Development of Sparrows Herne Turnpike
HALS = Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
SHTT = Sparrows Herne Turnpike Trust
TP4 = reference for SHTT minute books, held by HALS
ODNB = Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The development of turnpikes was the first step forward in the transport revolution in England. Though roads were usable in the western spur of Hertfordshire before 1760, it was the self-interested drive of the gentry to improve and integrate the turnpike network that enabled them to recoup their investments and enhance their business connections with the metropolis. By harnessing administrative and technological advances, turnpike trusts lowered transport costs and travel times and improved the quality of service for all road users.
The Sparrows Herne turnpike act (2 Geo III cap 63, Jul 1762) was “for amending, widening, altering and keeping in repair the road from the south end of Sparrows Herne on Bushey Heath, through the market towns of Watford, Berkhampstead St Peter’s, and Tring in the county of Hertford by Pettipher’s Elms to the Turnpike Road at Walton near Aylesbury in the county of Buckingham”.
The turnpike was initiated in 1761 by a newspaper invitation to meetings in five places along the route, to “such Gentlemen, Clergy, Freeholders, Land Owners, and Inhabitants, residing in and near the road from Sparrows Herne on Bushey Heath… and desirous to apply to Parliament for Leave to erect a Turnpike” (Whitehall Evening Post, 24 Dec 1761). The aim of these meetings was to collect signatures with which to petition Parliament. Their first meeting on 7 Jul 1762 was “holden at the house of John Butler known by the sign of the Kings Arms in the town of Berkhampstead St Peter” (TP4 Book 1, 7 Jul 1762) Perhaps because of its central position along the proposed route, all subsequent trustees’ meetings except for the last (held at the Union Workhouse in Berkhamsted) were held at the Kings Arms.
Plans for the new turnpike were given impetus in Parliament by the backing of local aristocrats and gentry, who then had influence over the running of the trust. Among the first trustees and subscribers were residents of Berkhamsted: Lord Viscount Grimston, Godolphin Rooper, Henry Cooley, Edmund Boehm and Robert Nicholl and the Earl of Salisbury was a frequent visitor to the town in his capacity as Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire. A significant number of trustees were clergy (17 per cent) and two Quakers were affirmed. Lord Hyde and the Earl of Essex owned nearby land. Charles Gore of Tring manor was the chairman, the clerk was William Hayton a solicitor who lived at Stocks House Aldbury, and Paul Jollage was paid £100 per year as the surveyor. Eminent trustees were elected over the years such as the Earl of Bridgewater in 1803 and John Dickinson, paper maker of Apsley, in 1811. When the Earl of Bridgewater died in 1823, the Earl of Clarendon was given an honorary appointment. Trustees with landed interests were attracted by the indirect benefits from increased reliability of roads allowing year-round services; reduction in the cost of carriage meant there would be more money to invest in exploring other opportunities.
The main expense for the Trust was maintenance of the road and trust property, an ongoing process, but savings were made where possible. In 1762, labourers were paid 10 shillings per pole (about five metres) to set hedges beside the turnpike. Trusts were able to make some savings on labour as they were permitted a share of statute labour, whereby each parishioner contributed up to six days per year in mending the local roads. Materials for making good were expensive and were supplemented with flints and pebbles picked from nearby fields. The Duke of Bridgewater gave leave to the trust to dig gravel from pits on his land on the understanding that any damage to crops would be reimbursed (TP4 Book 1, 30 May 1763). Notices were constantly issued to landowners (some of them fellow trustees) to prune vegetation overhanging the road on pain of the trust carrying out this work at the owner’s expense; in 1764 this list included Richard Bard Harcourt of Pendley Manor, Right Honourables Lord and Lady Essex, Lord Hyde and His Grace the Duke of Bridgewater (TP4 Book 1, 6 Mar 1764). In 1775, an order was made that “a brick arch [a type of culvert] across the road near the Kings Arms should be made forthwith.” (TP4 Book 2, 11 Sep 1775). In 1796, Augustus Pechell erected posts and rails in front of his stables adjoining the road in Berkhamsted; he was ordered to remove these “nuisances” (TP4 Book 3, 31 Mar 1796 & 25 Oct 1796). In 1810, his attempt to enclose a small piece of land at the edge of the turnpike failed, but at a later meeting that year he was permitted, under the direction of the surveyor, to make a culvert under the road to remedy the inconvenience of a troublesome drain (TP4 Book 3, 4 Jul 1810 & 7 Aug 1810). In 1816, the Earl of Bridgewater and the Reverend Mr Wroth reported back on the state of the turnpike house at New Ground – the fireplace and washhouse needed repair, the back room was extremely dirty “a Hen & Chickens being kept there” and they arranged for a bell to be installed to raise the alarm in case of danger; the cost of repairs was nearly £17 (TP4 Book 4, 16 Sep 1816).
