Alan Greening


Highway maintenance in medieval times was, in theory at least, a manorial responsibility. Notwithstanding encouragement – and some spiritual bribery – from the Church, any work done was done sparingly and irregularly. Since the concept of a highway was merely the right of passage, medieval “roads” sometimes attained astonishing widths in the pursuit of passable surfaces.

The upswing of economic activity in Tudor times, coupled with the decay of the feudal order and the widespread evasion of obligations to contribute to highway maintenance made legislative action imperative. In 1531Parliament passed the Statute of Bridges, designed to settle once and for all the vexed question of the responsibility for bridge maintenance. Bridges within corporate towns were to be the responsibility of their citizens; the rest, with a few exceptions, that of the county Justices of the Peace acting in Quarter Sessions. In 1555 the first Highways Ad was passed. It placed the liability for maintaining roads upon the parishes through which they ran. If parishioners neglected their duties, they could be indicted at Quarter Sessions and fined. Parish surveyors were to be elected annually and four, later six, days each year were to be appointed during which parishioners should give their labour, or that of hired substitutes, for the repair of their roads under their surveyors’ direction.

The surveyors had a thankless task. They should not, of course, be thought of as “surveyors” in the modern sense. Beyond expenses, they had no remuneration. Three times a year they were require to “view” the whole parish and testify before the justices as to the state of the roads therein. They were responsible for presenting any fellow-parishioners who transgressed or evaded their responsibilities under the Act. Not surprisingly, they were open to all sorts of personal and social inducements to neglect their duties, and in any case had no technical skills in the work thrust upon them. In 1691 the system was modified to the extent that surveyors were thereafter appointed by Quarter Sessions, and parishes were empowered to levy a highway rate. This system lasted, virtually unchanged, right down to 1835.

If the framers of the 1555 Act believed that their legislative efforts would be balanced by a corresponding improvement in the country’s roads, they were deluded. Forced labour was extremely unpopular and evasion widespread, despite the back-up of the legal devices of presentment and indictment at Quarter Sessions. With such untrained and unwilling labour it is not surprising that standards of maintenance were low, and quite inadequate to cope with the ever-increasing volume of wheeled traffic.

For most roads of the period might reasonably be described as being in a state of nature. That is, they had no foundations beyond the earth itself, little natural drainage, and no made-up surface. In wet and wintry conditions vehicles would produce ruts of epic dimensions, to be frozen hard, thawed again, filled with water by the spring rains, poached by the hooves of innumerable horses and cattle, dried out and hardened once more by the summer sun. “Repairs” consisted merely of tipping stones and/or gravel into the worst depressions. The ruts and potholes thus laboriously back-filled might well have been caused by those selfsame parishioners filching material for their own purposes: there was a long-standing tendency to regard the highway as a convenient combination of quarry and tip.

Statute labour was, in theory, “boon work”, that is, unpaid. But some surveyors inevitably found it prudent to spread cash around, pour encourager, and sometimes necessary to hire additional labour for special jobs. In the Quarter Sessions records we read of Thomas Bird, surveyor of Ware Upland – i.e., Ware Rural Parish – reporting in 1672 that he had:

“Given to the shovell men to encourage them                                            1s   6d

Given them in the highway to encourage them to work hard                          6d

Given to eleven carts to drinke to encourage them                                    1s   6d

Paid three men digging 30 load of gravel at Wdibury Hill                          8s   0d

Paid six men in the highways at 10s a day                                                  15s   0d

Paid Goodman Bray for one teame [i.e. of horses] one day and

two teams two days at 7s per teame                                                      £1 15s   0d

Paid to a shovell man for two days to shovell in the cart rakes                 2s   0d”

Wheeled traffic was increasing greatly. In our county the motor for this increase was the unremitting expansion of London, which quadrupled in size during the sixteenth century and more than doubled again in the seventeenth. That meant more mouths to feed and more thirsts to quench. Seventeenth century Hertfordshire had a “juggernaut” problem. All things are relative. In 1631 the Hertfordshire justices complained that between Royston and Buntingford the roads were “daily torn up with malt carts, which commonly carry 14 quarters of malt at one time. Unless maltsters and loaders be enjoined to carry on horseback between All Saints’ and May Day, as in former times, there will not be found materials in the country [sic, i.e., county] to repair the roads nor make them passable.” Earlier, in 1618 the justices had attempted to limit traffic on this road to two-wheeled carts, drawn by not more than five horses, for similar reasons, which might be considered a classic example of looking at a problem through the wrong end of the telescope.

