Turnpike TrustsShepton Mallet Turnpike Trust
(See a complete set of photographs of Somerset toll houses here. Fosse Lane Tollhouse, Shepton Mallet here.)
The Shepton Mallet Turnpike Trust was established in 1753. Its main responsibilities were (a) the Bath road towards Wells (b) the road towards SW Somerset through Ilchester and (c) a network of roads radiating from the market town into East Somerset.
Highway maintenance was a Parish responsibility until the end of the nineteenth century.
Increased traffic, due mainly to the growth of the manufacturing industries and the need to transport raw materials and finished goods, needed a new means of dealing with the design and maintenance of roads. This led to the setting up of Turnpike Trusts in the eighteenth century.
The first of these was established by Act of Parliament in 1663 in Hertfordshire. The first Somerset Act was in 1707¬-8 to set up a Trust at Bath. This was associated with improvements to the roads that carried wealthy travellers between London and this leading leisure resort of post-Restoration England. Bristol the gateway port of the west, came next in 1726, and the formation of the Bridgwater Trust (1730) carried the Bristol road south across the Somerset Levels.
In the 1750s, Somerset saw the creation of a rush of town-centred turnpike trusts. Trusts with large mileages were created on Taunton (1752) and Wells (1753) to carry the Bath road across the county. The Trusts for Black Dog (Bath & Warminster) (1752), Shepton Mallet (1753) and Langport (1753), Bruton (1756), Wincanton (1756) with Frome (1757) created a string of turnpikes on a route running to the south of the Post Road. Finally, in the south the roads around Chard (1759) and Crewkerne (1765) completed the turnpiking of all the main routes after little over a decade.
Then came the infilling with smaller trusts. Several of these seemed to be turnpiking every highway in the district with no obvious pattern of main roads. In the south of the county Martock (1761) Ilminster (1772) and Ilchester (1800) intermingled with the other trust roads to create thick web of minor turnpikes. In the west the sparsely populated areas around Exmoor were turnpiked by extensive trusts based in Minehead (1765) and Wiveliscombe (1786). In the early 19th century, new roads were built across the Devon border, particularly the Honiton & Ilminster Road (1807), and new routes were turnpiked across Sedgemoor by the High Ham & Ashcott and the Wedmore trusts in (1826/7) and the Wells & Highbridge road (1841). Finally, Somerset got its road to the seaside in 1840 with the turnpike of a short section of road to Weston super Mare.
Towns like Taunton and Shepton Mallet became the centres of radiating trusts with roads linking them with other important towns in the county. After Ralph Allen of Bath secured the lease of the cross-country mails from the government there grew a complex system of coach routes in Somerset using the new turnpike roads. At the same time, the old carriers' wagons continued in use them for the carriage of goods and people who could not afford the expensive coach fares. The coming of the Bristol and Exeter Railway in the early 1840s brought increased traffic to the roads and coaches serving stations on the new railway, but the building of branch lines caused much of this traffic to cease. So, too, did most of the long distance coach services.
There were also main routes which passed through the county and on which the mails were carried. One of these connected with the Great West Road from London to Bath and passed over the Mendips through Wells and Glastonbury to Taunton and the West. Another road linking London with Exeter, Plymouth and Falmouth passed through the southern part of the county from Crewkerne to Chard and then towards Honiton in Devon. This important road was made a turnpike in 1753, with a further improvement in 1811, providing a completely new route from Chard to the Devon border. Urgent overseas mails were carried on this road to and from Falmouth to save time on the long sea route up the English Channel. Another new road from the Devon border to Ilminster to join with the Northern route across Salisbury Plain was built as a, turnpike in 1806¬7.
Competition between coaches on these two roads to achieve the speed record for the journey led to many accidents.
These Acts gave permission to local people, who were prepared to raise money by public loans to build or repair roads, to levy tolls for the use of the road and to repay the loan. The tolls were collected at gates, or turnpikes, at intervals along the road. Travellers on foot were exempt from charges, as were soldiers and Royal Mail coaches, but all other users were charged a toll based on the size of the carriage or wagon, and the number of horses pulling it, or in the case of stock, the number and type of animals in the drove or flock, higher rates were charged for wagons and carts having wheel-trims less than three inches in width, as it was thought that wider wheels would help to act as rollers on the road surface.
