The Greatest Thoroughfare in the Kingdom: the story of the Brentford Turnpike 1717-1824

By Rodney Walshaw, Journal 17, 2008

Turnpike tickets preserved by Sarah Sophia, sister of Sir Joseph Banks (British Museum)


From the mid-16th century road maintenance in England was paid for from parish rates, with parishioners under justices of the peace (JPs), providing the labour. In 1663 an Act of Parliament obliged road users on a small stretch of the Great North Road to contribute to the costs of the road by paying a toll. The people were not enthusiastic and the next act was not passed until 1706, but it incorporated a brand new concept: the Turnpike Trust under which Parliament gave groups of leading local citizens responsibility for maintaining the roads and collecting tolls. JPs still had some supervisory responsibility and parishioners were still expected to provide muscle power. A turnpike fever set in and by the mid-18th century the country was covered by a dense network of toll roads. They were called turnpikes after the original swinging poles or pikes placed at strategic points along them. Eventually the poles were replaced by gates but the name persisted.

Old and New Districts of the Brentford Turnpike from the 1769 Act of Parliament

The Brentford Turnpike was a 12-mile section of the road to the west country – one of 13 major routes radiating from London. It came into existence on 1 July 1717, in spite of some opposition from west country wagoners and local residents. The preamble to the Act setting it up states that

. . . the said roads, contain the greatest part of the Roads which lead towards his Majesty’s Royal Palaces of Hampton Court and Windsor, and the said roads are by reason of the many heavy carriages frequently passing through same become very much out of repair and in many parts thereof so badd, (in the Winter season Especially) that they are dangerous’. The short 1717 Act named the trustees, laid down the toll rates and allowed trustees to lend money to the Trust. The road started at Counter’s Bridge, Kensington and passed through Hammersmith, Chiswick and Brentford. It skirted Smallberry Green and, at Hounslow, split into two branches crossing the heath, one to Baber Bridge and Exeter, the other to Cranford Bridge and Bath. There were two gates: one ‘on the east side of the sign of the Robin Hood, Hammersmith’, and the other, ‘near Smallberry Green, Hounslow’.

There was a major revision in 1769, by which time the branch road from Syon to Kingston had been adopted by the Trust. It was now transferred to a separate Trust, The Brentford Trust New District. The Brentford Trust Old District continued to look after the roads specified in the 1717 Act. Turnpike operations were also covered by a bewildering number of General Highways Acts which, among other things, laid down the responsibilities of parishes and counties in road maintenance giving rise to much conflict between these institutions and the turnpike trusts. This article is based on records of the Old District but the bones of the story equally apply to the New District.

The Hammersmith/Kensington tollgate at the Bell and Anchor, seen from the east side in 1859, 35 years after the Brentford Turnpike Trust was dissolved. In 1717, the gate had been at ‘the sign of the Robin Hood’ perhaps a forerunner of the Bell and Anchor, which stood on the site of today’s Olympia near the junction with North End Road.

The management
The first meeting was on 22 July 1717, when the Rt Hon Lord William Powlett took the chair. Trustees present included James Clitherow of Boston Manor, Whitlock Bulstrode of Hounslow Manor, and John Gumley, a wealthy glass manufacturer and Commisary-General to the Army, who lived at Gumley House, Isleworth. Sir Robert Child was appointed Treasurer. He was the son of Francis Child, a goldsmith and one of England’s first bankers, and had inherited Childs Bank and property at Osterley Park. Such local worthies continued to serve on the Trust throughout its existence. The number of trustees eventually rose to well over 100, all possessing a property qualification – receiving rent or profits of £100, heir to an estate of yearly value of at least £200, or possessing a personal estate of £2,000. In addition, trustees were supposed to reside nearby so that they would be able to note and report on necessary repairs. Fair-mindedly the trustees agreed to pay for their own dinner and wine at meetings, which remained customary throughout the life of the Trust. However, they had other priorities; for instance, a note in the minute book for 1779-1802 records: ‘Be it remembered that the Turnham Green Club meet every first Saturday in the month; therefore no turnpike meeting adjournment should be made for that day.’

Notice of a meeting of the Trust in 1773, from a news cutting in Chiswick Local Studies, original source unknown.