As a result of their concerns, in 1632 an embryonic origin and destination survey was commissioned to take place at Colliers End. Two observers and a supervisor were paid fifty shillings for a month-long survey. The data collected have not survived1.

Although an abortive bill had been presented to Parliament proposing to charge tolls on a section of the Great North Road between Baldock and Biggleswade, such were the problems on the Old North Road that it was here that the first action was taken. The principle was not new: “turnpikes” had been set up during the Commonwealth on the River Lea at Hertford, for example, and there are no doubt earlier examples elsewhere, but not on a public road before the first Act passed in 1663. The intention was to improve the condition and maintenance of the Old North Road through Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, and the first, and only enduring, gate was set up at Wadesmill. The Act’s financial provisions were hazy and the venture can hardly be described as a resounding success, but it did provide the model for the profusion of similar schemes during the following century.

To turnpike a length of road required a private Act of Parliament to set up and authorise a Trust to manage it. The idea behind it was, of course, that the revenue raised by tolls would be applied to the maintenance and improvement of the road. There was merit in the idea, a prototype for the host of statutory authorities for special purposes that were to mushroom during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But most trusts set up covered only relatively short lengths of road and inevitably standards could vary widely between them. Furthermore, the system did not, of itself, set out to remedy the biggest problem of all: how to devise more practical methods of construction to cope with the increase in traffic.

Trusts continued to employ statute labour, although in theory at least they should have been able to afford more competent employees. But a trust had to begin somewhere.. There was the cost of obtaining Parliamentary sanction, and the cost of setting up gates and engaging officials.. It had to raise cash by borrowing money on the security of hoped-for toll income. Such loans of course carried interest, and if the toll income failed to come up to expectations serious problems could arise. If a creditor died suddenly, his or her executors would be likely to require repayment of the outstanding balance of the loan. Trusts willy-nilly found themselves in the classic trap of having to borrow money simply to pay off existing loans.

The collection of tolls was irksome, labour-intensive and sometimes physically dangerous for the collectors. Increasingly it became the practice lo “farm out” toll collection to the highest bidder for a fixed annual sum, a practice open to considerable abuse. Varying rates were charged for different types of vehicle and different animals. Only pedestrians, later on also mail coaches – and skilled evaders! – went free.

“Piking” was universally unpopular. “No cit nor clown can gratis view the country or the town” succinctly sums up the popular attitude. Improvement inevitably costs money, and then as now people wanted something for nothing,

Three turnpike trusts were set up in East Herts in the course of the eighteenth century, initial activity unsurprisingly concentrating on the Old North Road, This became the responsibility of two separate trusts: the first, the Cheshunt, covering the length from the county boundary at Waltham Cross through Cheshunt, Hoddesdon and Ware to Wadesmill, followed by the Wadesmill Trust thence through Buntingford lo Royston. Both had branches: the Cheshunt from Hoddesdon to Hertford, the Wadesmill from Puckeridge to Barkway and Barley – today’s B1368.

The Act of 1725 which established the Cheshunt Trust did not envisage it extending further than the Great Bridge of Ware, although it gave it powers to contribute to the cost of repairs thence to Wadesmill Bridge. A second Act in 1733 turnpiked that length as well as the road from Waltham Cross to the Essex boundary at Small Lea Bridge. In l 772 the road from Ware to Hertford, which the Quaker poet John Scott had been responsible for improving, was added, although this length was given up as early as 1833.2

The Wadesmill Trust received its Ad in 1733. The minutes of the inaugural general meeting, held at the Bull Inn in Buntingford, refer to “the Toll Gate which stands and for many years past has stood at Wadesmill”, so it looks as if even after the moribundity of the original scheme hopes had remained of its resuscitation.

Not until 1757 was the Watton Trust established. This extended from “The World’s End” at Hertford – i.e., the junction with the Cheshunt Trust’s branch from Hoddesdon – to a junction with the Welwyn Turnpike at Broadwater south of Stevenage, and from a junction with the Cheshunt at the north end of Ware along what is now the A602 to Watton-at-Stone, and from there to the north end of Walkern, thus forming an elongated “X” shape, with a total route mileage of nineteen – the longest of the three. It was the western arm through Waterford which was to be diverted from Goldings in 1868-9 at the behest of Robert Abel Smith.

