Roads & Bridges

2. County Council Services

Roads and Bridges

THE maintenance of roads and bridges was one of the very earliest functions of County administration and before dealing with the duties of the present day it may be interesting to follow the development of the highway and of highway administration in England in general and in Middlesex in particular.


The earliest roads in England were tracks made by the ancient Britons and in Middlesex there is evidence of three of these, all of which commenced at the great ford across the Thames near Brentford. The first led eastwards through the districts known to-day as Strand-on-the Green, Chiswick, Fulham, and Chelsea to Charing Cross; the second ran between Hanwell and Ealing over Horsendon and Sudbury Hills to Brockley Hill at Stanmore, where there was an encampment, and the third went by way of Hanwell and now taken by the Staines Road. Not until the nineteenth century were roads again constructed as sound as these and during the intervening ages the principal means of communication, apart from the rivers, was mere tracks formed by constant usage, often not as good as those over which a farmer nowadays drives his carts through his fields.

Transport by Packhorse

Until the latter part of the sixteenth century the only means of transport was the packhorse. Travellers, who were Hayes to the ford across the River Come at Uxbridge. When the Romans colonized Britain, they constructed a network of military roads, solidly built of stone on good foundations, and three of these pass through the County: Ermine Street (the route of which is followed to-day by the Hertford Road as far as Edmonton), running from Bishopsgate through Tottenham and Waltham Cross to Lincoln; Watling Street, following the route now taken by the Edgware Road from Marble Arch to where it leaves the County to the north of Brockley Hill for Hertfordshire, and continuing through St. Albans to Wroxeter near Shrewsbury; and a third leading from London through Shepherd’s Bush, Chiswick, Brentford, Hounslow and Staines to Silchester, along the route principally soldiers, pilgrims or beggars, travelled on foot or horseback. Livestock of all descriptions, forming the food supply of the large towns, was driven in herds and killed on arrival. The other staple product, wool—a trade which grew enormously from the fourteenth century onwards—was carried on the packhorse. The way was often fraught with danger and one of the first Acts of Parliament to deal with roads, passed in 1285, required all trees and shrubs within 200 feet of each side of the highway between market towns to be cut down, as a measure of protection against robbers. With the discovery of America and the consequent sudden increase in wealth and trade, England found herself at the centre of the commercial world of the time. The traffic on the roads increased proportionately and under the strain, particularly in wet weather, they became impassable to the new carriers’ stage wagons and packhorses alike and a serious check to the growing trade.

Responsibility of Parishes for Roads

Something had to be done—someone had to be made responsible for their upkeep—and in 1555 an Act of Parliament was passed establishing a principle which remained in operation for three hundred years. This Act decreed that each parish was responsible for the maintenance of the roads through it and should supply the necessary labour and materials. At a special highways session the justices of the peace annually appointed a surveyor to each parish, whose duties consisted of inspecting three times a year all roads, water-courses and bridges, and reporting on their condition (under oath) to the justices. He also had to arrange for and oversee the six days’ compulsory “statute labour” which each member of the community had to perform each year on the upkeep of the roads. The Act failed in its purpose. The surveyor, who generally resented being saddled with an unpaid job, was usually quite unqualified —he might be the village butcher or baker or anyone the justices might choose —and frequently was not above taking a bribe to shut his eyes to serious defects or using his position to his own advantage. The system of “statute labour” also proved unsatisfactory; it was found almost impossible to make the poor perform their share of the work and the wealthy could usually evade their responsibility with a cash payment. Parliament repeatedly tried to remedy the situation—an Act passed in 1654, for example, imposed a rate of sixpence in the pound on all parishes for the upkeep of their roads—but the system of commuting “statute labour” had become so general by 1773 that a general Highways Act was passed fixing the rates at which this could be done. This Act also enabled parishes to demand the appointment of a salaried surveyor to look after their roads, a facility which was used to full advantage in many instances.

An Act was passed in 1621 which restricted the size and type of traffic and this kind of legislation was repeated with increasing detail and complication until the end of the eighteenth century.

