The Turnpike Roads

Creating a network of well-maintained roads was one of the major achievements of 18th century England. These highways facilitated the rapid and efficient transportation of goods and passengers throughout the Kingdom, reducing costs and forming an integrated, free market. This road system was not planning centrally but resulted from local enterprise, regulated through Acts of Parliament. Bodies of local trustees were given powers to levy tolls on the users of a specified stretch of road, generally around 20 miles in length. Using money secured against this toll income, a trust arranged to improve and maintain a particular stretch of turnpike road. Although the powers under an Act were limited to a period of 21 years, in practise, Acts for continuation of the trusts meant that they remained responsible for most English trunk roads until the 1870s.


A list of English Turnpike trusts with details of their size and income is in an attached table (see sources and caveats in box below).

An overview of turnpike roads in particular counties of England is reached through clicking on county turnpike details.

Documentary material relating to individual turnpike trusts in each county can be reached from these County pages.


However, the turnpikes were only one phase in the development of a comprehensive road network in Britain. In most cases the turnpike trusts took over long established highways and improved the administration and maintenance of these truck routes. Trusts still relied upon Statute Labour from the parish to help maintain these roads and the Parish still remained responsible for maintaining the extensive network of local roads. A detailed study of the development of turnpike roads around Reading can be found by clicking on Reading Turnpikes here.

What Were Turnpikes?

A turnpike is literally a defensive frame of pikes that can be turned to allow passage of horses, but in this context it refers to a gate set across the road to stop carts until a toll was paid. Empowering trustees to erect turnpike gates was the most successful mechanism for ensuring that the costs of improvement and maintenance of a road was financed by the beneficiaries. During the first seven decades of the 18th century a comprehensive network of turnpike roads was created across Britain. These linked the major centres of population by highways which were, in principle, reliably financed and operated for the benefit of long distance commercial traffic, rather than to satisfy the limited needs within individual parishes. Although the turnpikes receive much attention, only one sixth of English roads were turnpiked (Hartmann 1927). The majority of the roads and lanes remained the responsibility of the parish and were toll-free. These were repaired solely by Statute Labour until the General Highways Act of 1835. Enclosure of the old open fields during the 18th century created new, often straight, local roads and rationalised the more chaotic, ancient patterns.

What did they achieve?

The turnpike trusts first stopped the rapid deterioration in the condition of main roads and slowly began to build a network of well maintained highways that allowed road transport to move more efficiently and reliably. The money raised by mortgaging the future toll income permitted substantial investment in the improvement of the drainage, gradients, width and running surface of existing highways. Later it allowed the trusts to build new sections of road to by-pass bad sections and to construct new engineered structures such as embankments, cuttings and even bridges to provide faster routes where horse power could be used more efficiently to haul vehicles. Better roads led to better vehicles which horses pulled more efficiently and at much faster speeds. Although heavy goods were still carried more efficiently by water, road transport became the best means of carrying goods and people rapidly and safely between the booming towns of late 18th and early 19th century England


How to improve the road (ca 1830)


The End of the Turnpikes

Many turnpike trusts were wound up under General Acts of Parliament between 1873 and 1878. The transfer of resources and sale of assets to repay loans were supervised by the Local Government Board which acted as arbiter in the case of disputes. Toll-houses were sold, gates torn down and responsibility for the main roads passed to Highway Boards. Bond-holders were paid off with any residual funds, though some did not get a satisfactory return on their investment. For instance investors in the Harwell to Streatley Turnpike Trust were repaid less than a half of their capital and bondholders received less than a fifth of the face value of their investment in the Stokenchurch Trust. In contrast the Besselsleigh Trust was proud to handover the roads free of debt though some of the Highways Authorities who inherited responsibility for the road complained that they were in "a uniform (bad) state of repair throughout".


Under the Highways Act of 1878 all disturnpiked roads became "Main Roads" as did some ordinary highways. By the Local Government Act of 1888 the entire maintenance of main roads was thrown upon the County Councils.

Surviving Features

The pattern of our present road network owes much to decisions taken by the turnpike trustees. Although the structure of the roadway differs enormously from the gravel and stone surface of the turnpike, the line of many main roads was set by the Turnpike Acts of the 18th century. Some roads may have declined in status but most are still passable for wheeled vehicles. The major exceptions are where military aerodromes were constructed over the old roads. At Abingdon the Shippon road was cut, at Brize Norton the Burford road was changed and at Benson the main Henley road was diverted closer to Wallingford through Crowmarsh. Ironically several new by-passes have reverted to the lines of much older tracks, abandoned at the time of turnpiking. For instance the eastern by-pass of Swindon and the Cricklade by-pass follow the line of the Roman, Ermin Way.