Tollgates were not popular, and were attacked and destroyed by mobs. At Bristol in 1749 there were riots against the introduction of turnpikes, which lasted for a fortnight and were suppressed only when six troops of dragoons were brought in.
New techniques of road making were introduced by such men as blind Jack Metcalf of Knaresborough and Thomas Telford, who constructed roads with a foundation of large stones on which smaller stones were placed and then consolidated with a curved or cambered surface with water and heavy rollers. But it was John Macadam who improved on these methods, and while working for the Bristol Turnpike Trust, devised a simpler and much cheaper method of road making. He used a 10-inch layer of small, broken stones, each less than an inch across, placed on the subsoil, then watered and crushed with a heavy roller to form a very hard surface, with a three¬ inch camber to drain off rainwater. His successful work at Bristol led to his appointment as surveyor to the Bath Trust. He and his sons later worked for many other Trusts including Frome, Minehead, Yeovil, Shepton Mallet and Bridgwater. His name became part of the English language and his work, covering the period 1816¬-36, coincided almost exactly with the great period of the colourful and exciting 'coaching days'.
The work of the Turnpike Trusts drew attention to the need for improvement and repair in other roads in Somerset. In towns, the borough councils or local boards of health or improvement commissioners maintained the streets, but in rural areas the parish was still responsible for road maintenance. To relieve the burden of expense and to form a more effective administrative unit, parishes were grouped into highway districts. The decline of traffic on the turnpike roads, resulting from railway development, led to financial difficulties, and between 1867 and 1883 the trusts were gradually dissolved, beginning with the Bristol Trust and ending with that of Wells. The existing local highway authorities took over for a time, but after the Local Government Act of 1888 roads became the concern of the County Council, and after the Act of 1894, of the borough and district councils. With the advent of the motor car a system of trunk roads under the control of the central government developed.
In the early years of the twentieth century, road surfaces were improved by using tar instead of water to bind the small stones into macadam or 'tarmac'. Steam rollers, tar-boilers and tar-barrels, roadmen's huts and equipment became familiar sights along the county's roads, as more and more motor cars and lorries were manufactured and used. For a time, during the Second World War, scarcity of petrol and oil, which had to be imported, led to restrictions on the use of motor vehicles, but in the succeeding years there was a steadily increasing number of vehicles of all kinds on the roads. A new era of road building and of improvement of old roads began, and of this the most remarkable feature was the construction of new motorways, a completely new route with easy gradients and wide carriageways to allow high speed travel.
There are many surviving reminders of the turnpike roads. When first constructed they frequently improved upon the line of the old road which they replaced. In hilly districts gradients were made less severe, and where the old road led straight up a steep hill by the shortest route which could be climbed by pedestrian or horse, the new roadmakers constructed sweeping curves to allow the teams of coach-horses a more gradual ascent. Many of these have again been improved for faster motor traffic, and the traces of both of the older roads can still be found in hilly districts of the county.
In some areas it is still possible to find the toll-houses, usually quite close to the roadside, with windows arranged to provide a good view of the road in each direction. Many turnpike roads were furnished with well-designed milestones many of which were destroyed during the Second World War when there was fear that they might aid invaders to find out where they had landed, while others vanished during the great period of road building after the war.
In the Milestone Society Database, 29 milestones are identified along these roads, mostly on the A361, A367, A37, A371, B3081 and B3161, most in a design referred to as Top plate casting. Based on the mileage reported by the Trust in 1840, 52 would be expected.
The majority of milemarkers erected by the Somerset Turnpike trusts were originally milestones but many trusts attached metal plates to these in the early 19th century, since this was generally cheaper than regularly re-engraving the limestone. A few metal mileposts were erected and a significant number of cast iron Parish Boundary markers were erected around Bath. Each trust adopted a different pattern of milestone, presumably because they contracted with local stonemasons and foundries which all used individual designs.
Database programming by Goldenhart© Shepton 21 Regeneration Partnership 2014