Turnpikes in Great Britain, Late 18th and Early 19th Century

Turnpikes in Great Britain Late 18th and Early 19th Century

Source: adapted from D. Bogart (2004) “Turnpike Trusts and the Transportation Revolution in Eighteenth Century England”.

The first Turnpike Trust was established in 1706. Each Trust was responsible for constructing and maintaining a specific road segment, which required capital. Capital was publicly raised, and revenues were generated by charging tolls on users. This came as a change as road users were accustomed to freely making use of any public roads. Some would even jump over toll gates to avoid paying the fare. Spikes (or pikes) were installed on top of toll gates to prevent this, thus the name turnpike. The most potentially profitable roads became Trusts, which at their peak never accounted for more than 20% of Britain’s road network. Turnpike Trusts were a success and improved road circulation substantially.

The above graph depicts this evolution taking place through phases of introduction, fast growth, maturity, and then obsolescence. Between 1750 and 1800, the average time for a journey from London to Edinburgh was reduced from 12 to 4 days. The time of a journey from Manchester to London fell from 3 days in 1760 to 28 hours in 1788. Road freight transportation also improved due to the introduction in the 1760s of “flywagons”; a system of freight distribution involving changing horses and crews at specific stages and thus permitting day-long movements. By 1780, there were about 25,000 km of turnpike roads in England, and most of the country was within 12.5 miles of one. The turnpike system reached a peak of 32,500 km by 1836, but by then, rail transportation started to emerge, which marked the downfall of turnpikes.