Yorkshire Transport: Roads

Yorkshire Transport: Roads

The rapid growth of industry in’ Yorkshire could not have occurred unless it had been accompanied by an improvement in communications. The road system which was a legacy of the Romans was supplemented during the Middle Ages by pack­horse tracks linking the market centres; and sometimes tracks would be made to navigable stretches of rivers. The drovers’ roads, used by the monks in the Middle Ages and by Scottish cattle herders in more recent times, traversed the open Pennine moorlands, away from the rising industrial centres.

When the West Riding woollen trade began to expand in the 16th century, a new network of pack-horse tracks was laid down, linking the upland areas of the Pennines with textile towns such as Halifax and Wakefield. The tracks were adequate for the transport of small quantities of cloth, but were not suitable for wheeled carts, and became increasingly inadequate when the iron industry began to develop, requiring heavier and more frequent loads of fuel and raw materials.

The great obstacle to safe wheeled transport was the condition of the roads, which were usually without any foundations or any means of drainage. Flooded roads, a particular problem in the low-lying areas of Holderness, isolated many villages in winter. People were loath to be responsible for improvements to a road passing through their village if the only beneficiaries were strangers making their way to a distant town. Long journeys were not only made hazardous by the conditions of the roads but also by the chance of being held up by highwaymen who bore no resemblance to the fanciful portrayals to be found in books and films. One famous 17th-century highwayman was Dick Turpin, alias ‘Swift Nick’, who was born at Pontefract and was credited with riding from Gravesend to York in a day.

There was no incentive to keep roads in good condition until the 17th and 18th centuries, when Parliament made local turnpike trusts responsible for the construction and maintenance of specified lengths of road. The trusts were formed by groups of people who were allowed to charge travellers for using the road. The income not only paid for the cost of the road and its upkeep but enabled dividends to shareholders. The first Yorkshire turnpike, opened in 1735, was on the BlackstOne Edge road linking Halifax with Rochdale in Lancashire, though turnpikes were established on parts of the Great North Road as early as 1663. The first turnpike in the East Riding linked Beverley with Woodmansey, Dunswell and Newlands, north of Hull, in 1774.

The increase in turnpikes was related to the growth of industry, especially in the West Riding, where improved roads were essential for the transport of wool and other goods. The road from Kendal to Keigbley and Halifax was improved by a turnpike trust so that larger quantities of wool could be transported more quickly from Westmorland and Craven to the clothiers at Halifax market. The road linked Skipton with Kirkby Lonsdale and joined the Halifax turnpike at Keighley, making the transport of wool more reliable and contributing to the growth of Skipton, which became the collection point for Craven wool.

Another town which grew as a result of a new turnpike was Scarborough, where spa wells had been discovered in the 1620s. The York-Scarborough turn­pike was established in 1752 and from then on the town grew as a spa and a seaside resort. The same effect could be seen on Whitby, which had little connection with inland areas of Yorkshire. In 1765 the town was connected to York by turnpike, enabling it to diversify its economy, which had previously been dominated by the sea.

Although the new turnpikes brought many benefits they did not please every­one. Hull and York gained at the expense of smaller market towns like Beverley and Malton, which could not compete with the expanding trade of the larger markets. The turnpikes were avoided by many people, such as drovers who ceased to use the Great North Road because of the expense. Often the creation of a turnpike was opposed by locals who dismantled the toll gates. After an attack on the turnpike at Harewood, where 30 people were arrested, an angry crowd marched to Leeds, where they fought troops who had been called from York. Before the riot was over eight people had been killed and many others injured.

The turnpikes encouraged experiments in different methods of road making. John Metcalf, known as ‘Blind Jack of Knaresborough’, was one of the most famous of the early road builders. Blinded at the age of six, Metcalf nevertheless continued to lead a full and active life. In 1765 he was employed by a turnpike trust to reconstruct the Boroughbridge to Knaresborough road. He supervised every aspect of the work, including the delivery of provisions for his workers. The method usually employed by Metcalf was to put down layers of heather, sometimes known as ‘ling’, to provide a foundation for stone and rubble quarried from the local area. This method was used to great effect in building the road across Pule Moss for the trustees of the Wakefield to Austerlande Turnpike, which forms part of the route from Wakefield to Manchester, where the usual stone foundation would have sunk into the mire. Metcalf constructed roads in many parts of Yorkshire between 1755 and 1780 and his methods influenced the work of George Stephenson when he built the Manchester to Liverpool railway over Chat Moss.

Yorkshire's road system
Yorkshire’s road system

Another road builder who worked in Yorkshire was John Loudon Macadam, who first built roads for the Board of Agriculture so that the transport of food could be improved. Macadam laid a foundation of rubble on which a layer of angular blocks of stone was compressed. This method was used on the White Cross turnpike in 1820. Both Metcalf’s and Macadam’s methods produced 4 firm convex surface, facilitating drainage. As a result of these improvements both the volume and the speed of traffic increased, aided by the invention of the ‘flying coach’ with sprung suspension. The fastest of these were mail coaches which could travel at an average speed of eight m.p.h. A journey from York to Leeds took three hours compared with eight hours before road improvement. At the beginning of the 18th century travellers from Leeds to London would be on the road for a hazardous four days, riding by horseback to Wakefield, where they would board a coach travelling down the Great North Road. By 1785 this journey had been reduced to 26 hours—the time it took for the first Royal Mail coach to reach the Bull and Mouth in London from the Old King’s Arms in Leeds.

The heyday of the coaching trade was the 1830s, but within 10 years it was ruined by competition from the railways. The opening of the York to Scarborough railway in 1846 and the building of a line to Pickering to link with the railway to Whitby destroyed the turnpikes which had first realised the trading and tourist potential of seaside towns. The York-Scarborough Turnpike trustees ceased collecting tolls in 1865 and the toll bars were dismantled. While some turnpike trustees were astute enough to hold shares in competing railway schemes, others attempted to protect their turnpikes by combining with others in a union of trusts which levied a common toll. However such efforts could only delay the abolition f turnpikes, at which point local parishes once again took responsibility for their upkeep. In 1888 the parishes handed over maintenance of ‘main’ roads to the newly formed county councils.

The next major development of roads in Yorkshire occurred after the Second World War. In 1946 proposals were put forward for a ‘comprehensive reconstruction of the principal national routes’ which included a motorway crossing the Pennines from south Lancashire to Hull and the conversion of parts of the Great North Road into motorways, with by-passes taking the road away from town centres. When the roads were finally built, in the 1960s and 1970s, they significantly altered the landscape in many parts of Yorkshire. The Ml motorway was extended northwards to Leeds and when the M62 motorway was opened it followed the original trans-Pennine route, making it the country’s highest motor­way, opening up glorious views of the Pennines to millions of travellers. One of Britain’s first urban motorways was the Leeds Inner City Ring Road, which illustrates how a city landscape can be radically altered through road development. However, there is an increasing awareness of the effects of road building on the environment. The Secretary of State for the Environment summed up the change in attitudes and policy when, in 1975, he overruled the report of a public enquiry which had recommended acceptance of a proposal by the City of York for an inner ring road running close to the City’s Roman Wall. However the architecture of modern road construction, particularly in the case of bridges, can sometimes be pleasing to the eye. The Humber Bridge, with the world’s longest bridge span of 4,626 ft., is a spectacular example of modern road engineering.