County Topology and Wealth

In Dorset, the Wessex Downs dominate the landscape to the northeast, heathland to the east and deep sided river valleys to the west. Although there are several wide river valleys such as the Stour and Frome, none creates a significant barrier to travel. The southern boundary of the county is a long coastline with significant harbours at Bridport and Poole. Weymouth was an important resort for the rich in the 19th century.


In the 18th and 19th centuries, the main commerce of Dorset was in agricultural produce with small manufacturies based on these in the market towns.


The county town, Dorchester, is 120 miles from London.

Old Routes through the County

The old Post Road to Exeter was mapped by Ogilby.

Turnpike Pattern

Turnpiking of the main roads was relatively late, perhaps reflecting the relatively good soil conditions on the Downs and Heaths of Dorset as well as the distance from London. Part of the Great Western Road that runs through the northern part of the county was turnpiked through Sherborne and Shaftesbury in 1753. The ancient east/west arterial route, through Blandford Dorchester and Bridport was turnpiked in two Acts of 1754 & 1756 and turnpiking in the rest of the county then proceeded rapidly during the 1760s.


The turnpiking of the central route through Dorchester followed a similar pattern to that elsewhere in the south of England. The main road between the major market towns was improved to assist long distance through traffic and secondary routes into these towns were turnpiked later under separate Acts. However, Dorset also includes several town-centred trusts, which were a particular feature of the Western England. The Sherborne and the Shaftesbury trusts (created by the division of the first 1753 trust) took into their control a web of secondary and tertiary routes that converged on the market town. As a result they were responsible for very high mileages of road and needed large numbers of tollhouses. It is evident that these minor routes generated little income and were expensive to administer; individual tollhouses took very little over the cost of running. This suggests that improving access to local markets (Sherborne, Shaftesbury, Wareham) and seaports (Poole and Weymouth) was more important so far away from London, whereas closer to the capital main roads to the London markets dominated.


The tradition Post Roads linking the Southwest to London continued to be the preferred routes for long distance traffic including the Mail coaches. The relatively small number of tollgates on these turnpikes generated large sums of income which could be applied to road maintenance and improvement of the existing route. In the early 19th century new roads were created by new trusts to avoid intractable problems on older routes. The last major route to be turnpiked was the new east/west road, The Wimborne & Puddletown turnpike, through Bere Regis in 1840. This was created relatively late in the turnpike era and just before the railways transformed travel in Victorian England. Building roads over the high ridges that formed the watersheds on rivers in the west of the county was challenging and considerable sums were needed to ease gradients and make new cuts to avoid unstable or steep sections of road. Two Dorset trust chose to adopt a very radical solution and cut road tunnels through the ridges at Horn Hill Beaminster and at Thistle Hill Charmouth. These were pioneer engineering projects, both of which were opened in 1832.


A map of turnpike roads in Dorset gives retails of the routes and the year in which individual turnpike trusts were created (use the list of turnpikes trusts in the main table to identify the name of individual trusts). This Dorset county view is based on a line map of roads by Ronald Good, with information on the individual trusts added in different colours.

Finance of Turnpikes

Although toll income on the Great Western Road was relatively high, the costs of maintaining the road in the western part of the county left trusts with significant mortgaged debt. The income of subsidiary routes was quite low, made worse by the proliferation of tollhouses and turnpiking of minor roads around urban centred truss and the Stour Valley turnpike (Vale of Blackmoor).


Many of the tollhouses in the southern part of the county were constructed from brick; those around Bridport being particularly striking. In the north, stone build tollhouses were more common (typically along the Shaftesbury and Sherborne Roads) Click on the highlight to reach a table showing the tollhouses that have been recorded in Dorset.


 Tollhouse at Charminster, north of Dorchester


Milestones were initially of stone but on the secondary routes cast iron plates were attached to these in the 19th century. The shape of these plates varied between trusts.


  Milestone with iron plate, between Dorchester and Sherborne


For further reading;

David Viner (2007) “Roads, tracks & turnpikes”, in the Discover Dorset series published by Dovecote Press, Wimborne.



This page created by Alan Rosevear 16th Oct 2008.

Last Edited 16th Oct 2008