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Road pricing in south Wales

(December 01, 2013)

 Road pricing in south Wales

Second Severn Crossing Image: Matt BuckSecond Severn Crossing - latest of a long line of toll roads in Wales
Image: Matt Buck


Imagine south Wales during the period 1750 to 1800. The Industrial Revolution is booming and the mills, mines, ironworks, and so on, that are springing up all over the region need to transport their goods to rivers and ports so they can be shipped to customers all over the world. So far, so good. But the only way to reach the rivers and ports was to load the iron, coal or other goods onto oxen or horse-drawn wagons and take it by road – and this was a bit of a problem. The problem was that the roads were maintained under the 200 year-old Highways Act of 1555, which said that people were responsible for the maintenance of the roads in the parish where they lived.

Until the Industrial Revolution this system had worked pretty well: people rarely travelled outside their own parish boundaries and what traffic there was, usually travelled on foot or on the backs of pack animals. The tracks that existed were generally sufficient for the purpose. Now, however, large numbers of people wanted to drive wheeled vehicles – carts and wagons – through parishes from one side to the other on their way from factory to port. Many existing roads could not cope with this extra traffic and could not, or would not, be satisfactorily maintained by the local parishioners. A solution was needed urgently, or Britain's rise to become the world's most powerful empire would have been, literally, stopped in its tracks.

Parliament devised a simple plan: this said that individuals (usually landowners, mill and mine owners etc.) could come together to form a trust and the aim of the trust was to maintain a section of road. The trusts were allowed to borrow money to carry out work and the tolls charged to road users would be used to pay back the money borrowed. The first of these new Turnpike Trusts to be set up in south Wales was established exactly 250 years ago, in 1763. It covered the mail coach road from Trecastle Mountain on the Breconshire border via Llandeilo, Carmarthen, and St. Clears, to Tavernspite on the Pembrokeshire border. By 1772 Turnpike Trusts also extended from Gloucester through to Brecon, via Monmouth and Abergavenny, and from the Severn Ferry to Carmarthen, via Chepstow, Newport, Cardiff, Cowbridge, Neath, Swansea, Pontardulais, Llanelli and Kidwelly.

Mile Posts

Mile postsTaxing road users is not a new idea. Mile posts like these were part of the first road pricing scheme ever to appear in south Wales
250 years ago this year

A legal requirement of the Turnpike Trusts was to install sign posts at every mile along the Trust road. These 'mile posts' showed the distance to and from key places as well as other key information. Many still exist along the A48 between Bridgend and Cardiff and include the name of the parish through which the road passes, as well as the distance from London. In theory the new Trusts should have been an ideal solution for improving the roads and it is true that much development took place in building all-weather roads suitable for wheeled vehicles – often by trying to rediscover and copy the techniques left behind by the Romans.In practice however the huge costs required to build and maintain the roads could not be recovered by the level of tolls set by Parliament. Another big financial burden was the cost of obtaining the Act of Parliament each Trust needed to set them up in the first place, which could range from £300 to £1,000. On some roads piles of stone were simply left dumped on the roadway and many Trusts had to be repeatedly extended beyond their original planned lifespan of 21 years. Other Trusts were disbanded and care of the roads returned to the local parishes.

It is easy to see how the Trustees responsible for these toll roads soon became jaded with the task – but this was an era of unbridled capitalism and by the 1800s a new breed of entrepreneurs appeared – the toll farmers. They offered to relieve frustrated trustees of their direct involvement in the toll roads by paying a guaranteed rental. In return the toll farmers would be able to keep any revenue they made in excess of the agreed rental figure. Whilst this undoubtedly gave rise to some cases of extortion, it was the relentless way in which toll farmers pursued their tolls that caused much unpopularity. For example, in addition to the toll roads, they would set up side bars, or tolls on secondary routes, to catch those taking a diversion past the main toll road.

 Carmarthenshire toll houseToll houses, such as this one in Carmarthenshire, became a focus for the Rebecca Rioters

This approach undoubtedly made them a focus for the Rebecca Rioters who attacked toll houses during the period 1839 to 1843, but it was not the only cause of the rioters' concerns. The people from farming communities had suffered a series of poor harvests due to cold wet weather, yet when the harvests improved the prices for farm produce dropped further. Whilst their incomes were whittled away the costs, for example of rents and tithes, continued to increase. The tolls on turnpike roads were an added and visible source of irritation.

Artists depiction of the Rebecca Riots in the Illustrated London News, 1843
Artist's depiction of the Rebecca Riots, in the Illustrated London News, 1843

Decline of the Turnpike Trusts

One of the biggest factors in the decline of the turnpike trusts was not the Rebecca Rioters but the invention of the railway. These iron roads enabled goods to be carried quickly and cheaply over long distances. Many trusts were failing, or in disrepute, and ultimately the turnpikes of south Wales were abolished in 1844. Responsibility for their upkeep then passed to County Road Boards. This was underpinned by the Local Government Act 1888, which created county councils and made them responsible for the maintenance of all major roads.

Glyn Bryan, December 2013


Glyn Bryan is Editor of the South Wales Classic Car Club magazine
South Wales Classic Car Club website:


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