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The Development of Roads

Roads in Britain had existed since Roman times. However, since the end of the Roman period no roads had been maintained on a regular basis. By the 18th century, most of Britain's roads were in very bad repair. When asked by a committee of enquiry about the state of the roads in his area, a Member of Parliament replied, "We travel in ditches, Sir!". In fact, at the turn of the century many roads were no better than ditches.

From the 1730's onwards old roads became better maintained and new, turnpike roads were constructed. This was in parallel with the development of canals and resulted from an increasing need to transport goods produced during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Turnpike trusts were set up by local businessmen, traders and other investors. Under the Turnpike Act they could build new roads or assume responsibility for existing roads. To finance their projects, a trust was allowed to collect a fee from every traveller using one of its roads. The fee, or toll, was collected at each end of each section of the road. In these places a gate and a toll-keeper's cottage were positioned.

A Punch cartoon entitled "Rebecca and her Daughters"

The toll roads were very unpopular in some areas. In Wales, for example, many farmers had to pass through a large number of toll gates on their way to the market at Camarthen. In this area, a group of men, disguised themselves in women's clothes to avoid being recognised and broke down the gates of the toll roads. They called themselves "The Hosts of Rebecca" after a Bible story. It is for this reason that their protests became known as the Rebecca Riots.

New road construction techniques were developed by John MacAdam, Thomas Telford and John Metcalfe. Each of them put forward the idea of building raised, cambered roads which allowed water to drain off them as fast as possible. MacAdam's technique, which used tar mixed with roadstone and was called tarmacadam, became widely used and, eventually developed into the modern method of road building.


MacAdam's Roads ©  Shirley Burchill

Telford's Roads ©  Shirley Burchill

The new roads made stage coach travel much faster, more comfortable and easier than before. The increased demand for travel meant that many new stage coach companies were formed. Stage coach travel reached a peak between 1815 and 1840, when over 30000 people were employed and there were regular Royal Mail coaches, carrying both passengers and mail, between all the towns and cities in Britain. From around 1840, stage coach travel began to decline as it entered into competition with a new and much faster form of transport, the railways.

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© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2016

Footnote : As far as the Open Door team can ascertain the images shown on this page are in the Public Domain.