The revived fortune of road transport is a story for the 20th century and required another bold stroke of planning to break out of the restrictive pattern of existing highways. The new A40 carried the main east/west road north of Oxford in the 1930s avoiding the old bridges over the Thames. The new M40, carrying traffic from London to Birmingham via Oxford cut a new path, north of Islip, over the previously impassable Otmoor. More recently there has been renewed interest in the old idea of charging users directly for travelling along a specific section of road or bridge. Politicians of the 21st century are re-discovering the advantages of tolls as a means of improving and repairing "roads which could not be amended by the present Laws". Plus ça change.


If you have questions or information relating to aspects of turnpikes or the people who used these roads, you may contact Alan at


There is a summary of information on turnpike trusts in Wikipedia ( with an entry starting;

Turnpike trusts were bodies set up by Act of Parliament, with powers to collect road tolls for maintaining the principal highways in Britain during the eighteenth century and nineteenth century. At the peak in the 1830s, over 1000 trusts administered around 30,000 miles of turnpike road in England & Wales, taking tolls at almost 8000 toll-gates and side-bars.


Burke T. (1942) "Travel in England", pub. Batsford Ltd, London.

Dodd, E.M. (1995) The Blythe Marsh to Thorpe Turnpike, N Staffs Journal of Field Studies 5, 1

Edmonds, K. (1995) The Turnpike Roads of Bucks, Records of Bucks, Vol. 35, pp31-48

Freeman M.J. (1979) "Turnpikes & their traffic; the example of southern Hampshire", Trans. Inst. Brit. Geogr. (NS) 4, 411-439.

Hartmann C.H. (1927) "The Story of the Roads", pub. Routledge, London.

Hindle B.P. (1989) "Medieval Roads", pub. Shire Publications, Princes Risborough.

Leighton A.C. (1972) "Transport & communication in early medieval Europe", pub. David & Charles, Newton Abbot.

OMS (1977) "OMS Information Sheet 5. Turnpike Roads in Oxfordshire"

Pawson E.J. (1977) "Transport and Economy", pub. Academic Press, London.

Phillips D. (1983) "The great road to Bath", pub Countryside Books, Newbury.

Taylor C.C. (1979) "Roads and tracks of Britain", pub. Dent, London.

Timperley H.W. & Brill E. (1983) "Ancient trackways of Wessex", pub. Drinkwater, Shipton Tollit H.J. (1878) "Oxfordshire County Surveyors Report"; Bodleian GA Oxon c141.

Wright G.N. (1992) "Turnpike roads", pub. Shire Publications, Princes Risborough.



Booklets on Turnpikes in the Thames Valley were written by Alan Rosevear in the 1990s. These are available from the author or from Thematic Trails, Kingston Bagpuize, OX13 5AD, Oxfordshire.


This series of booklets covers various aspects of the turnpike roads across Berkshire and Oxfordshire.

RUTV 1 & 2 concentrate on the history of the roads to the southwest of Oxford. RUTV 9 attempts to identify the earliest trunk routes across the region. Maps covering this area are dealt with in RUTV 13.

RUTV 3 gives an overview of the road network along the Thames Valley between Lechlade and Reading. RUTV 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8 concentrate on individual turnpike trusts radiating from specific towns.

RUTV 10 describes some of the roadside structures which the turnpike trustees created. The vehicles which provided transport services on the turnpikes are described in RUTV 11 and RUTV 12 traces the demise of the turnpikes following the building of the Great Western Railway.

RUTV 1; Ancient Tracks across the Vale of White Horse

RUTV 2; Ogilby's Road to Hungerford

RUTV 3; The Turnpike Network in the Upper Thames Valley

RUTV 4; The Besselsleigh Turnpike

RUTV 5; The Wallingford, Wantage to Faringdon Turnpike

Includes names of trustees and toll lessees.

RUTV 6; Fyfield to St John's Bridge & Kingston Bagpuize to Newbridge Turnpike

covers the turnpikes around Faringdon,

RUTV 7; Turnpike Roads through Abingdon

most material on the Henley & Dorchester Turnpike Trust

RUTV 8; Turnpike Roads around Oxford

most material on the Stokenchurch Wheatley & Begbroke Turnpike Trust. Includes

names of trustees and toll lessees.

RUTV 9; The King's Highway - Recorded journeys through the Thames Valley

based on the itineraries of the Plantagenet King?

RUTV 10; Milestones and Toll Houses on Old Turnpike Roads

includes illustrations of surviving items and a list of turnpike gate keepers,

RUTV 11; Coach and Waggon Services on Roads in the Upper Thames Valley

includes information on the individual coaches, and some material on the coachmen

RUTV 12; Response of Thames Valley Turnpikes to the coming of the Railway

concerned with the changes resulting from the building of Steventon, Didcot and

Oxford Stations as recorded in newspapers.

RUTV 13: Early Maps of the Upper Thames Region


This page created by Alan Rosevear 11th Jan 2008.

Minor edits 4th Febn 2009.