Savings were also made by donations of land to improve the road. In 1762 Francis Ayscough (Dean of Bristol) was thanked by the trustees “for the Land he hath… generously given lying between Northchurch and the Green Cow” (TP4 Book 1, 31 Dec 1762). In 1789 Drummond Smith proposed at his own expense to make a new road at the width required by law across his own lands and the trustees, resolving that this would be nearer and more convenient for the public, agreed to pay for its upkeep from the tolls (TP4 Book 2, 16 Apr 1789). Similarly in 1815, Frank Moore offered land opposite his property in Northchurch to be laid open to the road so as to make it straight, on condition of the fence being made good (TP4 Book 4, 12 Sep 1815). These displays of generosity were in accordance with the paternalistic behaviour of the upper classes, gaining them status and public offices.
The turnpike trust as an administrative function improved the quality of service; as a non-profit-making organisation the income received from tolls, paid by those who used the roads the most, was largely invested on maintenance. Prior to turnpikes, the materials required for this was paid for solely by local parish rates. In each parish a surveyor (however ill qualified) was appointed annually and was expected to operate the statute labour system. This unpaid arrangement of “coerced labour directed by coerced labour never proved very satisfactory” and the beneficiaries were often through-travellers (W. Albert, ‘The Turnpike Trusts’ in Aldcroft & Freeman Transport in the Industrial Revolution, Manchester, 1983, p.32). In contrast, trusts shared statute labour with several parishes along the route and rather than the previous uncoordinated effort, turnpike maintenance was supervised by the trust surveyor who was more qualified for the job. Each parish surveyor was required to deliver to him a “true and perfect list of the persons liable to do Duty on this Turnpike” and at regular intervals the trust “Ordered that [a number of] days Service of the several Draughts Teams and Labourers… be performed on the said Turnpike Road” (TP4 Book 1, 31 Dec 1762). By 1791, there were discernible improvements: “there is an exceeding good road from London through Berkhampstead (which is 26 miles) to Aylesbury, and is two miles and a half nearer than the other road by Amersham.” (P. Barfoot & J. Wilkes (eds.), ‘Berkhampstead’,Universal British Directory (UBD), vol 2, section 2-1, London, 1791, p.279). In 1822, there was praise for “the most excellent improvement in the road at the Aylesbury entrance of the town of Tring, by cutting an entirely new line through the inclosures, to avoid the present dangerous turn of hill.” (Morning Post, 7 Feb 1822). By lowering freight charges and travel times, the trust had created demand for these services. The turnpike was mentioned often in advertisements for property in the town and for local amenities. In 1792 an advertisement for Berkhamsted School included: “the road is remarkably good, and there is every convenience of Stage Coaches and Waggons passing through the town.” (Star, 23 Jun 1792). For the sale of a villa in Northchurch, “the roads in the vicinage are extremely good” (St James chronicle, 4 Aug 1792).
Trustees also took an interest in extending the network of turnpikes. At the Quarter Sessions in 1824, a plan was proposed for a new turnpike road from Dunstable to Eton, entering Northchurch and traversing the Sparrows Herne turnpike through Berkhamsted before turning south through Chesham and Amersham (HALS, Quarter sessions, Bundle XIII, 7 Nov 1824).
Turnpike acts expired after 21 years and bills had to be submitted for continuance of the Sparrows Herne turnpike trust. The “Watford Road Bill” was passed in the House of Lords on 12 Feb 1783 (History of Parliament Trust, ‘Watford Road Bill’, Journal of the House of Lords , vol.36, Feb 1783, pp.11-20). In 1823, the cost of re-submission was £409.
The trust was able to raise funds for initial road improvements by mortgaging the anticipated revenue from tolls.Accordingly in Dec 1762, arrangements were made to advertise for persons willing to advance a loan of £2,000 against credit from tolls at five per cent interest and an entry appeared in the press the following March (London Chronicle, 3 Mar 1763). Direct benefits were accrued by subscribers; 22 of them accepted interest on their outlay in 1765 at the rate of four and a half instead of the five per cent originally advertised, whilst five men preferred not to accept this proposal and desired their money to be returned (TP4 Book 1, 4 Jun 1765).
The collection of tolls raised income from those who would benefit the most from using the roads. There were legal maximum rates for tolls and it was in the interest of the local landowners to keep them low. In the beginning, the tolls differentiated between broad wheeled vehicles as against those with narrow wheels, which caused more damage to road surfaces.
By 1823, this differentiation was no longer relevant due to improvements with the technology of road-building and all wheeled vehicles were charged at the same rate.
