Design of Turnpike Tollhouses

What was needed

Tollhouses were built beside the turnpike gate to house the toll-collector. Initially the trusts either adapted existing cottages or erected temporary shelters for the pikeman while he worked. However, someone had to be at the gate all day to collect the tolls from travellers and so more permanent accommodation was needed beside the main turnpike gates. This was often family accommodation, which meant that the wife and children could provide some additional help while the pikeman rested. These cottages or small houses were built for the turnpike trust on land bought under the powers of the turnpike act. They put the job out to competitive tender and local builders would normally undertake the work. These tradesmen would adapt the style of domestic buildings in the surrounding region when constructing these lodges for the trust. However, some tollhouses were clearly designed to be more imposing and were perhaps adapted from the architectural style of lodges at the great houses in the area.


Purpose-built tollhouses required an office with a good view of the road and separate rooms for domestic purposes. The toll-gatherer needed to have easy access to the roadside close to the turnpike gate so the lodge had to be fitted onto restricted plots of land at strategic points such as crossroads, forks or beside bridges. It was in the interests of the trusts to attract an honest and diligent tollgather and his family so the tollhouse might be rather better quality than local vernacular cottages. Records show that tollhouses were provided with privies, a generous garden, a well and sometimes a pig-sty. Nonetheless, tollgates often had to be in isolated places away from towns. This made them attractive targets for robbers who knew significant amounts of cash might be kept in the tollhouse. Hence, bars on the windows and robust shutters were standard fittings on many tollhouses and a large lamp illuminated the porch and tollboard. The tollboard had to be visible from the road and so a blind window, often above the front porch, or on a clear area of wall gave a prominent display area for the list of toll charges.

Basic design features of tollhouses

The turnpike system grew through the creation of locally based turnpike trusts who each commissioned a small number of tollhouses. Although these reflected the great diversity of English vernacular style of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a number of basic design principles are seen in many surviving examples.


The position of the tollhouse often marks it out from other domestic properties. The turnpike gates were at pinch points which made evasion of tolls difficult. So the tollhouse was sited prominently at key junctions or places where the road was constricted by a river crossing or the local topology. Consequently some tollhouses had unusual floor plans with side wings angled to fit the site. To facilitate toll-collection tollhouses were built very close to the highway so that the front door and porch in particular frequently protruded out into the road. This was the feature that resulted in many tollhouses being demolished or thrown into the road when the turnpikes were wound up.  


A protruding front bay housing the office was a common and dominant design feature of many (but not all) tollhouses. The corners of the bay were frequently chamfered to give it a polygonal shape, which was often carried up the facade of the building. In some instances this polygonal shape dominated the whole design and the main block of the house was octagonal, with all four corners being chamfered. The windows in this bay then gave a clear view up and down the road and the front door gave the collector easy access to the road-side. Inside the office would be a safe or lockable draw in which cash and tickets could be safely stored and the windows and doors were stoutly protected. Access between the office and the family accommodation was often restricted as a further security measure.


A large porch was desirable since the toll-collector needed to go out in all weathers. Those designs that bid not have a protruding bay frequently had a prominent porch attached to the main rectangular block of the cottage. These porches were probably open or were merely canopies over the door but may now be enclosed. The small storm porches survive less, particularly where they protruded into the road.


Front windows with good visibility were important. Although many tollhouses used traditional rectangular casements, Gothic arches were particularly popular for openings and glazing bars provide tracer within these. It is not clear why this type of ornamentation became so common in tollhouses, though it may just reflect the large number of the surviving examples of houses built in the 1820’s and 1830’s when Gothic was a popular architectural style. An alternative ornamentation or windows was the full round headed arch, but some trusts in areas with good carvable stone struck a reassuring medieval front by using mullion windows.


The walls were often given some simple ornamentation to display the status of the building. As with any vernacular architecture, a fundamental influence on the appearance of the walls was the availability of particular building materials. In clay vales the walls were often of local bricks; cream from the Gault clays in East Anglia, red in the Midlands and Western England and blue in places such as Staffordshire. The improved transport provided by turnpikes meant that some tollhouses could be ornamented with polychromatic patterns in brick. In upland areas with access to good stone this was used as facing but rough stone infill between better quality quoins was common for many tollhouses in remoter areas. A few surviving tollhouses are constructed from older materials such as cob, but in the period when these buildings were commissioned brick had become readily available throughout most of the country.


For roofing, slate, which had become widely available in the early 19th century, was the commonest material. Nevertheless, many tollhouses originally had plain clay tiles; stone tiles were common along the Pennine spine and a few lodges in rural areas of the South and West were thatched.


The size of the domestic accommodation varied considerably. Some small tollhouses had no more than a scullery and bedroom whereas the larger tollhouses had multiple bedrooms on upper floors and side wings attached to the central block. In general, the size of the house reflected the amount of tolls likely to be collected. On the main roads radiating out of London, there was considerable traffic and large tollhouses were common. In country districts where only the occasional carrier or drover paid a toll, the toll cottage would be small and humble. In the surviving tollhouses one can see a wide range of sizes and complexity in design but these can be grouped in a number of generic classes.

