Taking their toll
Guy Smith surveys the toll-houses of Dorset
Published in November ’09
It is possible to feel nostalgic about almost anything. Even the reviled can achieve a certain popularity with the passage of time. Take for instance the toll-house. Catch sight of one beside a busy road today and you might count yourself as fortunate to have spotted one of these interesting historical buildings and yet 150 years ago you might well have gone out of your way to avoid it.
Originally built by the county’s twenty-five ‘turnpike trusts’, toll-houses began to appear beside Dorset’s inadequate roads from the 1750s onwards. The turnpike trusts were responsible for building, improving and maintaining roads across the country and continued to do so until their abolition in 1883 (when the newly formed county councils took over this unenviable role). To finance their activities turnpike trusts levied tolls on road users, who were prevented from passing strategic points on the system by a series of gates. In their most basic form these barriers amounted to no more than a pike literally turned across the road. Toll-gatherers, residing in specially built houses, manned them day and night. At their peak the turnpike trusts administered 500 miles of roads across Dorset and at least 90 toll-houses. About thirty still remain.
The 1977 Countryside Treasures survey described toll-houses as ‘fast disappearing features of the Dorset landscape’ and endeavoured to catalogue those that remained and draw attention to their plight. It identified several distinct types of toll-house, probably the most interesting of which being those constructed in the 19th-century Gothic Revival style. Two examples can be seen in the north of the county, one at the junction of the A352 and the A3030 south of Sherborne and the other beside the A30 where it crosses the River Yeo on the Somerset border (which the 1977 survey rather unhelpfully describes as being at Bradford Abbas, although in fact it is fast being swallowed up by Yeovil’s expanding suburbs). Ornate and decorous, both Gothic houses are today covered in the accumulated grime of two centuries of passing traffic, and the house at Yeovil appears decidedly neglected beside the garish and more zealously maintained outlets situated in a nearby retail park.
Many of the county’s toll-houses are singularly unspectacular and would be difficult to distinguish from ordinary cottages were it not for their names. The Old Toll House on Station Road at Maiden Newton and Turnpike Cottage to the east of Chideock on the A35 opposite Quarr Lane are cases in point.
Other one- and two-storey dwellings are rather easier to spot, such as those built in the Regency style. An example at Oborne on the A30 just east of Sherborne is, despite the addition of satellite dish and television aerials, unmistakably a former toll-house courtesy of its protruding bay window. The toll-house at Athelhampton on the old A35 between Puddletown and Tolpuddle is a beautifully preserved specimen complete with redundant Victorian post box set into its brickwork.
Although they differed in style, toll-houses all had one thing in common: a prominent position affording their inhabitants a good view in both directions of the turnpike on which they were situated. Bay windows were often incorporated to further improve visibility so that it was unlikely anybody would pass undetected. This did not mean that people did not try. At Walford Gate near Wimborne travellers used to ford the river to avoid payment, until the issuing of an order in July 1757 ‘that a fence by a double rail, or a double bar, be erected across the River Allen on the west side of Walford Bridge at the distance of 25 feet at the least from the said bridge’.
Turnpike trustees would often auction off the rights to collect tolls to the highest bidder. In 1778 John Bragge of Sadborough in Devon purchased a twenty-one year lease for £100 from the trustees of the Maiden Newton Trust, who assigned to him the tolls ‘received at all and every turnpike gate or gates which shall be erected on any part or parts of the said several roads’. This seems a trifling sum compared to the value of other ‘toll rents’. The gate at Weymouth, for instance, commanded a rent in 1797 of nearly £500, while the one at Burton near Dorchester was valued at £185.
The actual collection of tolls fell to the toll-house keeper, whose job it was to implement a complex system of tariffs based on a variety of factors that included the number of horses drawing a vehicle, a vehicle’s weight and the width of its wheels. This last factor was based on the premise that wider wheels caused less damage to the roads and consequently the wider the wheels the greater the number of horses allowed and the greater the weight of cargo permitted. Weighing engines, like the one employed at Wynford Eagle, were often used to determine tolls, as were weighbridges, like those used at Beaminster and Bridport. Tolls on the Poole, Wimborne and Cranborne Trust were, in 1756, ‘not to exceed 9d. for a carriage drawn by six horses; 6d. for a carriage drawn by four horses; and 2d. for a one-horse vehicle.’
Certain persons and goods were exempt from tolls. These included churchgoers, military personnel and vehicles employed in husbandry. Evasion of tolls was also a big problem. Apart from the circumnavigation of a toll-house, the removal of horses prior to arrival at a gate and the inaccurate measurement of wheel widths were other techniques employed to avoid or reduce payment. The collusion of the toll-house keeper was often necessary, some of whom were only too willing to supplement their income! The keeper at Poole gate on the Poole, Wimborne and Cranborne Trust received 10 shillings weekly when it was set up in 1756, in addition to other perks. These perks could take many forms. For instance, John Braker, the toll gatherer at Walford Bridge, was permitted by order in November 1783 to keep the ‘bad half-pennies in his hands, amounting to £3.’ These ‘bad half-pennies’ were probably the local tokens and coins used by tradesmen whenever there was a shortage of low denomination silver and copper legal tender.
The demise of the turnpike trusts in 1883 left the county’s toll-houses redundant. Most became private dwellings but it was their very proximity to the county’s main routes that led to the disappearance of so many. The toll-house at Northport (part of the Wareham Turnpike Trust) was demolished in 1965, although passing traffic on the busy A351 had been threatening to do the job for years, and the house to the north of the Horn Hill Tunnel on the A3066 north of Beaminster was demolished in 1963 as part of ‘road improvements’.
Thanks to the construction of by-passes, toll-houses like those in the Regency style on parts of the old A35 at Bridport and Charmouth are less prone to the damage caused by passing vehicles. The bus stop beside the house at West Allington, Bridport ensures that travellers do still occasionally pause at this historic spot before continuing their journeys westwards towards Charmouth and Lyme Regis. The toll-house at Charmouth is very similar to the one at Bridport and is an easily identifiable landmark at the eastern end of the village. A lay-by on the A37 a couple of miles north of Dorchester (near the junction with the A352 at Charminster) offers an opportunity to inspect a beautifully preserved hexagonal toll-house. However, 21st-century traffic means that stopping for a closer look at Dorset’s other toll-houses can be a hazardous thing to do. One suspects our 18th- and 19th-century ancestors felt very much the same.