Toll and Turnpike Roads

General conditions, however, remained deplorable and during the seventeenth century Parliament, with what was tantamount to a confession of failure in dealing with the matter, had allowed toll and turnpike roads to come into existence. The toll bridge was a familiar sight in the Middle Ages but the turnpike system proper, by which barriers were placed across a road and tolls taken from all but pedestrians and a few privileged travellers, dates from 1663 when Parliament, on petition of a number of justices, authorized the erection of toll barriers along the Great North Road. The recognition by Parliament of the turnpike road was a recognition of the principle that each person should contribute to the repair of the roads in proportion to the use he made of or the convenience he derived from them. The precedent was quickly followed by application of the principle to other roads, which were placed under the control of bodies known as Turnpike Trusts. These Trusts were created by Acts of Parliament for a limited period, with option of renewal, and were empowered to collect tolls from travellers on the nominal condition of keeping the roads under their control in repair. The system spread very rapidly, so that by 1770 there were over 1100 Trusts, administering 23,000 miles of road, with 7800 toll-gates and employing 20,000 pikemen to collect the tolls. The system was unpopular to the point of causing riots and although turnpike roads were generally better than others they could be deplorable, particularly during the wet seasons of the year.


With the industrial revolution towards the end of the eighteenth century came the second great and sudden increase in the volume of traffic, and the need for serious and extensive reforms became acute. The first real move came from the Board of Agriculture, which was responsible for the first Parliamentary Committee to consider the administration of roads (1808-1830). This Committee proposed the appointment of paid county surveyors to work in conjunction with the Turnpike Trusts, and produced a plan for the consolidation of the turnpike system near London, the administration of which was particularly bad. This led to the consolidation of the principal Middlesex turnpikes in 1826.

McAdam and Telford

In the meantime, Sir John Sinclair, the President of the Board of Agriculture, brought to public notice John Loudon McAdam, who had invented the system of road surfacing which is known by his name to-day. Working as surveyor to a number of Turnpike Trusts, McAdam undertook the reform of many miles of turnpike roads. The Post Office was another Government body interested in this work, by reason of the increasing delays which the bad state of the roads was causing to Royal Mail coaches, and in 1810 the Postmaster-General appointed Thomas Telford to oversee the whole length of the London-Holyhead Road. This he did so effectively that other similar schemes were placed in his care. The results achieved by those two men inspired others to work along the same lines and the reconstruction of roads was placed on a scientific basis.

The work, however, could not be carried out sufficiently quickly to meet the increasing traffic demands which the new industrial expansion placed on the highways. First the canals and then the railways took over the traffic, both goods and passenger, which had hitherto travelled by road. Turnpike Trusts became increasingly unpopular and the loss of dues not only stopped the improvement schemes which they were beginning to carry out but forced many of them into bankruptcy. Finally, force of circumstances compelled the Government to undertake the reform of road administration.

The General Highways Act, 1835

The first result was the passing of the General Highways Act, 1835, which made the parish ratepayers the administrative body in highway management. Parishes with a population of more than 5000 (they could amalgamate for the purpose) were able to have a “highway board” and could nominate a salaried surveyor, empowered to levy a rate for the upkeep of the roads. The only qualifications for the post were the possession of an estate within the parish, of an annual value of £10, or of a personal estate to the value of £100, or the occupation of hereditaments of an annual value of £20. The powers given by the Act, however, were not generally used and the chief defect remained untouched; some 15,000 separate and mutually independent highway parishes remained, each controlling an absurdly small area. There was a slight improvement in 1848, when the Public Health Act of that year made the local “boards of health” the surveyors for roads in all the newly-created urban areas, and the Highway Act, 1862, organized parishes into highway districts, formed by the justices, and administered by highway boards, which could appoint and pay officials. The position was further consolidated by the Local Government Act of the following year which prevented parishes from adopting those provisions of the Public Health Act, 1848, which referred to the maintenance of roads, and thus made it impossible for so small an authority to undertake the administration of the roads.