Meetings were convened irregularly as the need arose but could not be adjourned for more than three months. They were held in public houses along the road and advertised in news-papers including The London Evening Post, The Daily Advertiser and The Whitehall Evening Post. Venues mentioned in the minutes are the Pack Horse, Turnham Green; the King of Bohemia’s Head, Turnham Green; the Red Lion; the Three Pigeons, New Brentford; the Goat; the Bell Tavern; the White Horse, Hammersmith and the Star and Garter, Kew. After 1820 all meetings were held at the Packhorse and Talbot, Chiswick.

Just five trustees constituted a quorum and if insufficient members were present, three could adjourn a meeting. Attendance was usually poor mainly because there was no compulsion to attend. A report of 1777 reveals that in ten years 38 of the 111 trustees had never attended a meeting, and of the remainder only eleven made more than twenty attendances. As they remained trustees for life some were possibly too old and infirm to take much interest in the road.

Members of high status such as the Duke of Northumberland and Sir Joseph Banks, then President of the Royal Society, among others, attended no meetings at all. Theirs were purely honorary appointments, lending prestige to the Trust when negotiating loans. The most regular attendees were a few middle-class men who were either public-spirited citizens, seekers of social prestige or looking for financial reward for themselves or their families. They had administrative control and among them were generations of several prominent families: the Barkers, the Clitherows, the Trimmers and the Sich family. Members of the Clitherow family served the Trust for a total of 110 years. James Clitherow was treasurer for 50 years before resigning in 1802.

Workers, works and road rage
Complaints against the work of the Trust and its employees were frequent. A typical report in The Gentleman’s Magazine in September 1754 describes the London to Bath road as the worst public road in Europe, considering the vast sums of money spent on it, and the committee appointed to enquire into the condition of the roads in 1763 reported that the highway across Hounslow Heath was frequently two feet deep in mud.

To counter such problems enormous quantities of readily available, local gravel were used on the road. In the beginning it was simply dumped into holes and ruts which were evened out by periodic scraping. The surface quickly became highly uneven and rutted again until more gravel was added resulting in the road becoming gradually higher. Mr Godfrey complained in April 1761:

. . . that the road before the sign of the King of Bohemia’s Head on Turnham Green had been raised by former surveyors to so great a height that on sudden rains the water runs into the house to the great annoyance of the tenant.

In December 1799 this letter was received from the General Post Office:

Sir, I have the Commands of my Lords the Post-Masters General to represent to you for the information of the Commissioners that the Road between Hammersmith and Cranford Bridge is in so deep and heavy a state for want of scraping as to almost prohibit travelling, and that if it is not immediately scraped (for the benefit of correspondence) their Lordships will be obliged by a Duty they Owe the Public, to Indict it – but they Trust you will directly take such Methods as will make the process of law unnecessary

By the early 19th century, following the work of MacAdam and Telford, road making practices had become much improved by the use of layers of graded stones, coarse at the base, finer on top, giving a much more durable surface and allowing heavier traffic. For the base course flints, imported by barge from Kent, replaced the locally dug gravel.

Apart from the fabric of the road itself, a host of other items were discussed at board meetings including drainage ditches and culverts; bridges; encroachment on to the road by residents’ walls, fences, buildings, trees, merchandise and waste water; appointment of staff and contractors; acquisition of land for road realignments; avoidance of tolls by users; toll tickets; weighing engines and overweight penalties; installation of milestones; provision of wells and pumps for watering the road to lay dust; lighting the road; complaints by road users; damage caused by users and fines to be imposed. Responsibility for all this work fell on four key appointees: an honorary treasurer, usually a trustee, a clerk, a surveyor and the gatekeepers, also known as collectors.

Treasurers were required to pay a ‘bond in penalty’ which by 1802 had risen to £2,00, when Richard Hill became treasurer after the resignation of James Clitherow. The treasurer received and held funds, made disbursements and kept the accounts.

The clerk to the trustees usually had a legal background. John Janes, for instance, clerk from from 1767 to 1810, was an attorney at law. His successor Thomas Jullion, an attorney of Brentford, served from 1810 to 1827. The office of clerk was exacting. He negotiated transactions and contracts, conducted correspondence, consulted counsel, attended county courts, the Middlesex Sessions, and Committees of the Houses of Parliament and Parliamentary debates.

Appointed on the personal recommendation of trustees, the surveyors were required to provide sureties for their fidelity. They were responsible for finding the necessary supplies of men and materials for keeping the road open and well maintained, often with limited funding, and had to present and swear to the truth of the accounts at Board meetings.