Particular Classes of Tollhouse Design

The most distinctive shape of tollhouse is that associated with Telford, who upgraded the Great Road to Ireland in the 1820s. The best examples survive along the Welsh section of the Holyhead road.


Some designs strongly reflect by local influences.


The degree of ornamentation reflected the relative wealth of the trust or the influence of the estate style of local gentry who were trustees of the turnpike. Some of the most ornamented tollhouses were built on roads to major resorts such as Bath. Crennelation to the façade, giving the tollhouse the appearance of a small castle was a common artifice. Other trusts chose a rustic style of ornamentation. (Examples of surviving tollhouses with ornamentation are illustrated at ). Even in industrial area, some degree of ornamentation was achieved by dentilated or dog-tooth brickwork and the use of different coloured bricks.


After 1840, many turnpike trusts saw a serious decline in income as long distance traffic was drawn away to the railways. On a restricted budget, some trusts built additional gates on the roads leading to stations. These tollhouses were often much simpler than those built at the height of the turnpike era and may have originally been a narrow cottages alongside the highway (see  ). A few toll-shelter that provided little or no domestic accommodation, have survived (see   ).


There remains one very large category of surviving tollhouses. These are the vernacular buildings that show no obvious sign of being built as specialist accommodation for a toll-collector (see   ). The provenance of these as tollhouses is well established by documentary records in many instances but others are assigned as tollhouses on rather less substantial evidence. Some of the latter class may be buildings erected on the site of a tollhouse demolished in the 1880s or may be estate lodges that happen to be close to a road junction, though the most obvious of these have been excluded from the survey results. 


Finally there are those tollhouses with the best provenance – those still being used by toll-collectors   .


The Toll-collector

The toll charges were complex, depending on the number of horses drawing, the type of vehicle, width of the wheels, time of year, whether the vehicle was for hire, whether it had a ticket clearing it from other gates or was in an exempt category. Hence a toll collector needed a reasonable numeracy and literacy to read documents and take money. For a poor but educated man or woman with a family the accommodation in the tollhouse was no doubt a valuable perk in addition to the wages.


However, no one likes to pay out money and toll collectors were never popular people. Dickens no doubt caught the sentiment of the times when in Pickwick Papers, published in 1837, he has Tom Wheller, the old coachman say of the collectors that they’re all on ‘em men as has met with some disappointment in life, consequence of vich, they retires from the world and shuts themselves up in pikes; partly with a view of being solitary, and partly to revenge themselves on mankind, by taking tolls. This inherent tension in dealing with users of the road is illustrated in the provisions of the Act for the Reading to Basingstoke Turnpike (1821) that required toll collectors to display their names at the gate, to prove their name when asked, not to unnecessarily delay passengers and forbade them to make use of any scurrilous, abusive or blasphemous language to any passenger, on threat of prosecution.


Although the early turnpike trusts employed toll-collectors directly, by the 1780s many of the larger trusts had begun to farm out the toll gathering to specialist contractors. The lease to gather the toll was auctioned and the trust received a regular payment from the lessee. The lessee organised the collection of tolls and often then hired tollgate keepers to work at the gate. Lessees may have acted as toll gatherers and lived with their family in the prestigious accommodation at some of the more important gates. However, at most gates they would employ a pikeman to collect the tolls and would allow for this cost in their bid for the lease. Nevertheless, the trust was still responsible for siting and building the turnpike gate and the associated tollhouse accommodation.


The work of the pikemen they employed is described in evidence to a Select Committee in 1836 (PP). George Dacre said that collectors on the Middlesex and Essex Trust were paid 25s/week working 12-hour shifts between 6 am and 6pm. It required 13 to 14 men to stand at 9 gates. Some men worked extra half days; so that the wage bill was estimated to be £910 per year, though some lessees make do with less than 13. In country districts they do not change; they change by the week; they have a bed room and their wife lives with them and if there is little traffic the wife will collect the tolls for 3 or 4 hours in the evening, and there is a slack time in the night, when they are not called out of bed once in 2 or 3 hours; one man can do that without having a relief. A wage of 25s and a house was considered good money but it was necessary to keep a collector honest, otherwise they take a proportion. You break a man's rest so by having him on 24 hours. McAdam told the Committee that at smaller gates men may carry on some other trade and so presumably the wage was lower.


The Essex trust was unusually large and efficient – ironically very few tollhouses survive in the SE of England so it is difficult to judge whether the Essex trust was careful with its investment in tollhouses. In the regions were tollhouses have survived in greatest numbers (i.e. South and West England), the turnpike trusts were more likely to match McAdams description (McAdam was General Surveyor on many of the Roads to the West and around the main cities in the Southwest). The tollhouses were likely to have been full time homes for the toll gather and the spouse of the toll-collector (man or woman) was likely to have had another job but helped provide cover at the turnpike gate.




This page created by Alan Rosevear 18th Jan 2008.