The Creation of “Main Roads”

“Main Roads “, as a new class of road, were created by the Highway and Locomotive Amendment Act, 1878. These roads included all roads which had ceased to be turnpike roads after 1870 and any other roads which were considered to be of sufficient importance by reason of their being the principal means of communication between towns, or thoroughfares leading to railway stations. One half of the cost of the maintenance of these main roads was placed upon the County, which was then administered by the justices of the peace, and the other half was borne by the local authorities. By this Act, too, a county surveyor, who had hitherto been responsible only for county bridges and 300 feet of the highway on each side of such bridges, could be called upon to report to the justices on the condition of any of the highways under their jurisdiction about which complaints had been made, and the main outlines of the office as it is known to-day began to take form. He was appointed by the justices of the peace, until county councils came into being with the passing of the Local Government Act, 1888, and the responsibility for the maintenance and repair of main roads passed into their hands. It is important to note that only main roads passed into the jurisdiction of the county councils: all other roads, with the exception of private thoroughfares, were the responsibility of the local councils.

Formation of the Road Board

The first attempt made by the Government to take executive control over the roads was the formation of the Road Board in 1909, with the passing of the Development and Road Improvement Funds Act. The Board was empowered to make grants of money to local governing bodies for the purpose of improving existing roads and constructing new ones. The creation of this body marked the recognition by the Government of the advent of a new era of life on the roads. The Board continued in existence until 1919 when it was superseded by the Ministry of Transport, formed by Act of Parliament in that year to deal with railways, tramways, waterways, roads, bridges, harbours and docks. Under this Act, also, first-and second-class roads were created, a percentage of the cost of maintenance and improvement of which, varying according to the class of road, was to be borne by the Ministry of Transport.

Financial Responsibility of the County

The Local Government Act, 1929, made the County financially responsible for all classified roads, some of which had not hitherto been considered by the Council as main roads, and there was therefore an increase in its activities in this respect. Further, a number of roads which had been controlled by the County as main roads had not been classified by the Ministry of Transport, and the Council still retained its authority over these. In actual practice, whilst the County Council bears the cost subject to grant, the work on a considerable number of its roads is executed by the local authorities.

Development of Administration

An important development in road administration resulted from an Act of Parliament passed in 1936 by which the Government declared certain roads to be trunk roads. The number of these roads was increased by a further Act in 1946 and the administration was taken over directly by and at the expense of the

Ministry of Transport, although in most instances the execution of the work was delegated to the County authorities. In 1946 also the Ministry of Transport decided to create Class III roads—roads of more than purely local traffic value—but which had not previously been considered as sufficiently important to classify. These became county roads and the mileage of roads for which the County Council was responsible increased by nearly 200 miles.

County Bridges

The term “county bridge” is used in two senses: in a wider sense it includes all public bridges, but it is usually meant to imply a bridge lying within and repairable by a county, as distinct from the bridges which are the liability of a smaller administrative area or are under private ownership. The County was made the bridge authority by the Statute of Bridges, 1530, and until the County Councils took over the responsibility on their formation in 1889, the justices in quarter sessions administered the provisions of this statute through a surveyor whom they appointed. An important Act relating to bridges was passed in 1929, which enabled highway authorities to enter into agreements with private owners of bridges—canal and railway companies, for example—with a view to taking over the responsibility for maintenance, improvement and reconstruction. This Act has assisted the County in its negotiations in connection with the work of bringing the bridges in Middlesex to a standard equal to modern traffic requirements.

To-day the County Council is responsible for 550 miles of classified road and approximately 200 bridges in Middlesex, and in addition it administers 81 miles of trunk road for the Ministry of Transport. In the years before the second world war the County Council was responsible for an expenditure on the improvement, reconstruction and repair of a mileage smaller than the above, amounting to approximately £1,500,000 per annum, an average of over £4000 per day.


A generation ago firstly the bicycle and, latterly, the motor vehicle, brought a return of traffic to the roads, which both goods and passenger traffic had abandoned for the railways. The new road-users found that while the highways in or around the towns were of a fairly high standard, nothing like the same conditions prevailed in open country. In fact it was not long before these roads proved quite inadequate to cope with the weight and intensity of the traffic created by the new and increasingly popular methods of transport. Surfaces crumbled, foundations gave way and roads designed to carry the small slow traffic of the coaching days proved inadequate in width and unsafe in design in the face of the large volume of fast traffic which soon appeared on them. Dust in summer and mud in winter had always been a source of nuisance on water-bound macadam roads where traffic was heavy, and this state of affairs was not only aggravated but the road surfaces were literally pulled to pieces by the new pneumatic tyres.