One might have expected the Cecils and the Cowpers to have encouraged the turnpiking of the road between Hertford and Hatfield, but this was never done, although the celebrated “gout track” west of Hatfield was.

The Trustees of all three turnpikes – indeed of turnpikes everywhere – were all men of substance. They needed to be: the trusts were not joint-stock companies and it was to be more than a century before the concept of limited liability was legalised. Hence trustees were individually liable for the debts of their trusts. The original trustees of the Cheshunt included Sir William Monson of Broxbourne, Marmaduke Roydon of Hoddesdon, Thomas and John Byde of Ware Park, Sir Thomas Clarke, William and Richard Plumer, John Dimsdale of Hertford and the Mayor and three Aldermen of the Borough of Hertford, presumably ex-officio. Those of the Wadesmill Trust included Charles Caesar of Benington, William Calvert of Hunsdon, Ralph and William Freman, Francis Goulston, Edward Chester and Felix Calvert. Later arrivals included Robert H’adsley and William Burr of Ware, the Rev. Edward Banyer and William Fordham of Royston and two delightfully-named gentlemen, the Rev. Angel Chauncy, vicar of Cottered, and William Woolball of Coneybury. In 1767 a certain Anthony Trollope of Cottered was elected: what, if any, ancestral relation to the novelist I cannot say.

The first trustees of the Watton Trust included Thomas Plumer Byde, Dr Ralph Freman, John Boteler of Watton Woodhall, Adolphus Meetkerk of Rushden, William Cowper, William Lister, William Whittenbury, Thomas Burr and Thomas Dimsdale and Benjamin Cherry of Hertford. No fewer than six of the original trustees were Quakers – a good indication of their rising prosperity in business. Later on came Thomas Gripper, Henry Dunster, William Baker of Bayford, Dr Angel Chauncy, Humphrey Hall of Goldings and of course John Scott, for a number of years the trust’s treasurer. By 1801 the trustees included Samson Hanbury of Poles and the Rev. Thomas Lloyd, and in 1819 Abel Smith the banker, now owner of Woodhall, and Hertford’s John Moses Carter – “Teapot Moses” of later notoriety.

Although as a matter of prudence the number of trustees was kept high, it is remarkable how often meetings had to be abandoned because of the lack of a quorum. The Wadesmill Trust was particularly bad in this respect. During 1759 and 1760 no fewer than eleven consecutive meetings had to be abandoned. Having at last managed to get together on 19 September 1760, they then failed to make four subsequent dates, so that by 10 August 1761, when they at long last fielded a quorum, they had to consider their Treasurer’s accounts for three whole years!

The Watton Trust experienced a rather different problem. Their first secretary was Bostock Toller junior, Clerk to the County Justices. He was pretty efficient, even tediously so, as his minutes prove, but when Benjamin Rooke took over things were very different. For ten and a half years he failed to enter anything at all in the minute book! One wonders how business was conducted in the meantime. The format of each trust’s minutes differs. Nothing could be more obvious than that Toller was a lawyer, and his successors – Rooke excepted! – stuck rigidly to his model. This does not always make for easy reading, but there are compensations: the Watton minutes are unique, for example, in that they regularly specify in detail the liabilities of each parish in respect of statute labour.

Trustee meetings were usually held in inns, although the Watton Trust sometimes met in Hertford Town Hall and later the Shire Hall. The Wadesmill trustees usually met either in one of the Buntingford hostelries or the Feathers at Wadesmill, while the Cheshunt people rotated between the Bull at Hoddesdon, the Glove and Dolphin at Hertford and the Four Swans at Waltham Cross. The Watton’s watering holes were the Bull or the White Horse at Watton, the Bell at Hertford and either the Bull or the Crown at Ware.

The Four Swans at Waltham Cross became the location, after much juggling, of the southernmost turnpike gate of the Cheshunt Trust. Not until 1744 was a gate erected at the northern end, near Poles Lane in Ware. Similarly the Wadesmill gate remained the only one for a number of years until additional gates were erected at Buntingford and Barkway. All three were subject to much argument as to location. The first gate on the Watton Trust was actually at Watton, “near the stone “, as the minutes say. After only a year it was replaced by a gate at Stapleford and a pair of gates at the south-east corner of Woodhall Park on the Ware road and the parish road from Sacombe to Hertford. Later on a short-lived gate was installed across the Whempsteod side road, and one across Bramfield Lane – the exact location is unclear which lasted much longer. The Bramfield gate produced no income for the Trust – its keepers were allowed to keep what they received in lieu of wages! The Ware road gate was later moved to Tonwell. All the original gates appear to have been made by Abraham Andrews of Hertford.