The surveyors could take gravel and sand for road repairs from nearby parishes, towns, villages and even private grounds if need be. They could widen roads, make drains and causeways, and compel owners to lop overhanging trees and scour ditches in front of their property to drain water from the road. Mr Young, wheelwright of Turnham Green was a typical offender in 1765, having encroached on the road by ‘. . . laying timbers, driving stakes and letting carriages stand before his shop.’ The surveyors were not always successful and faced much criticism. In 1791 the landlord of the Three Pigeons successfully claimed £20 after one of his horses broke its shoulder by falling into a collapsed drain put in by the Trust. It was another of the surveyors’ jobs to prevent malpractice by contractors as illustrated in this memorandum of 1823:

Resolved that flints be laid by the roadside in separate quantities of barge loads, that the breaking be done by contractors at 10/- per ton, the breakers finding their own hammers and that in future the surveyors do attend most punctually to the filling of the cart loads in equal quantities and that three or four cart loads be weighed in each barge load.

Surveyors were expected to safeguard the Trust’s assets: in 1780 James Thomas was ‘fined 20 shillings for taking sand off the road without leave . . .’ A motion was passed by the board in 1780 ‘that some posts be set up on the footpaths on Turnham Green to prevent horsemen riding on them’, just like today’s cycling on the pavement. In the early days surveyors were unqualified and held office for just one year. In 1800 the trustees engaged Mr Collis as consultant surveyor. He had proved himself in Kent and ‘they knew him to have been brought up in the best principle of road making, and his practice to be unmixed with making quackery in the art’.

Gatekeepers or collectors comprised a lower stratum of Trust employees but provided the most crucial service. They were also the subjects of complaint. The Rev Mr Sampson said in 1763 that he had been greatly abused by the gatekeeper at Hammersmith ‘. . .calling after him. .  . that he was a scoundrel.’ Along with collecting the tolls, the lifeblood of the Trust, gatekeepers were responsible for interpreting the complex regulations. They had to measure wheels, weigh wagons, decide on eligibility for toll exemptions, issue tickets and decide on the validity of tickets issued at other gates. They were also expected to prevent begging at the gates.

It is not surprising that on occasion they were tempted to indulge in what might now be called a little creative accounting. As they were often illiterate there could be little effective check upon receipts and they sometimes accepted bribes instead of imposing penalties, or retained part of the takings to supplement their meagre income. A minute by clerk Albert Nesbitt of December 1722 records:

Ordered that the collectors at their respective turnpikes do deliver or tender to all persons whatsoever passing through the gates and liable to pay the tolls and that such collectors who do not deliver or tender tickets as aforesaid be upon the first complaint against them discharged from being collector.

In March 1728 gatekeepers are reported to be ‘remis in their duty (often found) tipling and drinking in the alehouse … adjacent to the turnpike gate.’ Those at the Hammersmith gate in 1799 were cautioned not only for drinking on duty but also for employing strangers to collect the tolls. Gatekeepers were sometimes channels for the circulation of ‘base coin’. In 1798 a forged banknote handed in at the Hammersmith gate was returned by the bank. The Trust had to bear the loss. Another gatekeeper’s wife was cautioned in 1741 for ‘keeping a common nursing house for persons with smallpox.’

Weighing engines, installed at the gates, were inaccurate and caused argument. In a letter to the clerk in April 1762 Admiral Knowles maintained that a wagon with his goods was found at Hyde Park gate to be one hundredweight under the allowed weight. At Smallberry gate it was two hundredweight over and he was fined 40 shillings. The trustees resolved ‘not to mitigate the penalty’ as an allowance of one hundredweight had already been made for ‘dirt on the wheels’.

Wagoners became adept at circumnavigating gates thus avoiding both the toll and penalties. A typical route involved deviating across Smallberry Green and re-entering the main London Road via the New District road at Busch Corner. The Trust countered by moving the gate. A site at Brentford Bridge was first proposed but eventually a new gate and weighing engine were erected at the Angel Inn, Brentford in 1824.

The collectors were sometimes subjects of abuse and 18th century road rage:

Shorter, one of the collectors . . . at Hammersmith Gate complained that on the 14th day of June last (1780) Sir Michael De Fleming Bart came to the gate at a quarter after twelve, when he demanded the toll which was refused, and after many words he let him thro’ but stop’d his servants till they paid the toll, that when he learn’d he had obliged them to pay the toll he returned and drew a cock’d pistol and put it to his head declaring with many violent expressions that he would shoot him, that he upon that retired into the toll house in great fear of his life and shut himself in . . .

