In 1888 the Local Government Act established County Councils, among whose responsibilities were main roads. In this respect they replaced the highway boards (random collections of parishes) which had been taking over from the steadily collapsing turnpike trusts.
One of the largest county councils was the West Riding of Yorkshire, stretching from Sedbergh in the north-west, to Ripon and the River Ouse on the boundaries of York in the north-east, to Goole in the east, Bawtry in the south-east, Sheffield in the south, and up and occasionally over the other side of the Pennines in the west.
Providing services in such a huge area was always a logistical challenge – even ignoring the fact that large areas in the middle of the county (Bradford, Leeds, etc) were independent county boroughs outside the control of the County Council. Nevertheless, in 1892, less than four years after it was set up, the Council decided to set up milestones on all its main roads. No reason is given in the archives: maybe it was seen as a profile-raising exercise. Efforts to improve the image of local authorities are obviously nothing new.
Accordingly, on 12th October 1892 it was resolved to obtain tenders for the erection of “643 milestones, six inches thick, with iron plates, bolted, showing the name of the road, township and mileage to nearest towns”. The stone was to come from the Horsforth Quarries, and the milestones were to be 6 feet high, set two feet into the ground. The estimated cost would be £2-5-0d each.
The contract was awarded to G & F Stead, stonemasons in Mirfield (Gill Stead and his son Frank), who were now to erect 619 stones within 12 months of the date of the contract, 21st August 1893. They were paid in instalments, the final payment being made in October 1894, so presumably the work was finished on time. Not only on time, but also under budget: the Steads were paid £1,140, which works out at a mere £1-18-0d per stone.
The whole enterprise must have been an immense undertaking, bearing in mind the distances involved and the transport available (horse and cart).
And it would also have been a mammoth task for the firm of Brayshaw and Booth, ironfounders of Liversedge, subcontracted to provide most of the iron plates required. Their name is displayed prominently on the huge number of their milestones that survive, but little else is known about them: they are listed in trade directories between 1889 and 1917. Another ironfounder supplying plates was William Towler of Leeds: see separate article.
Over 60 roads have, or had, the new WRCC milestones. While most will have replaced the existing turnpike trusts milestones, some are on non-turnpiked roads, but some turnpikes were not included. The major road from Halifax to Todmorden, for example, still retains its original pointing-finger stones.
About 350 stones survive, though a few are broken or have lost their plates (and sadly accidents continue to happen). Some have been restored by Milestone Society members and other agencies such as parish councils. Rotherham Council has been particularly good at looking after its stones, and Kirklees has recently started restoring theirs.
Almost all have the protruding triangular iron plates, but eleven stones are wider and flat: these are found where the original road was excessively narrow (as it still is on the oriiginal bridge over the River Holme on Hollowgate in Holmfirth) – pictured; others are in Sherburn-in-Elmet, Elland, Uppermill and Denby Dale.
Another peculiarity is the lettering: sometimes it is horizontal; sometimes at an angle. There is no pattern to this, though each road is to a standard design. It is unrelated to the amount of lettering (of which there is sometimes a great deal – up to 160 characters). Nowadays, as roads and pavements have got resurfaced, some of the information has disappeared under the asphalt.
A final puzzle is the colour of the original plates. The contract stipulated that they should be painted blue, and traces of blue paint have been found on some stones (see photo, left). Perhaps the colour was changed to the almost ubiquitous – and much clearer – white early on, or perhaps it was blue only on the rim, but no reference to this has been traced. One milestone in Mirfield was painted blue and gold in 2012 to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee; see the article on the Kirklees restoration project for details.
For more information click here for the Brayshaw and Booth picture gallery.
Adapted from an article by Christine Minto, with additions by Stephen Skellern, in On the Ground (no 5, 2008, pp 16-18). RWH / revised Novenber 2012.