Toll collectors for both the Old North Road trusts were initially paid ten shillings a week. The Watton paid nine shillings, but in 1759 the number of collectors was reduced and the wages of the survivors increased to twelve shillings. Later on, when “double manning” was resorted to, it went back to nine, rising again to twelve during the Napoleonic Wars “in consideration of the high cost of provisions”.

Toll collection in the early years was not without hazard. In 1737 a man named Bullard was indicted at Quarter Sessions for assaulting John Howard, one of the Waltham Cross gatekeepers, and endeavouring to defraud the Trust of toll. Four years later, at the same gate, another collector, John Halfhead, was the victim of what can only be described as a hit-and-run incident, when he was run over by a cart which did not stop. One of his legs was broken. The Cheshunt’s clerk was ordered to make diligent inquiry to find and prosecute the offender. Halfhead’s usual pay was ten shillings a week: the Trust agreed to pay him eight shillings a week while he was unable to work.

Cases of toll avoidance were legion. There was obviously the problem of side roads: there was a limit to the number of side gates that could be installed. And on the main roads there was no lack of people prepared to try it on. It was by no means unknown for people to remove horses from teams and even off-load wagons before passing through gates. The Watton even had a case of a man hitching his private carriage to the back of a wagon and claiming it was one vehicle! At Stapleford, a wagoner hitched his front horses to the gate and drove through it. Others evaded the toll by brazenly driving over other people’s land to emerge on the far side of the gate.

Some gatemen were dishonest or negligent. One of the Wadesmill’s collectors was sacked because his takings were £65 less than his colleague’s at the same gate; another was found out when he suddenly remitted what was obviously an excessive sum. He had been holding back money with intent to defraud, but suddenly panicked.

Complaints were received from locals whose business necessitated passing and repassing through the gates for relatively short journeys. The Wadesmill Trust early on resorted to the practice of allowing such people through toll free on payment of a set sum per annum. Eventually they seem to have concluded that too many people were abusing the concession and withdrew it, although they continued to allow David Barclay of Youngsbury to continue, since he allowed them to dig gravel on his land free of charge.

The Trusts’ powers included the right to dig gravel and stones from adjacent land, compensating landlords and tenants for any damage and inconvenience. No doubt they were supposed to ask first, but judging from the Cheshunt Trust’s minutes the surveyors seem to have acted pretty cavalierly, digging first and asking afterwards and then conveniently forgetting to tell the Clerk what they had done. Not surprisingly, landlords and tenants were unhappy when – they had a long wait for compensation, and belatedly the Trustees decreed that they must approve any application to enter and dig up land beforehand.

The trusts’ surveyors no doubt tried, but they were as unqualified as their parish equivalents. Nor was their pay excessive, by any standards. The Cheshunt Trust was the best payer: it divided its seventeen miles of road into three sections, with a surveyor in charge of each, paid fifteen shillings a week. The Wadesmill Trust began with two surveyors, paying each of them twelve shillings a week. They received occasional two-guinea bonuses, but in 1746 the Trustees were of the opinion that one surveyor would suffice, “thereby there will be a great saving to this turnpike”. This cheeseparing economy persisted for nearly eight years, with results that might have been foreseen. In May 1754 they went back to two men, later increased to three. At one point the twelve shillings weekly wage was craftily trimmed back to a salary of £30 per annum, but by the end of the century fourteen shillings a week was the norm.

Not until two years after its formation did the Watton Trust appoint any surveyors, but then appointed three. The minutes do not record their rate of pay – perhaps, like the Bramfield gatekeeper, they were expected to make what they could from the job. But in 1779 the Trust decided to have a “General Surveyor”, to be paid £30 per annum. The first appointee seems to have had second thoughts, for he never took up the post, but in October l 779 George James Rose was appointed on the same terms. In l 782 he received a bonus of ten guineas, but ten years later was discharged, apparently as a result of financial irregularities.

As has been said, the trusts continued to employ statute labour, although surveyors were allowed limited freedom to pay additional men. Parishes could commute statute labour to money payments, but getting them to meet their commitments was not always easy. The Wadesmill Trust had endless trouble with Barkway, the Barkway vestry constantly complaining that it could not comply because of the state of its own parish roads.

