skip to primary navigation skip to content

Transport, urbanization and economic development in England and Wales c.1670-1911

Transport, urbanization and economic development in England and Wales c.1670-1911

Market Failure and State Success: the Neglected Story of Nineteenth Century Roads

From the late sixteenth century rising volumes of traffic on the roads of England and Wales put increasing strain on the medieval system, codified by statute in 1555, under which each of the 15,000 parishes were responsible for maintaining the roads passing through their own area. The key institutional problem was that those who were supposed to bear the costs of maintaining a given section of trunk road, the inhabitants of the parish concerned, lacked the incentives to commit the necessary resources to a process which primarily benefitted passing traffic. The state of roads was such that wheeled traffic over long distances was not possible in large areas of the country and many roads which were passable in dry summer weather were virtually impassable in the winter and sometimes even after wet summer weather. Repeated attempts during the seventeenth century to improve the state of parish highways had limited success at best. The institutional innovation of the Turnpike Trust, first developed in the 1660s, and funded through tolls imposed on road users, provides an early example of a successful privatisation – though it should be noted that Trusts were regulated by the state, albeit imperfectly, and were forbidden from making profits (which is not to say that no Trustee every profited from a Trust).

Between 1660 and 1830 turnpike roads revolutionised road transport largely through the simple expedient of improving surfaces.[1] This had four major effects. Firstly, it greatly extended the area of the country over which it was viable to run long-distance wheeled traffic at any time of year. Second, it made this more or less universally viable in both winter and summer. Third, it more than doubled or tripled the speed per hour at which wheeled vehicles could be operated. Fourth it made it practical to run regular services through the night further reducing overall travel times, especially in the winter months. By 1830 turnpike trusts charging tolls were running around 20,000 miles of highway in England and Wales. However, from the 1830s the spread of the railway network undermined the financial model. Long distance stage coach services which had paid the bulk of the tolls shut down and turnpike trusts ceased to be financially viable. Between 1860 and 1880 most turnpike roads returned to local authority control and virtually all had done so by 1890. This is a clear example of market failure caused by a changing economic climate triggered by technological change.[2]

The foregoing is well known and the turnpike trusts, their roads and the traffic they carried have been studied intensely as, of course, have the railways. Remarkably however, there has been an almost complete absence of historical research on the road network between the peak of the turnpike system around 1830 and the outbreak of World War One.[3] Furthermore, we know remarkably little about the history of the much larger network of roads, around 100,000 miles, remaining under parish jurisdiction throughout the period 1660- 1830, though there is tentative evidence of improvements from the late eighteenth century.[4] The historiographical neglect of roads after 1830 is not because roads ceased to be important once the railway network took hold.

Railways may have killed off long-distance road haulage and long-distance stage coaches but they emphatically did not lead to a decline in the flow of either passengers or freight on roads. Quite the reverse. This is readily apparent from the number of horses employed in road freight and transport, estimated to have quadrupled from just under a quarter of a million in 1811 to just shy of a million in 1911.[5] Over the same period the number of adult males working in road transport rose ten-fold from around 40,000 c.1817 to just over 400,000 in 1911 while their share of the adult male labour force tripled from 1.4% to 4.4%.[6] These figures suggest a huge increase in road traffic. Much of the increase in road traffic involved ferrying people and goods to and from railway stations and would have entailed radically higher volumes of traffic on local roads, most of which had never been turnpiked.[7]

As the turnpikes were returned to local authority control (mainly in the 1860s and 1870s) it might have been expected that the old problems form the pre-turnpike era would have resurfaced. Yet the limited evidence available suggest that this period saw a major extension in the mileage of highways used by wheeled vehicles and very considerable improvements in the surfaces of the non-trunk roads. However, we know little about when between 1830 and 1911 the improvements to roads came about and nothing about the geographical patterning of change. Documenting when these changes occurred is a major desiderata both for understanding the causes of change and for understanding the functioning of the transport system in the maturing industrial economy.

Thus it appears that the public sector succeeded in the nineteenth century, where it had failed in the seventeenth, which makes it all the more remarkable that no historiographical attention has been given to these issues. Moreover, it succeeded both on the parish roads where the market, in the form of the Turnpike Trusts had never made any inroads, as well as on the major trunk roads where the market began to fail from the 1850s. All this suggests that the story of market success and failure and state failure and success over time is complex and needs to be understood in terms of changing market conditions and the very particular institution forms which the private and public sectors took over time.

