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The Early Effects of Carmarthenshire's Turnpike Trusts, 1760-1800

by ANTHONY H. T. LEWIS, B.A.
Research Assistant, Dept. of History, University College, Swansea.

ON 21 January 1763, "several Gentlemen, and others, of the County and County Borough of Carmarthen " presented to the House of Commons, a petition, setting forth that the "High Road" through Carmarthenshire, from Trecastle mountain on the Breconshire border, westwards via Llandeilo, Carmarthen, and St. Clears, to Tavernspite on the Pembrokeshire border, "is in a ruinous Condition, narrow in some Places, and incommodious to Passengers; and cannot be effectually repaired, widened, and rendered commodious by the present Methods provided by Law." They therefore requested that "leave may be given to bring a Bill for repairing, widening, and rendering commodious" the above - mentioned road.1 The subsequent Act, passed by the House on 7 March 1763, established the Main Trust, the first turnpike authority to be set up in South Wales.2

The above procedure which always preceded the passing of an Act establishing a turnpike trust, or renewing a trust's Act that was about to expire appears on literally thousands of occasions in the Journals of the House of Commons for the latter half of the 18th century, a period that witnessed a "perfect mania"3 for turnpike Acts. The Acts were invariably sponsored by the landlords, who solicited and usually obtained the support of the local clergy and influential or rich tenants, together with local industrialists whose interests might be advanced by the construction or repair of the roads concerned. Each Act named a large number of people, usually local men of some wealth and influencc, who were responsible for ensuring that the Act was put into effect. These turnpike trustees, who could fill any vacancies (caused by resignation or death) which arose in their membership by co-opting others possessing a specified property qualification, were empowered to take over and maintain particular lengths of road (which were described in great detail in the Acts), and to levy tolls upon certain kinds of traffic using their roads (the rates of toll to be charged also being set out in the Acts). In order to meet the expense of repairing and maintaining the roads, the trustees were empowered to borrow money upon the security of the tolls. The duration of the Act was usually limited to a period of 21 years, the original hope being that during that time the roads could be put in proper repair, the borrowed money repaid, and the trust discontinued. The final four decades of the 18th century witnessed intensive activity on the part of landowners and industrialists, not only in Carmarthenshire, but throughout the whole of South Wales, in turnpiking the most frequented and important roads of their neighbourhood. By 1772, both the great mail coach roads between London and Milford Haven the one via Gloucester, Ross-on-Wye, Monmouth, Abergavenny, Brecon, Llandovery, Llandeilo, Carmarthen, Tavernspite, and Haverfordwest, the other from the ferry across the Severn, by Chepstow, Newport, Cardiff, Cowbridge, Neath, Swansea, Pontardulais, Llanelli, Kidwelly, and Carmarthen (where it linked with the inland route) had been enacted as turnpikes along their entire lengths through South Wales. In Carmarthenshire itself, nine turnpike trusts, controlling approximately 330 miles of the country's roads, had been established by the close of the century.4

In 1765, the Carmarthenshire gentry interested in the improvement of the lower mail coach road, from Pontardulais via Llanelli and Kidwelly, to Carmarthen, obtained Parliamentary sanction to turnpike this line of road, thereby setting up the Kidwelly Trust.5 Another set of roads, based upon the town of Llandeilo and village of Llandybie, was also included in the Act; these were the roads of the Llandeilo and Llandybie Trust. There followed a lull for fourteen years, until 1779, when the Llandovery and Llangadog Trust was established. Following in its footsteps, the Llandeilo Rwnws Bridge Trust (a trust whose Act, apart from the fact that it was perpetual, was similar to those of the road trusts) in 1784, the Carmarthen and Lampeter, and Llandovery and Lampeter Trusts in 1788, the Whitland in 1791, and the Three Commotts Trust in 1792, were set up in rapid succession.6

To what extent did Carmarthenshire's trusts, during these early years of their existence, succeed in improving the condition and administration of the county's roads? Although improvements undoubtedly accompanied the spread of the turnpike system, the available evidence suggests that these were both slow to come about, and limited in extent. Visions of the turnpike trust being an efficiently run organisation, effecting an immediate improvement in the condition of its roads, and collecting tolls sufficient to maintain the roads and to pay off the interest upon the capital borrowed on the credit of the tolls (and eventually to repay the capital sums themselves) were quickly dispelled. From the outset, the trusts had many grave defects: some of these were to be remedied during the early decades of the 19th century, whilst others were to remain forever with the trusts, hindering and obstructing them in their activities.

