Turnpike Roads & and Abortive Canal
The principle of making each parish responsible for the roads passing through it, which dated from the time of Elizabeth I, had never worked Well in practice. By law each able—bodied man was required to give six days’ labour or cash in lieu every year, but the work was skimped and badly directed. The intention of the Turnpike Trusts was to make road- users instead of parishes pay for upkeep. A group of local gentry obtained an Act of Parliament which formed them into a Trust, gave them power to raise a loan to repair a stretch of road, and allowed them to put gates across it at which tolls could be collected for upkeep. Several of the most important Dorset routes were thus ‘turnpiked’ in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, and others were added gradually up to 1841.
The turnpike system never covered all the main roads (the others remaining parish responsibility) and its effectiveness depended very much on whether the surveyor knew his job and whether the toll—income was enough to pay 05 the loan and meet further repairs. There were over two dozen Trusts in Dorset, and several controlled such short stretches of road that their management expenses were top-heavy and left little for maintenance. The main east—west route through the County, however, via Blandford, Dorchester, and Bridport, fell under two Trusts only and was undoubtedly much improved in consequence. It became a Mail Coach route after 1784.
Mostly the Trusts took over existing roads, or straightened and enclosed previously vague routes across open heath country. Several long straight stretches in Dorset which look Roman are in fact a result of the latter process. Where possible, they generally preferred a more easily drained hill route to the parallel valley road: the Dorchester-Sherborne and Blandford-Shaftesbury routes, for example, avoided the present main roads through the villages and kept to the open country above. ‘
The real improvement in English roads came with Macadam’s method of making a cambered watertight surface with rammed broken stone, developed about 1811, but by no means all Trusts were progressive or solvent enough to adopt it. Even before railway competition, many were so loaded with debt and badly managed that they had little left for repairs. In 1841 an Act of Parliament authorised J.P.s to help them out of parish rates where necessary. The extinction of coaching by the railways brought bankruptcy to many, and from 1864 Parliament began to extinguish the less efficient. This put the roads back on the parish rates (since statute labour had been abolished in 1835) and the government was at length obliged to step in and meet a quarter of the cost of maintaining dis-turnpiked roads. At last, in 1889, when nearly all the Trusts (and all in Dorset) had expired, the main roads and former turnpikes became the responsibility of the newly—founded County Councils.
For all its shortcomings, the turnpike system did at least make possible the great age of coaching on the main roads from London. In 1791 the Weymouth mail-coach did the journey in 18 hours, and light coaches cut this to 15 by 1825.
No canal ever reached Dorset, but one nearly did. One of the last ‘Canal Mania’ schemes was that for the Dorset and Somerset Canal, from the Kennet and Avon near Bradford to the Stour below Shillingstone (from which point the river was, or could be made, passable for barges down to Christchurch). There was also to be a branch from the main line at Frome to the Somerset coalfield. The necessary Act to allow the Company to raise capital and buy land was not passed till 1796, by which time the Canal Boom was collapsing, and they never found all the money they needed. They started on the Frome branch, however, in hope that this would produce enough revenue to keep them going till times improved, but they just failed to finish it. The part constructed was never used, which from the engineering point of view (as well as that of the Company) was a pity, since it had ingenious balance-lifts for the barges instead of the usual locks. Had the whole line been completed, it would not have paid: canals in agricultural districts never did unless they also served large towns or industrial areas. But it might have proved very useful to the parts it passed through and have brought cheap coal fifty years before the railways.