However, we do know something about the aggregate changes in expenditures on roads and about the changing institutional arrangements. Around 1830, the turnpike trusts were spending around £1.5m per year on their 20,000 miles of (predominantly) main roads and parishes were spending about the same on 100,000 miles of (mainly) secondary and minor roads. By 1912 local authorities' (county councils, urban district councils and rural district councils) spending on roads had risen to around £15m while the mileage of roads used by wheeled vehicles had been extended from 120,000 miles to 150,000 miles. Average expenditure per mile had thus risen from around £25 a year to around £100 per mile and we have every reason to think that money was spent more efficiently at the end of the period than at the beginning. The great bulk of the increase in annual expenditure took place between 1890 and 1911. Changes in the institutional arrangements within the state sector are a major part of the story.

The administrative history of the period is complex and the fullest account remains that published by the Webbs in 1913. Parish responsibility was first breached by the 1848 Public Health Act but the most significant developments were probably the creation of elected county councils in 1888 and elected district councils in 1894.[8] There can be little doubt that it was these bodies which were responsible for the great increases in expenditure. It would be easy to suppose that the major improvements to the road network between 1830 and 1890 were largely concentrated in this period, but this would beg the question as to how the vast increases in road traffic noted above, were accommodated between 1830 and 1890, without a rising litany of public complaint about the increasingly dysfunctional state of the nation's roads.

What could be done to improve our understanding of the major improvements to the road network between 1830 and 1911?

A key reason why turnpike roads have been studied so much more intensively than parish highways is because they are well documented in the form of over 5,000 Acts of Parliament and several key parliamentary surveys. At this stage of this incipient project we are clear about some of the things that could be done to reduce our current ignorance and these will be described shortly but there are other areas where we are not yet sure how to proceed. We would like to get funding for a pilot project to undertake some of this work for a single county so that we can accurately cost a larger project and to explore other avenues for research. The pilot project would have three distinct elements:

1. Cartographic evidence

Between 1893 and 1912 the road network of England and Wales was definitively mapped by Ordnance Survey in two series: the Revised New One Inch Series (1893-8) and the Third Edition one Inch large Sheet Series (1901-1912).These distinguished four classes of road, first class metalled roads, second class metalled roads, third class metalled roads and a residual class of non-metalled roads.This Third edition makes clear that the vast bulk of the 150,000 miles of public highways for wheeled vehicles were metalled in some form by 1911.This map thus documents the end point for the cumulative road improvements of the preceding 200 years.In 1700 the vast bulk of the nation's highways were dirt tracks of one kind or another.By 1830 we can assume the 20,000 miles of turnpike road were metalled.We know little of the 100,000 miles of parish highways but it is likely that the majority were un-metalled with marked regional disparities in quality in part related to the varying extent of parliamentary enclosure.Comparison betweenthe Revised New One Inch and the Third Edition One Inch should shed light on the key question of how much change was crammed into the last two decades of our period.In a large funded project it may prove to be desirable to digitise the roads on both map series in full.We plan to undertake a pilot digitisation of Essex because of the unusually rich cartographic and documentary resources available for this county. Essex has Ordnance Survey mapping from 1798-9 with an assessment or road quality indicating amongst other thing whether or not a road was ordinarily passable in winter and its unusually good survival of parish highways surveyors' accounts 1750-1830 the annual expenditure data is available from Ginnarlis. These sources enabling local road expenditure to be related to road surface quality at a much earlier date than normal .[9]Thus a pilot should allow us to identify the scale of changes between 1800 and 1911 and to identify how much of that change took place before c.1890 and how much thereafter.It would also allow us to cost a larger project in which we would aim to digitise the roads in both maps series for the whole of England and Wales.Additionally we would look for other pre 1890 maps that might contain evidence on road quality including tithe and enclosure maps.

2. Highway expenditures reported in Parliamentary Papers

The parliamentary papers contain thousands of pages of data on Highways between 1811 and 1911 relating to the changing administrative units responsible for Highways, their expenditures and revenues and the mileage of road which they maintained.These are detailed in Appendix II.In the pilot project we digitise a sample of county level material to provide a national overview of expenditure patterns by county and more detailed data for the pilot study county.For the pilot study county we would create a time-dynamic Geographical Information System (GIS) dataset of the boundaries of these units.This would allow us to link the digitised expenditure data to the cartographically derived data on road mileage and quality, allowing us to investigate the relationships between the creation of new administrative units, expenditure and results on the ground.This in turn would allow us to cost accurately a larger project covering the whole of England and Wales.