If the trusts’ own surveyors were hardly professional, it is not surprising that really heavy jobs were beyond their capabilities and that of their labour force. In 1758 the Wadesmill Trust accepted the tender of Robert Smith of St Margaret’s Westminster and Isaac Garner of St George’s Hanover Square for the repair and widening of some four miles of Ermine Street at £782. 10s. Smith and Garner were scarcely the Laings of their day: Smith was a ballast lighterman and Garner a labourer!

As to everyday standards of maintenance, “pile on more gravel” seems to have been the universal recipe. According to the aggrieved inhabitants of Hoddesdon, in 1751 so much had been laid and heaped up on the road that the frontagers had been forced to raise the ground outside their doors proportionally to prevent their ground floors being flooded when there was heavy rain, “and that by means of this raising of the said ground the first [sic, i.e., ground] floors are in great part laid underground and become a kind of cellars and thereby rendered so damp and wet as not only to injure and spoil their household goods and effects but even to in danger their Health”.

Even allowing for hyperbole, it is plain that the road was in a poor state. The petitioners went on sensibly to suggest that the road be completely dug up and relaid properly, with a cambered surface and proper drains to the side ditches, cleaning out those ditches regularly, which clearly was not being done.

As late as 1806 the whole length from Wadesmill to Royston was said to be “in a decayed and declining state [and] not commodious for travelling ….. resembling a gridiron”.

In the l740s Parliament decreed that milestones should be set up. Two of those set up in 1743 by the Cheshunt Trust survive in Ware, and there may be others elsewhere. In 1751 the decision was made to install a “weighing engine” near Theobalds Park Wall and the tender of Joseph Eyre of St Neots, clockmaker, of £ll0.5s was accepted. The following year the Wadesmill Trustees also consulted Eyre about a weighbridge, but it took them another fifty-four years before they actually got round to installing one, at Colliers End.

How much money might a trust expend on actual roadworks? In the 1740s the Cheshunt Trust budgeted for £60 for the Hoddesdon – Hertford length, £50 for Ware to Wadesmill, and £290 “and no more”(sic) for the rest. Such figures are of very little meaning unless comparable with actual expenditure, but they may give an indication of expected toll income. Nevertheless, forty years later, in the year ended 22 June 1782, the Watton Trust recorded a toll income of £928 ls 6¼d – note the odd farthing! In May 1805 the Trust leased its tolls to the Watton miller, Edward Mumford, for £1120 – an interesting reflection of the inflation resulting from the Napoleor1ic Wars. Actually, Mumford was bidding on behalf of a William Everett of Shoreditch, which shows that there were not lacking people to speculate in this field. Everett withdrew from the agreement three years later, and at first there were no takers. Eventually in June 1808 Joshua Smith of Cambridge bid £1170 for the tolls, and his bid was accepted. But by July 1810 Smith was bankrupt.

The introduction of improved road surfaces, particularly by the MacAdam family (James MacAdam was for a time Surveyor to the Cheshunt Trust – the age of the qualified Civil Engineer was dawning) unfortunately came too late to save either long-distance road haulage, soon to be killed by the railways, or the turnpike trusts. The latter, however, lingered on: with the virtual disappearance of long-distance traffic tolls became more and more viewed as an intolerable burden on local road users. Increasing public irritation sometimes turned to violence, in some areas gates being burned. Everywhere there was rejoicing when trusts were wound up. The Cheshunt survived until l November 1872; the Watton until 1875. It was not all gain: highway maintenance falling back into the hands of a multiplicity of small “authorities”, parish vestries, local highways boards and the like, may be regarded as a retrograde step. The Cheshunt Trust’s roads, for example, were divided between the Hertford District Highways Board and the Cheshunt Local Board of Health, and so remained until the formation of the County Council in 1888.


1 As far as I am aware, the earliest comprehensive O & D data to survive is that taken at the lngatestone turnpike gate on the Great Essex Road in 1829 at the instigation of Lord Petre, who held the farm of tolls. This is absolutely fascinating and may be seen at the Essex Record Office at Chelmsford.

2 For John Scott’s involvement with the Ware to Hertford road, see David Perman, John Scott, Road’ Builder, in Hertfordshire’s Past No.39, Autumn 1995.


The Minutes of the three Trusts are in HALS (TP series).

The Quarter Sessions Records calendared in Hertford County Records Sessions Books Volumes V, Vl, VII & VIII contain a wealth of references to work done (and not done!) on roads in the county.




This page was added on 02/01/2022.

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