The first Act of Parliament relating to roads was in 1555, and they have followed thick and fast ever since. This is a brief list of the main ones and what they contained.
1555. This first act, “for amending of Highways, being now both every noisom and tedious to travel in, and dangerous to all Passengers and Carriages” was passed during the reign of Queen Mary. It laid responsibility for the upkeep of highways throughout the country on the parish (interpreted as the township in those parts of the north of England with large parishes). Each highway authority was to elect a surveyor every year whose job it was to maintain the roads in good repair, using the local peasantry who gave their labour unremuneratedly (and no doubt unwillingly).
1663: The Wadesmill to Stilton Turnpike Act. This was the first ever turnpike act, to improve the road from Wadesmill in Hertfordshire to Stilton (of cheese fame) in Cambridgeshire, along the line of the old Great North Road. It established the principle that road users should pay for road improvements, although it was over 30 years before the next turnpike act.
1697: An Act for enlargeing Common Highways. This act permitted the compulsory acquisition of land where the road was too narrow. More significantly for our interests it made provision for the establishment of guide-stones or posts “where Two or more Crosse High-ways meet”.
1706: The Fornhill [Bedfordshire] to Stony Stratford [Buckinghamshire] Turnpike Act, covering part of the old Roman Road to Chester, Watling Street. The half-dozen turnpikes set up after the first were all under the control of the County Justices. This, however, was the first where the road was effectively privatised, and a board of local worthies, businessmen, etc took it over, and it set the pattern for all future turnpikes
1735: The Rochdale to Halifax etc Turnpike Act, the first in Yorkshire. In the same year there was an act for a turnpike from Manchester to Austerlands, on the Lancashire-Yorkshire boundary, though it was not until 1759 that the continuation to Huddersfield and Wakefield was authorised.
1766: The General Turnpike Act. A consolidation act repealing all earlier legislation and replacing it with one supposedly simple law. This was the first general act to require that milestones be set up on all turnpikes, although many individual turnpike acts had already made this stipulation, particularly from the 1740s onwards.
1822: General Turnpike Road Act: another consolidation act. Among other things this had reference to extra horses being taken on up hills at no extra charge, leading to the small number of “take-on” and “take-off” stones that survive. It also had a requirement for marker posts at parish boundaries.
1858: Local Government Act. This act gave parishes and townships the option of becoming Urban Sanitary Districts or combining with others to become Rural Sanitary Districts. Urban Sanitary Districts were to retain responsibility for their roads.
1862: Highways Act. This established Highway Districts as the norm for areas where parishes had not become Urban Sanitary Districts. This applied to most of the rural parts of Yorkshire. Highway Districts were also to take over the roads operated by failing Turnpike Trusts in the same areas.
1888: Local Government Act. This created the local government system that prevailed until the reforms of 1974. It established County Boroughs, responsible for all services (including roads) within their area, and County Councils, which had responsibility for main roads in the rest of the county.
1894: Local Government Act. Sanitary Districts became simply Urban and Rural District Councils, UDCs retaining responsibility for minor roads, and RDCs acquiring it with the abolition of Highway Districts.
Sources: W Albert: The turnpike road system in England 1663-1840 (Cambridge U P, 1972); Sidney and Beatrice Webb: The story of the King’s highway (Longmans Green, 1920); vlex.co.uk
RWH / August 2021