Methods of Road Construction

The first attempt to cope with the difficulty consisted in painting the road surface with tar upon which grit was thrown and rolled in. Later the type of surfacing known as tarred macadam, composed of small tarred stones, was laid. Wood, asphalt and granite sett surfaces had been in use for some time in the large cities and as the need for impervious surfaces became more apparent, their use was greatly extended. Nowadays asphalt and bituminous compounds have become the most popular materials for surfacing important roads, although tarred macadam and concrete running surfaces are also extensively used. The foundations of the old macadam roads consisted of large, tightly-packed stones—the process was known as hand pitching—and while in some districts with good sub-soils these have been found to stand up to modern traffic conditions, foundations nowadays are usually constructed of concrete reinforced with steel.

Scheme for Arterial Roads

By far the greatest problem, particularly around London, has been the provision and design of roads adequate to cope with the increasing amount of traffic using them. In 1912 the Local Government Board appointed a Departmental Committee to consider what improved means of road communication were necessary for the metropolis and, as a result, proposals for constructing new roads, to be called “arterial” roads, were recommended.

Before any of these proposals could be put in hand the 1914-18 war had broken out and the commencement of the works was postponed until 1920 when the County Council obtained the authority of the Ministry of Transport to the construction of various sections of these roads as a means of relieving the heavy unemployment which followed the demobilization of the Forces. From then until the outbreak of the next war in 1939, the following schemes were amongst those carried out for Middlesex:—

1. The CAMBRIDGE ROAD, designed to relieve the already serious congestion along the roads running in a northerly direction through the eastern part of the County, commences in Tottenham, runs northwards through Edmonton and Enfield and terminates at Wormley in Hertfordshire. Over certain sections a second carriageway has been constructed.

2. The NORTH CIRCULAR ROAD, planned to relieve London as far as possible of traffic intending to cross, rather than enter it, intersects and connects every main road converging on London through Middlesex. It commences at the junction of the Great West Road and Chiswick High Road, runs northwards and eastwards through Chiswick, Acton, Ealing, Wembley, Willesden, Hendon, Finchley, Friern Barnet, Hornsey, Southgate and Edmonton, and passes into Essex via Chingford.

3. WESTERN AVENUE, intended as a bye-pass to the London-Oxford Road between Marble Arch and Uxbridge, was planned to commence just west of the Edgware Road at Paddington, pass through North Hammersmith, entering the County at Old Oak Common Lane, Acton, and to proceed almost due west through Acton, Park Royal, Perivale, Greenford, Northolt and Harefield to its termination near Denham in Buckinghamshire. A viaduct, some 1600 ft. in length, over the Come Valley was under construction in 1939, but the work was curtailed owing to the outbreak of war and only one carriageway was completed.

4. THE GREAT WEST ROAD, designed to commence at Cromwell Road, West Kensington, and to bye-pass Hammersmith Broadway and the High Streets of Chiswick, Brentford and Hounslow, and to terminate at the Bath Road, west of Hounslow, was completed from Chiswick to the Bath Road, with twin carriageways and cycle tracks. A single carriageway link to connect with the London–Staines Road at Bedfont has been constructed. The length from Chiswick towards London was under construction in 1939, but the work was suspended on the outbreak of war.

5. The CHERTSEY ROAD, planned to relieve traffic to the south-west, commences in Chiswick High Road. It crosses the Thames at Chiswick and again at Twickenham, where new bridges were built in 1933, and is complete as far as Feltham. It will cross the Thames a third time and leave Middlesex at Laleham.

6. The WATFORD BYE-PASS has been constructed from Finchley Road to the County boundary near Aldenham Reservoir.

7. The BARNET BYE-PASS has been constructed from the junction of Archway Road and North Hill, Highgate, to the County boundary about two miles north of Minims Hall in South Minims.

