Turnpike Roads and Milestones

On a pleasant November evening at St Mary's Centre the society was addressed by John Higgins. It was a quintessentially English evening - an obscure subject, an amateur audience and an expert speaker. John is an enthusiast about milestones and his hunting grounds are the routes of old turnpike roads. His talk unfolded like a detective story.

John produced the old 'Yates' maps of Staffordshire roads; documents such as the 1840 report of the Parliamentary Commissioners and his research records to demonstrate the principles of the evolution of the Turnpike roads. These were formed as trusts each of which required an Act of Parliament to set up a toll charging arrangement on roads devolved to the Trust from Parish Councils. The revenue produced was intended to be utilised for the upkeep and repair of the roads and the toll charges were based on the distance travelled; hence the need for milestones. As the name implies the stones were sited every mile along the route of the turnpike. We learnt that the revenue produced from these tolls was often not sufficient to fund the soaring maintenance costs. Hence the trusts, in the main, eventually lost money. The inevitable result was the appearance of more and more potholes (through lack of maintenance) and ultimately the extinction of the trust. Where have we heard this sad tale before? In modern Lichfield perhaps and for the same reasons!

Currently John is employed on a part time basis by Staffordshire County Council to produce a report on the location and condition of all of our milestones. Sadly publication of this has been held up through lack of finance. Only a few hundred pounds is required to publish a document that would give the County the information on which to establish a baseline for the preservation of our milestones - and it is important that they are preserved because some may go back to Roman times. Most however come from the Georgian and Victorian periods (although the latter tragically destroyed many during their roadworks program). We were fascinated to hear that some are still situated in fields, sited where routes that previously existed have now been redirected - thereby creating a physical historic record of the road's former alignment.

In 1883 there were 601 miles of Turnpikes on the major routes in Staffordshire and a total of some 420 milestones are extant. John has undertaken to renovate and repair every one - a formidable task. For those who are interested in some of the finer detail we learnt that:

  • The oldest milestone is a Roman fragment, now in the museum at Wall.
  • The Turnpike Act of 1760 enabled the formation of Turnpike Trusts with the power to levy tolls and an obligation to erect milestones.
  • The growing canal network of the late 18th and early 18th centuries affected revenue streams for the Turnpikes and the coming of the railways further accelerated their decline.
  • Many Turnpikes were liquidated following a Parliamentary enquiry that identified that many Trusts were running a deficit. In 1880 the newly created Counties took responsibility for roads and replaced many milestones.
  • In Staffordshire the 1893 milestones were manufactured by Charles Lathe of Tipton and can be recognised by a bevel shape and the name of the Parish.
  • The later 1909 milestones were manufactured by Cochraine of Dudley and do not have a bevel but do have the word 'Parish' on the lettering.
  • There are still 80 milestones extant in Staffordshire which date from the turnpike period.
  • The mileage shown on early milestones has been found to be surprisingly accurate but was usually measured to the junction with the next turnpike rather than the Town Centre. However the mileages shown can be confusing as distances may be measured in 'Long Miles' as opposed to 'Statutory Miles' before the standard measurement was established.

John entertained and impressed his audience with his great knowledge, his love of detail and his enthusiasm. Using an old cliche, what John doesn't know about Staffordshire's milestones probably isn't worth knowing! All in all it was another entertaining and informative evening. The audience participated in a lively Q & A session and went away equipped with some newly acquired knowledge - proving the adage that 'you're never too old to learn'.

Tony Crookes
November 2008