The Turnpike Road System in England 1663-1840

William Albert

Cambridge University Press 1972
A book review by Danny Yee © 2009
In 1663 a Turnpike Act was passed allowing collection of tolls on a section of the Great North Road; the next was not to follow till 1695, but turnpikes soon burgeoned and became and remained an important part of the English transport system for the next hundred and fifty years.

Albert's study begins with an overview of the transport system at end of 17th century, before surveying the creation of turnpike acts.

"The turnpike trusts were always established for twenty-one years in the first instance, but when this term neared expiration the trustees petitioned for, and invariably received, a renewal of their authority for a further term. Initially conceived as a device to provide a temporary supplement for parish repair, the trusts became in effect semi-permanent replacements for it, and throughout the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth an increasing amount of mileage came under trust control."
The spread of turnpikes was not systematic but had a logic to it, with the major roads out of London being turnpiked first.

Turnpike trustees were mostly local notables, though there was a push to consolidate smaller trusts into larger ones. The trust officers — clerk, treasurer and surveyor — became increasingly professional, drawn from the ranks of solicitors, bankers and engineers. Trust collection was often farmed-out for a flat fee, which Albert's analysis suggests was reasonably cost-effective.

Unlike canals and railways, turnpikes were not allowed to issue shares and they made little use of annuities or bonds; they mostly raised capital through a specialised "toll-mortgage". Early on most funds came from landowners who would benefit from road improvements, but capital was increasingly raised from a broader base, and through subscriptions rather than post-enactment borrowing. The interest rates on turnpike trust borrowings reveal something of the extent of a national capital market, though "trust expenditure was governed more by local economic conditions than by movements in the rates of interest".

There was a steady move away from statute labour and an increasingly scientific approach to road repair, in which engineers J.L. McAdam and Thomas Telford featured prominently. Much effort was directed to regulating vehicles, in particular their weight and the width of their wheels, rather than to road repair as such.

In 1692 justices were empowered to set rates for transport of goods. Albert uses these rates to trace the history of transport costs and their connections with trade volumes and grain costs; he concludes that "turnpiking ... had a beneficial effect".

Placing the turnpike system in a much broader context, a prologue looks at lessons for underdeveloped nations and a conclusion glances at attempts to measure social rates of return on railroads in the United States. A more obvious connection thirty five years on is with the revival of private financing and tolls as a way of financing road infrastructure. Some details will be skipped by most readers, but the overall account in The Turnpike Road System is broad and multifariously connected.

Note: There is a 2007 paperback reprint of the original 1972 work.

January 2009

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%T The Turnpike Road System in England 1663-1840
%A Albert, William
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1972
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN 0521082218
%P 300pp