The closest toll gate to Berkhamsted was New Ground and lodging and pasture were provided for drovers at Cow Roast (formerly Cow’s Rest) once they had passed the gate. Animal enclosures were also available adjacent to the Goat Inn in Berkhamsted. Tolls were levied once a day to pass between Bourne End Mill and the end of the turnpike at Pettiphers Elms, between Tring and Aylesbury. Stage coaches and post chaises paid every time they passed. Some pedestrians and local inhabitants received concessions, such as church attendees and market day waggoners. Agricultural necessities were exempt, such as carting fodder or manure, moving equipment such as ploughs and harrows, or animals for example for sheep shearing (Act for SHTT 1823, p.1287). To ensure that tolls were maximized, collectors were given a list of rules to follow: if it could be proved that they had allowed carts and waggons to pass through with more than the legal limit of horses, or stage-coaches with more passengers “on the box” than allowed, they would be discharged and would never again be elected gatekeepers (TP4 Book 2, 4 Apr 1793). However, they were notoriously corrupt and New Ground was no exception; in 1772, the toll collector John Doggett was convicted of receiving stolen wood and dismissed (TP4 Book 2, 1 Jul 1772).
When administration of tolls at the gates became arduous, the trustees farmed them out, which meant that the toll collectors would take the profits from the tolls on payment of a fixed sum annually. The yearly rate according to the Timeson 1 Aug 1814 was £520; on 4 Sep 1821 it was £630 and by 21 Nov 1825 it had risen to nearly £728 for New Ground and Weston gates “put up together in one… above the expenses of collecting them”. Was this increase in response to inflation? It seems not because although prices had risen to a peak by the end of the Napoleonic wars, they were beginning to fall again by 1825; the wage rate index had also reached a plateau by 1810 and remained at that level through to the 1840s (E.H. Phelps-Brown & S. Hopkins, ‘Seven Centuries of the Prices of Consumables compared with Builders’ Wage-rates’, Economica, Nov 1956, pp.299 & 301). The yearly rent must have reflected the income achievable at these gates otherwise this would not attract prospective gatekeepers. This not only indicates the growth in the use of the road but also the success of the tolls in raising money.
Technology improved to cope with a change in road usage. At the start of the trust, the main traffic was packhorses and cattle being driven to London for slaughter; by the beginning of the nineteenth century there was a rapid increase in wheeled traffic. Complicated rules were devised to encourage broader wheels and thereby preserve road surfaces. In 1773, there was a bewildering list of traffic permitted along the 319 yards of Beggar Bush Hill with a gradient of four inches per yard between Tring and Aston Clinton: “Waggons having the Soles or of the Bottoms of the Fellies [rim] of the Breadth of Nine inches with Ten horses and Carts having the like Wheels with Six horses and Waggons having Wheels of the Breadth of Six Inches with Seven horses and Carts having the like Wheels with Five horses and Waggons having less Breadth than Six Inches with Five horses and Carts having the like Wheels with four Horses.” (TP4 Book 2, 2 Nov 1773).
In 1821 professional road builder James McAdam (later Sir James) was appointed General Surveyor of the turnpike. He was descended from a minor Scottish laird with connections to the peerage through his father John Loudon Macadam, who devised a surfacing technique to accommodate heavy traffic ( B.J. Buchanan, ‘ McAdam, John Loudon(1756–1836) ’, ODNB , Oxford, 2004).His philosophy, in contrast to restricting the type of vehicles allowed, was that “roads should be made to stand the traffic, using more expensive materials” (B & S Webb, The Story of the King’s Highway, London, 1963, p.174). James Macadam was paid £25 for the first year (TP4 Book 4, 17 Mar 1821).
Disadvantages of the Turnpike
Turnpikes were not universally welcomed and there were disadvantages. For the less fortunate, turnpikes (like enclosures) were perceived as the creation of the rich and there was resentment. “A Friend to the Poor” in 1762 put the case in a letter entitled “On the Highways”: “… the first Duke in the land (if he holds no plow-lands) pays but 9s. a year, when his Grace’s farrier, or the poorest cobler, or day-labourer in the parish, pays the same: is this reasonable, equitable, or just?” (Gazetteer & London Daily Advertiser, 31 Dec 1762). Passing travellers might demonstrate their disapproval by evading toll gates or assaulting collectors. Turnpike houses could be lonely and vulnerable places; in 1822, a couple were murdered at Weston Gate and the event was extensively covered in the newspapers (Morning Post, 25 Nov 1822). In the trustees’ minutes, it was resolved that the funeral expenses would be met by the trust (TP4 Book 4, 22 Nov 1822).
Turnpike trusts cannot be credited with drastically changing carrying services but cost benefits were derived from wider roads, better surfacing techniques and easier gradients and as Gerhold observed: “Better management contributed to the increasing efficiency of long-distance carrying.” (D. Gerhold, Road Transport before the Railways: Russell’s London Flying Waggons, Cambridge, 1993, pp.138 & 148).
The local Sparrows Herne Turnpike Trust was a successful venture and remained solvent until its termination in 1873, but the decline of the turnpike system began in 1864, when Parliament took an active role in terminating trusts, in part due to the direct competition of other forms of transport. Waning enthusiasm for attendance at trust meetings is evident from the 1803 Act, in which there was a request for a reduction of quorum from nine to five, “it frequently happening that so great a Number cannot be assembled” (Acts of Parliament for SHTT, 43 Geo III cap 39, 17 May 1803, pp.750-1). They were already beguiled by the next chapter of the transport story, the arrival of the canal.