Perhaps the most glaring weakness characterizing the trusts during this period was the line of direction followed by the turnpike road. The turnpike acts of the 18th century made no attempt to create a new system of roads. The roads placed under the authority of the trusts were, almost without exception, those already in existence. That many of these, till this time frequented almost exclusively by cattle and pack-horses, were totally unsuitable, by the very nature of their steep gradients, for wheeled traffic, seems to have been of little concern at the time,7 Not until the 19th century were attempts made, by the construction of diversions and new branches, to adapt the roads to the steadily increasing volume of wheeled vehicles. The Reports presented to the Board of Agriculture in 1794 were unanimous in their condemnation of the "malignant degree of ingenuity" displayed in sending turnpike roads over hills.8 In his Report upon the agriculture of Breconshire, John Clark sums up:

"There was a misfortune attending the original making of the turnpike roads throughout the whole kingdom . . . Wheel carriages were not then so common as they are at present: hence the advantage of level roads were [sic] but faintly seen. The gentlemen, therefore, unfortunately did not go to the root of the evil; for, except where the hills were very steep, they contented themselves with widening the old road. This was the case of almost all the kingdom . . . And their descendants, at this day, feel, and are long likely to feel, the sad effects of this puny parisimony."9

This criticism is endorsed by Walter Davies, in his survey of the agriculture of South Wales, undertaken in 1814, where he states that on the earlier turnpike roads, "we frequently ascend an abrupt hillock . . . . for no other purpose than to descend it immediately on the other side."10

Furthermore, methods of road repair remained crude and primitive until the 19th century. The description left by a traveller journeying through South Wales in 1791, of the manner in which roads were repaired, is worth quoting:

"Their custom is to throw down vast quantities of huge stones, as large as they come out of the quarry, the size of a man's head, and many of them four times as big. These are spread over the road in heaps, perhaps a mile distant from each other, covering a great many yards of it. You must either drive over them, or wait till the people, who arc there with large hammers for the purpose, have broken them. This they only do into pieces the size of a pretty large flint . . . ."11

A favourite device, often adopted by turnpike trustees during the latter half of the 18th century for the repair and maintenance of their roads, was that of 'farming out' various lengths of road to individuals (invariably local farmers or craftsmen) who would keep them in repair in return for a lump sum. This practice, however, far from being the "wise and advantageous measure" described by John Clark,12 proved ruinous in its effects upon the roads.13 Walter Davies, travelling through Breconshire in 1814, was informed that the practice had been abandoned "as the roads were neglected by those who rented their repairs."14

Such defects in the turnpike system were, however, to be gradually remedied during the 19th century. On the other hand, many inherent weaknesses, more serious in the long run, were to remain, dogging the system until the very end of its existence. Most fundamental of these was the question of turnpike finance. The numerous evasions, exemptions granted to influential inhabitants, arbitrary exactions, and petty embezzlements connected with the collection of tolls at this time are notorious,15 though it must be admitted that definite evidence relating to such practices amongst Carmarthenshire's turnpike trusts during this period is lacking. More serious, however, was the enormous deficit into which the trusts very soon fell. The following figures show the debt owed by each of the first four trusts to be set up in the county, by the time their original Acts were renewed:16

Trust Date of Original Act Date of Renewal Act Unpaid Debt.
Main 1763 1784 4,080
Kidwelly 1765 1779 3,345
Llandeilo and Llandybie 1765 1786 2,5OO17
Llandovery and Llangadog 1779 1795 2,600

Clearly, initial expectations of an inexhaustible revenue from the tolls were not to be fulfilled. The reasons for these embarrassing financial difficulties were both numerous and varied. First, there was the heavy expense involved in procuring the Act of Parliament; this could amount to anything between 300 and 1,000.18 Then again there was the difficulty often experienced by trustees in obtaining advances upon the security of the tolls. Sir Thomas Stepney, one of the pioneers of the coal mining industry in the Llanelli district, and who was to become a trustee of both the Kidwelly, and Llandeilo and Llandybie Trusts, writing to William Clayton, M.P., on 21st February 1765, stated that at a meeting held prior to the presentment of the petition to the Commons, the condition of the roads of both the Kidwelly and the Llandeilo and Llandybie districts was much complained of, but "few present would subscribe money for carrying the Plan of mending these by Turnpike Act into execution."19 In spite of the rather gloomy forebodings conveyed by this letter, however, the Kidwelly Trust appears to have fared reasonably well with regard to initial subscriptions, the trust's Interest Books revealing that a sum of 7,980 was advanced upon the security of the tolls within three decades of the trust's establishment.20 The Llandeilo and Llandybie Trust, on the other hand, was much less fortunate in this respect, as the following figures illustrate:21

Year Total Value or Tallies Issued.
1765 10
1767 200
1768 660
1772 100
1775 150
1782 50
1788 150
1791 550

Tallies, whose date of issue cannot be traced, total 705, making the total value of tallies issued 2,575.

