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Turnpikes, tolls and tunnels

Rosemary Bennett throws light on an integral part of Dorset’s transport history

As a small girl living in a cottage on Fernhill, Charmouth, I was intrigued to hear my grandmother refer to the road which ran through Charmouth Tunnel as ‘the turnpike’. This seemed a strange name to me, but it was not until many years later that I learned about the turnpike system and the important effect it had, not only in Dorset and the rest of Britain but in other countries as well.

A turnpike was a gate set across a new or improved road which was only opened when a toll had been paid to the turnpike-keeper. This individual lived in a tollhouse, which often had windows facing in both directions so that the keeper could see the traffic approaching from either side. Although the gates have long since disappeared, many tollhouses still survive and can be seen throughout Dorset. However, the idea of paying to travel along a road was not always greeted with enthusiasm. In some parts of the country there were riots and the gates were smashed.

Before the introduction of the turnpike system, the roads in this country had been in a sorry state. Our remote ancestors had used simple tracks to move around their area, sometimes laying wooden trackways over swampy ground. Later, the Romans had constructed their famous roads, but by the Middle Ages these had fallen into disrepair, because after the departure of the legions, there was no-one to take responsibility for them. As they had been built between military and civilian centres, they were not necessarily of much importance to the indigenous people.

While there was little wheeled traffic, the poor road surfaces were not too grave a problem, but during the Elizabethan period the traffic increased and with it a demand for better roads. At that time the responsibility for roads lay with the local landowners through whose land they passed, but maintenance was often neglected. In an effort to improve matters, the responsibility was placed on the relevant parishes, but again the work was often neglected. The reason was that able-bodied parishioners were required to provide several days’ unpaid labour each year to repair the roads. As poor folk could ill afford to work for nothing on roads which they possibly seldom used, this was greatly resented and the work often skimped.

Money was found for a few local attempts to improve the situation even in those days, possibly being donated by a benefactor. One example is the causeway wall between Dorchester and Charminster, which crossed the water meadows and can still be seen today. Another ancient causeway was built to link the towns of Sherborne and Shaftesbury, but in the main the situation continued to be dire.

In the mid-17th century road rates were introduced, which at last meant that there was money to pay for maintenance, but by then wheeled traffic had increased to such an extent that repairs could not keep pace with it. Then in 1663 a turnpike system was introduced on part of the Great North Road. This proved a success, but the idea was slow to take hold and it was not until 1706 that the Turnpike Trusts were set up.

From then on, turnpikes were soon installed on many main roads radiating from London, but it was not until the middle of the century that the first turnpike road reached Dorset. We are told in Hutchins’ History of Dorset that this took place in 1753 and that the road ran from Donhead St Mary, Wiltshire, through Shaftesbury, Milborne Port and Sherborne to Halfway House in Nether Compton. The following year another one was made from ‘the entrenchments on Askerswell Hill, opposite Chilcombe Farm, through Bridport, and from Bridport to Penn Inn, and from thence through Axminster to the east end of Honiton’.

Although many minor roads were never turnpiked (the Isle of Purbeck being sadly lacking in road improvements for many years), more turnpike roads were soon built in other parts of Dorset. These linked the main towns and villages and also connected with the neighbouring counties and the roads from London. Their construction continued well into the 19th century. Each of these roads needed an

Act of Parliament to be passed and a Turnpike Trust to be set up. These Trusts were not only responsible for the roads but also for relevant bridges. There were many such bridges throughout Dorset, including several at Beaminster and Broadwindsor, and the aptly named Turnpike Bridge at
Long Crichel.

A principal promoter of the Wimborne and Puddletown Turnpike, built in 1841, was Mr John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Erle Drax MP of Charborough Park. He insisted that the original route of the road should be altered so that it passed further away from his house and to emphasise the point, he had the long wall built which we can still see today. It is estimated that two million bricks were used in its construction. However, this road did not ultimately make a profit for the Trustees, as it coincided with the coming of the railways.

Some planners of roads in Dorset faced more difficult problems than the need to build a bridge or two. On the road between Charmouth and Axminster, a tunnel through the hillside was deemed necessary. The road passed by the bottom of Fernhill, on which stood the cottage which would one day become the home of my great-grandparents. According to Granny, a bread oven was in the cottage when she was a child and she had been told that this was used to bake bread for the workmen who built the tunnel.  As well as this tunnel, another was constructed through Horn Hill, near Beaminster.

The turnpike system continued until 1895, when responsibility for the roads was taken over by local authorities. My great-grandfather earned extra money for his family, after a day’s work as a gardener, by breaking stones for the local roads. Piles of large stones were left for him near Charmouth Tunnel and, equipped with safety goggles and a special hammer, he set about breaking them into appropriately sized pieces.

The turnpike system opened up the countryside for travel and commerce and many of our present roads were constructed on these old routes. As we travel around the roads of Dorset and see an old tollhouse, it is interesting to think of the turnpike-keeper and the role he played in making our journey possible. Turnpikes, tolls and tunnels – they all form part of our rich Dorset history, and a study of them helps bring the past alive.

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