It should be noted here that Dr Toke Aidt has already digitised all the available Highway expenditure data for urban areas for the period 1871-1911, so the follow-on project would only need to digitise the rural areas and, from 1888, county council expenditures.

3. Employment data

We have parish level data on employment on the roads for c.1817, 1851, 1861, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911.We would compare employment and expenditure at county level.We would integrate parish level data in the county level pilot study and experiment with using the employment data as a way of districting expenditure data for larger units back down to the parish level.Note that expenditure data at the parish level is only available for 1849/50.We would also use occupational data more broadly to explore the influence of local and regional economic characteristics on levels of highway expenditure.

4. Further investigation of source material

We would also want to explore the potential of other types of evidence which could supplement the core elements of the project outline above.These include:

  • Other parliamentary papers, not least Select Committee Reports.
  • Timetables for local coach and omnibus services in the second half of the nineteenth century which could be compared with data already collect from Pigot's directories for the period 1828-1844. This could yield data on increases in speeds on local roads over the nineteenth centuries.
  • Combing the published literature, much of it very local in focus, for references to further source material.
  • Highway Surveryors' Accounts. Given the continuous reporting requires to parliament from 1849/50 it is likely that Highway Surveyor's Accounts survive in much greater numbers after 1850 than in the 1750-1850 period surveyed by Ginarlis.
  • There are also parish level data aggregated for Highway Rates, County Rates and Church Rates, from which it may prove possible to isolate estimates of Highway rates at parish level. Parliamentary Papers: 1803/4. Abstract of Answers and Returns under Act for procuring Returns relative to Expense and Maintenance of Poor in England.

We can't anticipate what this further investigation of sources might reveal but experience on a series of large research projects over the last 15 years suggests that once we start to work on this project we will find much hitherto unknown material of considerable value.

The Project Investigators

This project is a new collaboration between Dr Toke Aidt (Economics, Cambridge), Dr Leigh Shaw-Taylor (History, Cambridge) and Dr Max Satchell (Geography, Cambridge). For Shaw-Taylor and Satchell this is an extension of earlier work on transport which has cumulatively led to the creation of dynamic GIS datasets of the navigable rivers; the canal network and the turnpike roads. Aidt has worked previously on local government investment in relation to political economy.

Appendix 1

The evolution of Highway Authorities in the C19th

In 1835, 15,000 parishes were still responsible for their Highways.

1835 Highways Act did not change this. But did abolish statute labour and all limits on weights and wheels.

1848 Public Health Act allowed the created Local Boards of Health and made the new Local Boards of Health the surveyor for all roads within the urban sanitary district. Many Boards were set up after after the Act, there was then a parliamentary reaction against Chadwick and a pause in the creation of new boards. But renewed creation after the 1858 Public Health Act and change of nomenclature to Local Boards governing Local Government Districts. (Webbs, 207, Wiki on 1858 Act)

1862 Highway Act empowered JPs to combine parishes into Highway Districts. Response varied considerably between counties. 900 little parishes chose to become Local Government Districts (Webbs say 'Urban Sanitary Authorities but this may be an error) under the terms of the 1858 Act to avoid being combined – since USDs were exempt from the 1862 Act.

1863 legislation prevented new Boards being formed by places with populations below 3,000.

Between 1862 and 1882, 8,510 parishes were combined into 424 Highway Districts. But a few dozen of these were subsequently dissolved. In about half the counties of England and throughout North Wale most parishes were superseded. In five counties the supersession of the parish was complete. (Webbs, 210). It might be interesting to compare road expenditures in the conjoined units to see if they spent more on their roads.

1872 Public Health Act created Local Government Board with combined powers over highways as well as public health and the poor law administration. (Webbs. 212)

The Public Health Acts of 1872 with amendments in 1875 turned existing Urban Bodies into Urban Sanitary Districts and made the rural areas of poor law unions not covered by an Urban Sanitary District into Rural Sanitary Districts. (Wiki and Webbs)

1878 Highways and Locomotives Act made directed Quarter Sessions when altering Highway Districts under the Highway Acts to make them, so far as was possible coincide with Rural Sanitary Districts. The Act also gave QS the power abolish Highway Districts where they did coincide and transfer their powers. (Webbs, 213)

This directed JPs to try and make Highway Boards coincide geographical with Rural Sanitary Districts when they were amalgamating parishes and gave them powers dissolve Highway Boards which coincided with Rural Sanitary Districts and transfer their functions.