The financial predicament of the Llandeilo Rwnws Bridge Trust the only other trust in the county for which evidence exists relating to the subscriptions it received during this period was still worse. By 1794, ten years after its establishment, the trust had only five subscribers, their advances upon the security of the tolls totalling 920.22 Small wonder that in December 1802, a sum of 300 was still owing to the contractor for constructing the bridge (the original contract having been made for 1,200).23

In many instances, not only were the trustees unable to repay the actual capital sums invested, but they also found much difficulty in meeting the annual interest payments due to their subscribers. Non-payment, or very infrequent payments, of interest to creditors was to be the rule rather than the exception during the first half of the 19th century; but well before the close of the 18th century, instances of such neglect are to be noticed on certain trusts. The most blatant case concerned the Three Commotts Trust, whose trustees made no attempt whatsoever to repay any of the interest due to their subscribers until the year 1836,24 by which time the total unpaid interest stood at over 12,000.25 Subscribers to the Llandovery and Llangadog Trust were, by the last decade of the 18th century, experiencing much difficulty in obtaining regular interest payments from the trustees, as a number of letters from creditors, written during the years 1792-1794, demanding immediate payment of arrears of interest, testify;26 whilst there is little likelihood that the Llandeilo Rwnws Bridge Trust, the most inefficiently administered of Carmarthenshire's turnpike authorities at this time, remunerated its subscribers with any interest payments, for by 1813 the trustees had no knowledge of either the names of their creditors, or the respective sums due to them.27 Of Carmarthenshire's trusts for which records remain for the latter half of the 18th century, only the Kidwelly Trust appears to have made regular interest payments to its subscribcrs.28 Yet no attempt was made by Parliament to check or limit the extent to which trustees mortgaged their tolls.

It took little time for trustees to realise that the tolls they were allowed to levy (as laid down by their respective Acts of Parliament) produced an annual revenue far below what was required to keep the roads in repair and to repay the interest due upon the trusts' debt. Clauses which appeared in the ealier Acts exempting both lime and coal from the payment of toll, were in many cases repealed when the Acts came up for renewal, as this table illustrates.

The complex scale of tolls which varied according to whether the vehicle concerned was a four-wheeled waggon or a two-wheeled cart, the number of horses or oxen by which it was drawn, and the nature of the load set out in the Acts of the Whitland Trust (in 1791) and the Three Commotts Trust (in 1792) cannot be fitted into the the table. As the early decades of the 19th century were to show, however, these trusts were to follow the pattern set by the others in obtaining increased tolls when their Acts came up for renewal.

  TOLLS PAYABLE FOR:
NAME OF TRUST Date of Act Each Horse Drawing Each Horse not drawing Carriage of Coal Carriage of Lime Use of less than 300 yards of Turnpike Road
Main 1763 3d 1d None None None
Kidwelly 1765 3d 1d "One Moiety" None None
Llandeilo and Llandybie 1765 3d 1d "One Moiety" None None
Kidwelly 1779 3d 1d Full Toll Half Toll None
Llandovery and Llangadog 1779 3d 1d Full Toll Half Toll None
Main 1784 3d 1d Full Toll None None
Llandeilo Rwnws Bridge 1784 3d 1d Full Toll "One Moiety" None
Llandeilo and Llandybie 1786 3d 1d Full Toll Half Toll Full Toll
Llandovery and Lampeter 1788 3d 1d Full Toll Half Toll29 Full Toll
Carmarthen and Lampeter 1788 3d 1d Full Toll Half Toll29 Full Toll
Llandovery and Llangadog 1795 3d 1d Full Toll Full Toll None