Road Safety Measures

Concurrently with the construction of these new roads, extensive schemes have been executed for the widening and improvement of most of the old roads and many of the bridges in the County, to make them equal to their present-day task. These involved the provision of dual carriageways, separated by central islands; the provision of service or subsidiary roads parallel with the main carriage-

ways to accommodate local and standing traffic where new development takes place; the installation of systems of automatic traffic signals or, where space has permitted, the construction of traffic “roundabouts” at important road junctions; the provision of pedestrian subways; the provision of super elevation or “banking” on curves to lessen the danger from skidding; and, lastly, the provision of a multiplicity of traffic signs and road-markings to make the highway safer for motorist and pedestrian alike. Plans are well advanced for the most modern type of two-level roundabouts, several embodying “fly-overs “.

On numerous occasions the new roads have been criticized from the point of view of their barren ugliness as compared with the leafy lanes of yesterday. The County Council is making every effort to make its roads as beautiful as they are efficient. Grass verges are laid out at the sides and avenues of young trees and flowering shrubs are planted along them—the County Council having its own nurseries, staffed by horticultural experts, for this purpose.

For the purpose of maintaining the county roads supervised by the County Engineer and Surveyor’s Department, the County is divided into three divisions, each in charge of a Divisional Surveyor.

Reinstatement of Work Carried Out by Statutory Undertakings, etc.

Parliament has given to statutory undertakings which supply electricity, gas and water and to local authorities which deal with the disposal of sewage the power to lay mains, cables or sewers under the public highway, placing upon them the responsibility of reinstating or restoring the surface disturbed. In actual practice these undertakings only refill and consolidate their trenches and the highway authorities then restore the surface at the expense of the statutory undertakings.

Some idea of the magnitude of this work may be obtained from the fact that, on an average, the County Council receives something like £25,000 per annum for the work carried out on behalf of the various bodies which open the roads in this manner.

It is fully realized by all authorities concerned that the frequent disturbance of roads by these operations causes a great deal of public annoyance, and every effort is made to minimize this nuisance. The London Traffic Act, 1924, and the Public Utility Street Works Act, 1950, control the relationship between the statutory undertakings and the highway authority, with the object of reducing as much as possible the inconvenience caused to the travelling public.


Following the production of the County of London Plan in 1943, it was considered desirable to deal with the Greater London area and the 1944 Plan embraced the whole of the Middlesex area. It indicated the desirability of several new “radial” roads traversing the County, and also the new “D” ring road approximately halfway between the North Circular and North Orbital Roads. This plan took into consideration the construction of the London Airport at Heathrow and its effect on communications. These proposals formed the basis of the County’s highway development plan and the construction of some of the roads, including part of the “D ring”, has been carried out.

The Town Planning and Restriction of Ribbon Development Acts—in relation to highways

The detrimental effect upon the countryside of continuous development along road frontages caused Parliament in 1935 to pass the Restriction of Ribbon Development Act, which controlled development along frontages and points of access to classified roads.

The Town and Country Planning Act Of 1947, although it repealed to a great extent the Restriction of Ribbon Development Act and all previous planning Acts, continued this control and also made the County Council responsible for the planning of the whole County.

Under these Acts, the County Engineer and Surveyor’s Department is concerned, firstly, with the prevention of the erection of buildings on land which may be required for future road-widening purposes and, secondly, with ensuring that new developments fronting county roads shall include provision for the accommodation of vehicles serving them, so that main- road through traffic will suffer only the minimum of inconvenience.

The administration of these Acts ensures that building along main roads does not reduce the safety or efficiency of the existing or future carriageways and the conditions generally imposed by the County Council for this purpose require a subsidiary roadway, known as a service road, to be constructed along the frontage of shops, houses and public buildings, outside the limits of any land required for future road widening. This is done to ensure that standing vehicles left by persons visiting the shops, or by tradesmen delivering goods to the houses, do not reduce the effective width of the main-road carriageway to the extent of one line of traffic. Cinemas, public houses and other such buildings are required to provide space for the parking of cars by visitors to their premises. If there is any desirable natural feature, such as a line of trees, the service road is frequently set back behind this, in order that the amenities of the road may be preserved as far as possible.