Sir Michael later confessed that his behaviour was the result of his ‘being in liquor’ and agreed to pay Shorter two guineas. Later in 1783 a collector was indeed killed by ‘a blow from a servant of Lord Clarrick’. His widow received ten guineas and funeral expenses from the Board.

There are few direct references to road users in the minutes of the Trust but it may be assumed that the turnpike was heavily used by drovers and wagoners from the West Country carrying heavy loads of wool, cloth, malt, grain and timber into London. They would have caused the most damage to the road surface. Driven cattle, sheep, pigs and geese would have been a common sight. With the increasing popularity of Bath Spa during the mid-18th century, passenger coach traffic increased and it became increasingly sophisticated over the next 50 years. The mail coach, introduced in 1784, was faster than the stage coach as it only stopped for delivery of mail and generally was not designed for the comfort of the passengers. In the early decades of the 19th century – the golden age of coaching – 154 long-distance and local coach services were using the road daily in addition to private vehicles and wagons. Coaches from London were allowed 55 minutes to complete the first stage of their journey to Hounslow but by 1842 competition from the Great Western Railway had reduced coach services from London to Bath to one a day.


Notice  inviting tenders for the ‘farming’ of tolls. From a of 1774 news cutting in Chiswick Local Studies, original source unknown

The Trust’s income was from two main sources – tolls and loan capital. Other income came from various fines and penalties including those collected at weighing machines for overweight wagons. Although revenue gradually increased it frequently fell short of expenditure particularly at times when major work was required either on the road or on bridges. There was a crisis in 1751 when the Trust was £6,600 in debt and the trustees had minimal finance to repay capital on the mortgages they had raised. When it was handed over to the Commissioners of Metropolis Roads (see below) the total debt was well over £13,000.

The Trust was prohibited from raising capital by the issue of shares but the trustees themselves could lend money at rates of up to five per cent per annum. Capital was also raised by a process known as ‘farming’, in which tolls were let by tender or auction. The Trust received a lump sum in advance and the farmers collected the tolls. A secondary source of income came from parishes liable to provide labour. They could choose to pay a lump sum to the Trust in place of labour.

Toll-farmers sometimes made extra profit by conniving with travellers for the evasion of weighing engine penalties and were prepared to offer higher rents if these penalties were included in agreements. Such were the profits to be made by toll-farming that by 1820 it was controlled by powerful and corrupt syndicates more concerned with personal gain than paying fair prices to the Trust.

Last days
After fierce battles between the trusts and their critics – led by John MacAdam and his sons James and William – all 14 London trusts, including Brentford, were joined in 1826 to form the Metropolis Roads Commission. The final meeting of the Brentford Trust was on 30 December 1824. Its debts amounted to £13,659 18s 9d, somewhat offset by large stocks of materials. Tolls continued to be collected after amalgamation but the positions of gates were changed to counter evasion. Tolls were finally abolished in 1871 when the Commission was terminated, and the last gate was removed in 1872.

Toll Charges
As with countless service organisations since, the story of the Brentford Turnpike emerges as a constant battle between the Trust and its officers on one side trying to keep the road in good condition and stay solvent while on the other side users and certain employees are attempting to avoid payments or milk the system. James MacAdam, a fierce critic of the old turnpike system, declared in 1827 that the Brentford trustees and their consulting surveyor had, within the limits imposed by income, maintained the road in creditable condition. A year later a last tribute was paid when the trustees of the Metropolis Commission passed a resolution ‘that the road was for the first ten miles the greatest thoroughfare in the Kingdom.’

An assessment of the work of the Brentford Turnpike Trust Old District 1767-1827, Jean Ryan, undated typescript, Chiswick Library; The turnpike road system in England, William Albert, 1972; Minutes, Account Books and other records of the Brentford Turnpike Trust in Chiswick Library; Brentford Turnpike Acts of 1717, 1724 and 1767.

Rodney Walshaw is a retired geologist who spent many years working overseas before settling in Chiswick. He became interested in the Brentford Turnpike as a contributor to the Society’s Hogarth’s Chiswick exhibition in 2003.

Visit Us
Follow Me