Guide-stones (or stoops as they are often called in Yorkshire, from an old Norse word for a post) are equivalent of today’s signposts.  They came before milestones which are mainly a product of the turnpike era. 

The first Act of Parliament to refer to them was in 1697 (chapter 16 of 8&9 William III: An Act for enlargeing Common Highways). This states:

“And for the better convenience of travelling in such Parts of this Kingdome which are remote from Towns and where several High-ways meet Be it further enacted … That it shall and may be lawfull to and for his Majesties Justices of the Peace … in such Cases as they shall think necessary to direct their Precept to the Surveyors of the High-ways in any Parish or Place where Two or more Crosse High-ways meet requiring them forthwith to cause to be erected or fixed in the most convenient Place where such Ways joyn a Stone or Post with an Inscription thereon in large Letters containing the Name of the next Markett Towne to which each of the said joyning High-ways leads …”

And there is a fine of ten shillings for any surveyor who shall “neglect or refuse to cause such Stone or Post to be fixed”.

Celia Fiennes, travelling the country at around this time,reports in her diary seeing, for example, at Lutterworth a “hand poynting 4 wayes to Coventry, Leicester, London, and Litchfield”.  But it was Lancashire with which she was most impressed: “They have one good thing in most parts of this principality …, that at all cross wayes there are posts with hands pointing to each road with the names of the great town or market towns that it leads to, which does make up for the length of the miles the strangers may not loose their road and have it to goe back again.”

There is an absence of dates in Fiennes’s accounts, so we cannot be sure whether these preceded or followed the legislation.

It was not until 1700, however, that the West Riding justices issued an instruction to local parish and township surveyors for “stoops to be sett up in crosse highways” inscribed with “the name of the next market town to which each of the joining highways leede”.

In 1733 this instruction (presumably having been largely ignored) was repeated, guide-stoops to be set up at cross-roads “upon large moors and commons where intelligence is difficult to be had” – a reference to the paucity of the population rather than their IQ!  Another instruction of 1738 requested that distances be stated, and in 1754 the constables were called to account for their actions.  It also became common practice for dates to be included, although there seems to have been no legal requirement for this. Many stoops have dates around 1738 and the 1750s.

The Kirkheaton stoop

The 1733 instruction perhaps recognises that market towns are few and far between on the moors, and many stones name not far-off towns, but nearby settlements.  A stone at Norland, near Sowerby Bridge, for example, directs a traveller to Elland, Ripponden, Sowerby and Halifax.  Only the last-named was a market town.  Similarly, the stoop outside the Lower Royal George on the A640 near Huddersfield names Scammonden, Deanhead (as Daynhead, presumably how it was pronounced), Marsden and Huddersfield – again the only market town, while the first two, then as now, were sparsely-populated settlements, not even villages.

A stone of 1738, at a crossroads on the B6118 above Kirkheaton, however, fulfils all the requirements: it directs to Barnsley, Dewsbury, Halifax and Huddersfield – all market towns.

Sometimes hands and fingers point towards the destination, but in their absence the custom was that the traveller was to take the road to the right while facing the destination name on the stone. 

An unusual alternative can be found on a guide-stoop at Earby in the north-west of the old West Riding.  The words TO COLN are written back-to-front, thus indicating that Colne was to the left.

The Farnley Moor End stoop

Many stones name the surveyor who was responsible for the erection of the stoop.  A stone at Farnley Moor End between Farnley Tyas and Thurstonland near Holmfirth, also of 1738, has two beautifully-carved names: Jon Hoyle, Constable, and Thos Bothomley, Surveyor. Interestingly, this stoop, like the Earby one, was once used as the base for a sun-dial.

Guide-stones are not exclusively a feature of the early 18th century.  Dotted around the county are a number of guide-stones put up in the 19th century by a number of different bodies: local authorities (townships or local boards), turnpike trusts and highway boards.  Perhaps they used stone because of its easy availability and greater durability. 

Examples are:

  • In the Craven district, mainly north of Skipton: over 20 stones in one simple style can be found at road junctions, showing the way to nearby villages .  These are thought to have been put up by the East Staincliffe Highways District, around the 1880s.  Click here for more details.
  • In the Thurstonland area: four stones were erected in 1861 by the Local Board: the surveyor’s name, John Bottomley, is carved on one of them. Click here for details of a walk visiting them all (as well as the Farnley Moor End stoop).
  • On the Leeds-Otley road stand a series of thick stone blocks with the names of anything up to a dozen local villages, buildings, railway stations and more distant towns. These were put up by the Turnpike Trust.

Sources: W B Crump: Huddersfield highways down the ages (Tolson Museum, 1949); Sidney and Beatrice Webb: The story of the King’s highway (Longmans Green, 1920)

RWH / August 2021