lieu of labour. When statute labour was abolished by the Highways Act of 1835 (5 & 6 Wm. IV c. 50) it was provided that trusts could receive a portion of the parish highway rate if tolls were insufficient for maintenance of the road. Both before and after this Act, allocation of parish responsibility between turnpike roads and other highways was made by the justices of the peace. Trusts also had the right to take gravel and flints from private (as well as common) land, paying compensation to the owner and occupier for damage and disturbance. In case of dispute, the matter was to be settled by the justices. By the early nineteenth century, rather than attempt to enforce these rights, many trusts preferred to rent or purchase gravel pits and it became common for them to enter into contracts for the supply of road materials. In addition to the statute labour performed on the road, maintenance was carried out by labourers directly employed by the trust under its own surveyor or, less frequently, was contracted out to individuals or even to parishes at a specified rate per mile.
In order to widen or divert the road, turnpike trusts had powers of compulsory purchase of land within certain limits and, if the owner objected to the terms offered, the trust could apply to the sheriff for the empanelment of a jury to assess the value of the property required. Improvements which would involve the demolition of buildings or which would constitute a substantially new route usually required the special sanction of an Act of Parliament, either exclusively concerned with that subject or part of a normal continuation Act. The land for new pieces of road was legally conveyed to the trustees and superseded portions were usually sold to the owners of the adjacent lands. Land for toll-houses was also purchased and, when no longer required, sold in the same manner. Until 1866 redundant toll-houses could not be sold standing but had to be demolished and the materials and site sold separately.
Regulation of turnpike trusts
General Turnpike Acts applicable to all turnpike roads were introduced in the middle of the eighteenth century, at first to enable trusts to control heavy vehicles which damaged road surfaces but later in order to bring about greater uniformity in the administration of trusts. The first major attempt to consolidate the laws relating to turnpike roads was the General Turnpike Act of 1772-3 (13 Geo. III c. 84) which was complementary to the Highways Act of the same session (c. 78) and remained the basis of turnpike legislation for half a century. An Act of 1822 (3 Geo. IV c. 126) carried the process of regulation further by requiring trusts to conform to certain procedures and methods of accounting. The hitherto frequent combination of the offices of clerk and treasurer was prohibited and all financial transactions were to be properly audited. Each trust was to prepare an annual abstract or general statement of accounts and to deposit a copy with the Clerk of the Peace for the county in which the major part of the road was situated. The method of presenting accounts was modified in 1833 (by 3 & 4 Wm. IV c. 80) and a copy of the annual statement was required to be sent also to the Home Office so that the returns from all trusts could be collated and published in an annual series of Parliamentary papers. The extant records of the Clerk of the Peace include incomplete series of annual statements under these Acts and in most cases there are more extensive series in the records of the trusts.
Several Parliamentary investigations into the operation of turnpike trusts resulted in the occasional production of other returns, drafts or copies of which may sometimes be found in trust records. A return in 1820 (under 1 Geo. IV c. 95) as to the length of road, number and qualification of trustees and financial state of trusts, was to be made through Clerks of the Peace, but the copies which ought to have been preserved in the records of the county and the Liberty of St. Alban are not extant. In 1839 a return was required (under 2 & 3 Vict. c. 40) to be made direct to the Home Office concerning the length of turnpike road in each parish, the extent to which the road was repaired by the trust or parishes, the state of trusts' mortgage debts, and how far trusts had been affected by the development of railways or the abolition of statute labour. Returns of 1865 and 1866, besides stating the extent of road in each parish and the amount of highway rate, required trusts to ascertain whether the parishes were in favour of the abolition of trusts. Until the mid-1860s, most turnpike trusts at the end of their term were prolonged from year to year by Annual Turnpike Acts Continuance Acts, but during the next decade extension was granted more selectively and trusts were gradually phased out. In Hertfordshire this process began in 1867 and was completed by 1877. Responsibility for former turnpike roads passed, in rural areas, to the parishes or district Highway Boards (formed in Hertfordshire in 1868), and in urban areas, to Local Boards of Health.