1888 Local Government Act created County Councils (first elections January 1889). The act made main roads their responsibility. Oddly the Webbs on describe this in passing and in a separate chapter from their discussion of administrative change (Webbs, p.248)

1894 Local Government Act created new Urban and Rural District Councils alongside Municipal Boroughs, and transferred the functions of Urban and Rural Sanitary Districts to the bodies. It was further decreed that Highway Districts and Highway Parishes should all be abolished and their functions transferred to the new rural districts. But, implementation took time and in 1897 there were still 1,168 Highway Parishes and 45 Highway Districts. (Webbs, 218).

A 1913 enquiry revealed that there were still nearly 1,900 Highway Authorities in England and Wales: 130 County Councils and County Boroughs; 279 Non-County and Metropolitan Boroughs; 812 Urban District Councils and 661 Rural District Councils.

Note South Wales has a distinct administrative History as a result of the Rebecca Riots 1839-1843. These led to the formation of District Road Boards under County Road Boards in 1844 which took over the Turnpike Trusts. The South Wales Highways Act of 1860 brought the parish roads into Highway Districts. Webbs p.2016.

LS-T 9.9.2016. Mainly from the Webbs, The Story of the King's Highway (1913)

Appendix 2

Incomplete notes on Parliamentary Papers on Highway Expenditures 1846-1911

1846 (17) Local taxation. Return relative to local taxation, viz. poor rates, county rates, highways, and church rates, being no. 562 of 1839. County level Highway Expenditure data for 1811-1813, 1827 and 1839 given in Local Taxation Returns 1839.

1849 (122) (122-II) Highways. Returns of the total receipts and expenditure on account of the highways and streets of the several parishes and places in each county of England, for the year 1845. Reports Highway expenditures and income by Hundreds and Boroughs.

1852 [1467] Abstract of General Statements of Receipts and Expenditure on Highways in England and Wales gives parish by parish expenditure and income data for multiple categories of income and expenditure including financial transfers to and from turnpike trusts, for the financial year 1849/50. The parishes are arranged within counties in units described as 'divisions.' Note, at a later date it becomes clear the divisions are Unions. Not sure when this is first made explicit but see: 1880.

1852-53 [1695] Abstract of General Statements of Receipts and Expenditure on Highways in England and Wales gives the same information but only for the divisions. These are named, and the number of constituent parishes is given, so it would be straightforward to check if they are the same units as for 1849/50 but this seems likely.

Same form annually until

1863 [3226] Highways. An abstract of the general statements of the receipts and expenditure on account of the highways of the several parishes, townships, &c. in England and Wales, for the year ending 25th March 1861. No change for England and North Wales but for South Wales reports Highway Districts and gives mileage. (This is a consequence of the Rebecca Riots 1839-1843. See the Webbs, p.206)


1867 [3846] Highways. Abstracts of the general statements of the receipts and expenditure on account of the highways of the several parishes, townships, &c. in England and Wales, for the year 1865. Reports incomes and expenditures by Highway Divisions, Highway Districts and South Wales. For the Highway Districts and South Wales, but not the Highway Divisions, get the miles of Highway.

Same form until

1870 [C.71] Highways. Abstracts of the general statements of the receipts and expenditure on account of the highways of the several parishes, townships, &c. in England and Wales, for the year 1868. by Highway Divisions, Highway Authorities and South Wales. For the Highway Districts and South Wales, but not the Highway Divisions, get the miles of Highway. For the Highway Districts only get rateable values.

Same form until

1874 [C.1052] Local Government Board. Highways. Abstracts of the general statements of the receipts and expenditure on account of the highways of the several parishes, townships, &c. in England and Wales, for the year 1872. No change in what is reported just in title.

Same form until

1881 [C.2890] Local Government Board. Highways. Abstracts of the statements of the receipts and expenditure on account of the highways of the several highway districts, and separate highway parishes in England and Wales. For the year ended 25th of March 1880. Only change is that districts are now listed before divisions – which are clearly stated to be Unions. Note also that Unions which are split across counties are reported in different chunks. This year sees a total revamp of the categories of income and expenditure reported.

