Historic Roads (19th Century road system)

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Historic Roads

Our Historic Roads map shows the roads that were marked on the Greenwood maps of the 1820s and Turnpikes.

Roads on Greenwood’s Maps

Turnpikes are marked as broader tracks drawn with thicker lines. They represented main roads, the A-roads and motorways of the day, that ran between key junctions, towns and cities. More Turnpikes were established in the years after these maps were printed.

Cross Roads marked as narrower tracks and drawn in thinner lines, were the minor roads (the B-roads, if you like) that would meander across the country and often connected a turnpike to a village, or to another turnpike, or they might run directly between villages, or maybe to a mill.
Some of the narrower ‘cross roads’ are marked with dashed lines on one side or both. Whether this indicates them being fenced, the width of the road, surface quality, suitability for carts and carriages or just a path is not explained in the map key, nor has an explanation been found elsewhere. For simplicity, however, no distinction has been made between them on our map.

The Greenwood maps, published in the 1820s, predate the earliest Ordnance Survey maps for the area and are quite accurate and detailed for their time. Using the ground measuring techniques available in those earlier days, inaccuracies were inevitable and over longer distances tended to accumulate, adding a degree of distortion which means it is impossible to overlay Greenwood maps directly over Ordnance Survey maps in any meaningful way. In local areas it is clear that identifiable places have become either too close together or too far apart. Thus transferring routes onto our map layers could never be a simple matter of rescaling and tracing one onto the other.

It is surprising how little the road system has changed since then. Yes, of course, there have been new roads built, and some have disappeared under modern developments, but the vast majority of our roads lie along pretty much exactly the same tracks as they did back in the early 1800s. Some have grown from country lanes into busy dual carriageways. Others were once major routes and are now back-roads. Some have even vanished altogether. Overall though, the shape of the road network has remained remarkably stable over the last two hundred years. In many ways the roads have been vastly improved since then; widened, bends straightened, bridges built, towns and villages by-passed and so on, but mostly it seems to be the usage that’s changed, rather than the routes.

Early roads

In medieval times, most roads were little more than tracks through the countryside. Ranging from footpaths navigable only by pedestrians and narrow lanes sufficiently wide and firm enough for horses, through to those for heavy loads where carts and carriages were more appropriate than pack animals. Here the roads needed to be wider and firmer. Their routes depended very much upon where people lived, where they worked and where their resources and markets were to be found and, inevitably, these would always take the path of least resistance and go from place to place according to need.

Naturally, advantage would be taken of the legacy of the old Roman roads but many didn’t go where they were needed and even the useful ones still needed a level of upkeep. Somebody needed to be responsible for this and, where the roads ran through privately owned land, the onus usually fell upon the landowner. This was not without cost of course, so they would recoup that cost by charging way-leave for anyone wishing to pass across their land. Where the roads ran through common land the local parish councils took on that roll and appointed a local man, an overseer, with job of monitoring the state of the roads within the parish and, at need, conscripting local people, often farm workers, to carry out the necessary maintenance work. These local roads were public highways and byways and free to use.

There was many a dispute over the poor state of the roads and who was responsible for their upkeep. One concerned part of the road from Greenside to Blaydon which ran down through Stella Estate from Path Head. The disagreement came to a head in 1690 after a landslide that blocked the road had not been cleared. A court case was raised from the Court of Exchequer in London in which Sir William Blackett sued Sir Thomas Tempest for illegally charging way-leave, stopping Blackett’s shipments of lead which were being carried down to the staithes at Blaydon. Blackett insisted that the road had long been known as a public highway maintained by the parish and thus free to use. Tempest insisted it was his private land and that he was under no obligation to allow passage or perform any maintenance but had done so merely as a good will gesture. Blackett lost his case and Tempest continued to charge his way-leave. The road was deemed to run through Tempest’s land and was not a public highway either by law or by custom and regular unimpaired use.

Improving the road system

As the industrial revolution got under way, it became evident that the road system was totally inadequate. The government’s solution to improving the state of the roads was to gift sections of road, usually in stretches of 20 miles or so, to individuals or companies with the necessary means to carry out the necessary updates and repairs. To enable this, Acts of Parliament granted them the right to extract tolls from any and all who chose or needed to use the road. These were the Turnpike roads. Their proprietors were the Turnpike Trusts.

More often than not The Trust would be a consortium of wealthy peers, landowners or businessmen who would make the investment in the hopes of making a profit, though not all did. Not only were they required to update and maintain the roads (and sometimes build new ones) but they needed to place barriers across the roads (turnpikes) to stop travellers until they had paid the due toll. These toll bars or gates had to be manned at all times and there would be a range of tariffs depending upon whether you were travelling on foot, riding a horse, hauling a cart or carriage, or driving a herd of cattle. The toll bars were placed at intervals along the route, so on long journeys travellers would expect to pay more than once. Often a Toll House would be built to accommodate the gate keeper.

The turnpike system was set up more for the benefit of the long distance travel requirements of business and industry rather than to satisfy local needs. Local roads were still looked after by the Parish Councils. The turnpike system made a slow start, mostly in southern England, during the mid 1700s. But their use increased over time and peaked in the late 18th and early 19th century. Eventually, as the contracts ran out (usually in terms of 21 years at a time) they were not being renewed. However, some turnpikes were still operating as late as 1838. Remaining Turnpike Trusts were dissolved during the 1870s
On Greenwood’s maps many (not all) turnpikes were labelled simply with the initials TB at the side of the road. This gave an idea of where the Toll Bar was situated but without any real accuracy. On later, more accurate, OS maps rather more Toll Bars were marked, some in exactly the same place, some were new and some had been moved.

By an Act of Parliament in 1777 (17 Geo3 c.110), the road from Path Head to Blaydon did eventually become part of the Gateshead to Hexham turnpike. To this day the section that turns westwards at Path Head at the top of Summerhill bank and runs through Crookhill and on into Ryton Village still bears the name ‘Hexham Old Road’. A turnpike in the 1820s, it’s a tiny, narrow by-road now. The by-pass road directly west from Blaydon to Ryton was built as an improvement at a later date along a line that is thought to be a former waggon-way.

Fortunately Turnpike Roads of England and Wales had already researched and published a lot of information. We relied heavily on that source as our starting point. Selecting relevant information for our area, and adding to it through our own research and local knowledge, allowed the routes of the turnpikes and all known toll bars to be identified and plotted onto our digital map.

Most of the Toll Bars found were, as expected, part of the turnpike network. Some, however, were river crossings managed by Bridge Trusts. A couple appear neither to be on a turnpike nor any kind of bridge and leave us wondering about their origin. The research continues.

Read about Historic Roads

See map of Historic Roads

Access research information (re-directs to a Google site, in new window).