Turnpike Roads & Coaching


The Elizabethan Act of 1562 had made parishes responsible for the upkeep of roads inside their boundaries. It required parishioners to give six days each year of ‘statute labour’ on them, or to provide carts and horses, and if necessary also to pay a rate for expenses. The result was far from satisfactory, the labour being skimped and its direction more concerned with local lanes than with main roads between towns. Statute labour remained an obli­gation, however inadequately performed, until 1835, but when a Turnpike Road was established through a village it was normal to raise a rate and pay a ‘composition’ sum to the Trust to cover this require­ment.

The taking over of main roads by Turnpike Trusts, empowered by Act of Parliament to erect gates and take tolls for improvement and upkeep, began in Devon soon after 1750. Up to this time (and for years afterwards) the remoter parts of the county seldom saw a wheeled vehicle, and relied on pack­horse trains for transport. The London road from Exeter was turnpiked in 1753, and soon Trusts were set up in most towns to supervise the neighbouring highways. The Barnstaple Trust came in time to control roads as far afield as Bideford, Hatherleigh, Chulmleigh, South Molton and Ilfracombe.

Devon - Turnpike Roads of the earlier Nineteenth Century

At first the improvement of the roads was often less obvious than the nuisance of paying toll; and not until after Waterloo did Macadam’s method of sur­facing, and the engineering of completely new routes, make possible the full development of coach­ing. Macadam gave roads a cambered surface of small chipped stones, which, when rolled, com­pacted into a solid and waterproof mass (but ‘tar macadam’ came only with the present century). New routes with easier gradients were pioneered to avoid the hills and narrow village streets of the old, and several such ‘by-passes’ on the roads out of Exeter remain a blessing to the motorist – though some have now themselves been by-passed. The old Exeter—Barnstaple route between Crediton and Newbridge was completely replaced by a new road along the Taw Valley, from which branches were made to Torrington and South Molton. Countess Wear bridge across the Exe below Exeter was built in 1774, and Shaldon bridge across the mouth of the Teign estuary opened a direct coast route to Torquay in 1827.

These improvements were reflected in greatly improved coach services. Properly surfaced roads allowed lighter and faster vehicles, and the new routes helped to cut travelling time. When the first mail coaches ran from London to Exeter in 1785, they took 24 hours. By 1824 this had been cut to 22, and by 1939-with rapid changes of horses and better-designed coaches-to 16. This last figure meant an average speed, including stops, of ten m.p.h. (16 km.p.h.).

Two great mail routes through the county were operating by 1787, and strangely foreshadowed the later rival railway lines. One ran via Dorchester through Exeter, Okehampton and Launceston to Falmouth, and the other via Shaftesbury and Exeter through Chudleigh, and Ashburton to Devonport. Cross-posts from the main towns served places off these routes; and early in the nineteenth century a third line was added through Taunton, Tiverton, Barnstaple and Bideford, to Launceston and Plymouth, giving direct connection with Bristol. Regular passenger-coach services, besides the Royal Mail, were serving all the chief towns by 1820, and in the 1830s seventy coaches left Exeter each day.

As ‘Trusts’, the Turnpikes were not intended to be profit-making; but few of them had a chance, in any case, of making a profit. The Parliamentary Returns of 1837 (before any railways had reached Devon), show that only five Trusts in the county, with a total mileage of 15 1 (240 km), were covering expenses, while 24 with a total of 777 miles (1240 km) were not. At 17 per cent and 83 per cent respectively, this was far worse than the national average of 47 per cent and 53 per cent. Funds were raised by issuing interest-bearing bonds, and all the ten Trusts in the county with over 40 miles (64 km) of road were by then in arrears with interest, the Kingsbridge—Dartmouth Trust having to pay 61 per cent, and the Plymouth—Exeter 75 per cent, of its income for this purpose. The appearance of rail­ways, from 1 844 onwards, made an already pre­carious situation far worse: coach services closed down at once, or after the briefest of struggles, and roads between places served by railway, were sud­denly deserted by all but local traffic. Inns and posting-stables, and the Trusts themselves, found it impossible to carry on; and nearly all the Trusts had been wound up before the new County Council took over the main roads in 1889. In parts which railways never reached, however, coaches survived until replaced by motor transport. One plied between Dartmouth and Kingsbridge, and a daily mailcoach ran from Bideford to Hartland, well into the present century.

But before the advent of railways, improved roads and coaches had had important effects in breaking down provincial isolation. National newspapers, as well as penny-post mail, could be rapidly carried, and the strictly timetabled mail coaches brought Greenwich time to the whole country where it had previously varied by up to twenty minutes. The upper and middle classes, at least, could travel freely without the rigours of earlier coaching. There was, however, as yet little effect on the carriage of goods, which until railways came (and in some cases after­wards), continued to rely on water transport by coastal vessels rivers and canals.