1882 [C.3274] Local Government Board. Highways. Abstracts of the statements of the receipts and expenditure on account of the highways of the several highway districts, and separate highway parishes in England and Wales, for the year ended 25th of March 1881. This gives data by four classes of authority. Highway Districts, Rural Sanitary Districts, Unions (for parishes not in districts or RSDs) and South Wales Highway Districts. For Highway Districts RSDs and South Wales, get mileage in two classes and rateable value. For Unions, get mileage in two classes but not rateable value.

1884 [C.4167] Local Government Board. Highways. Abstracts of the statements of the receipts and expenditure on account of the highways of the several highway districts, and separate highway parishes in England and Wales, for the year ended 25th of March 1883. This year get rateable values for the districts/unions for the first time.

1886 (222) (40-Sess.2) Local taxation returns (England). The annual local taxation returns. Year 1884-85. Part I. No 3. County Treasurer's Account. Gives expenditures on (i) bridges and (ii) contributions to main roads by County.

Part VI. No 26 Highway Districts in Rural Areas. folio 629/778. Highway districts, Highway Districts under Sanitary Districts, Highway Parishes (by Union), Highway Districts South Wales.

Part VI. No. 27. Accounts of Turnpike Trustees, Isle of Wight Road Commissioners, South Wales County Road Boards.

1887 (277) Local taxation returns (England). The annual local taxation returns. Year 1885-86. Part VI. 26. Accounts of highway authorities in rural districts. Highway Districts, Rural Sanitary Districts, Unions (for parishes not in districts or RSDs) and South Wales Highway Districts. Same data as preceding reports.

27. Accounts of turnpike trustees, Isle of Wight Highway Commissioners, and South Wales County Roads Boards.

1911 [Cd. 5965] The annual local taxation returns. Year 1908-09. Part III. Accounts of--rural district councils, parish councils, parish meetings, and certain joint committees. Inspectors and committees under the Lighting and Watching Act, 1833.

NOTE Part. 8 is a summary and contains a table of contents for the whole report on page 117 which is folio 855. This is extremely helpful, if lunatic to include this only 855 pages in rather than at the beginning!

For rural districts, expenditures are given under three heads: main roads, other than main roads, other highway expenditure. Mileage of main roads. Mileage of other roads.

[1] There were other factors including improved vehicle design and better horses, but there is no doubt that improved roads were the major factor.

[2] For the developments described in the preceding two paragraphs, see: Bagwell, P.S. 1974. The Transport Revolution from 1770.(1974); Pawson, Transport and Economy: The Turnpike Roads of Eighteenth Century Britain (1977),; Bogart, D., 'Transport' in Floud, R., Humphries J., and Johnson, P., (eds.) Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain 1700-1870, Vol I. (2014).

[3] It is worth noting that the last general survey of roads which covers this period, Barker, T and Gerhold, D., The rise and rise of road transport 1700-1990 (1993) has almost nothing to say about roads per se and list nothing no study in its bibliography relating to roads in the post-turnpike era. In a similar vein, Freeman, M.J. and Alcroft, D.H. (eds) Transport in Victorian Britain (1988) has chapters on railways, coastal shipping, ports and urban transport but conspicuously lacks a chapter on road transport more generally.

[4] Pawson, Transport and Economy.

[5] Thompson, 'Nineteenth century horse sense' Economic History Review, XXIX (1976)', p. 80.

[6] Shaw-Taylor, L., and Wrigley, E.A., 'Occupational Structure and population change' in Floud, R., Humphries J., and Johnson, P., (eds.) Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain 1700-1870, Vol I. (2014); Shaw-Taylor 'The Occupational Structure of England and Wales 1381-1911' in Saito, O., Shaw-Taylor, L. (eds) Occupational Structure and Industrialization in Comparative Perspective (forthcoming).

[7] Thompson, 'Horse sense', pp. 64-67.

[8] An abbreviated summary, largely deriving from the Webb, S., and Webb, B., The Story of the Kings Highway (1913) can be found in appendix I.

[9] The National Archives: MPHH 1/78, MR1/1415; Ginnarlis, J.E. Road and Waterway investment in Britain 1750 -1850, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 1970, pp. 406-35. Note that the estimates of overall parish expenditures, subsequently published in Ginarlis, J and Pollard, S., 'Roads and Waterways' in Feinstein, C.H., and Pollard, S., Studies in Capital Formation in the United Kingdom 1750-1920, have been shown to be erroneous by Bogart, D., 'Did turnpike trust increase transport investment in Eighteenth Century England', Journal of Economic History, 65 (2005); but this does not affect the utility of the underlying parish-level data reported in the Ginarlis thesis.