Meanwhile, efforts were made to increase revenue by "farming" the tolls, a practice universally adopted by trusts during the 19th century, and which was to give rise to the highly controversial class of people known as "professional toll-farmers."30 The toll gates and bars would be auctioned or 'let' annually to the highest bidder, who was required to pay his rent in instalments to the trustees during the course of the year. He himself was then responsible for the collection of the tolls, any revenue remaining at the end of the year, after he had paid his rent and toll collectors, going into his pocket as profit. It appears likely that Carmarthenshire's trusts adopted this practice from the outset, though the only trust for which minute books (where an account of the annual lettings of the gates invariably appears) relating to the 18th century remain is the Llandeilo Rwnws Bridge Trust. Its trustees rented their one toll gate for the first time in 1791 (the collection of the tolls during the previous four years, from 1787 when the bridge was completed, having been the responsibiliy of the trustees themselves), when they received an annual rent of 42 for it. By 1800, this figure had been doubled, to 84.1.31 This method clearly was preferable to that adopted between the years 1787 and 1791, as the trustees were no longer burdened with having themselves to make arrangements for the collection of tolls, whilst their annual income did show a definite increase.

The diminutive size of many of the trusts was another important factor accounting for the increasing financial difficulties encountered by them at this time. The smaller trusts, such as the Carmarthen and Lampctcr, the Llandovery and Lampeter, and the Llandeilo Rwnws Bridge,32 each employing its clerk, surveyor, and treasurer, can have had little money available for the repair of their roads if the salaries of their officers and the interest due to their creditors was regularly paid. Moreover, many of the roads of the smallest and most inefficient of the country's trusts traversed the mountainous terrain to the north of the Vale of Towy, and were constantly being churned up by the lime and coal carts of the farmers of that region. Such roads even the richest and largest of turnpike authorities would have experienced much difficulty in maintaining. It is therefore hardly surprising to find roads used almost exclusively by mineral traffic, and whose cost of repair would have been greatly in excess of the revenue derived from the tolls collected upon them, were in a number of instances never taken over by the trustees, although included in the Act of Parliament.33 A characteristic feature of the renewal Acts of the 19th century was the abandonment of certain 'uneconomical' roads included in the original Acts.

One more important aspect of the initial effects of the turnpike trusts upon Carmarthenshire's roads remains to be examined. After the enactment of the famous statute of the Parliament of 1555,34 responsibility for the repair and maintenance of the country's public highways rested upon the parish as a whole and on every inhabitant thereof, who was annually required to perform, without payment, four days' repair work (called Statute Labour) on the highways of the parish in which he lived (this number subsequently being raised to six days in 1562). This work was to be supervised by the parish Surveyor (who also received no remuneration for his services), appointed annually by the parishioners from amongst themselves, and whose duties included viewing all roads, bridges, pavements, and water-courses within his parish at least three times a year, and presenting any persons who failed to perform the required Statute Labour before the Justices of the Peace assembled either in Special or in Quarter Sessions.

The coming of the turnpike system in no way affected this parochial responsibility for the upkeep of the country's roads. It was never intended that the trusts should relieve the parishes of their duty of maintaining the roads, but rather that the efforts of the trust would supplement those of the parish, and so effect a considerable improvement in the condition of the roads. Parishes were, in the last resort, still responsible for the maintenance of all public roads, the law making no provision for the indictment of a defaulting turnpike trust. The only legal remedy was the antiquated procedure of presentment or indictment of the parish through which the road passed. Despite the glaring iniquity of this system, whereby local parishioners were punished for the neglect of a turnpike trust, it was to continue in existence until 1835.

To what extent were parishioners made scape-goats for neglectful turnpike trustees in Carmarthenshire? The usual procedure was that a parish would be presented for neglect of road repair by a local Justice of the Peace at Quarter Sessions. Occasionally, where it could be shown that the road concerned had never been in a better state of repair than at the time of complaint, the presentment was "quashed." Invariably, however, the parishioners, so as to avoid the expense of further legal proceedings, would plead guilty to the presentment, which was usually "respited" by the assembled magistrates for a period of three or six months, in order to give the parish time to repair the road. If the work had not been done by the end of the specified period, a fine would be imposed on the parishioners generally, the money being laid out upon the repair of the road by either the parish surveyor or some other person named by Quarter Sessions.

Unfortunately, the minute books of the Carmarthenshire Court of Quarter Sessions are extant from only the year 1794 onwards.35 It is therefore not possible to analyse parish presentments during the years immediately following the establishment of the county's earlier turnpike trusts. A study of presentments made during the 1790's, however, reveals a number of interesting facts:

Between the years 1792 and 1800, the minute books record 66 presentments of parishes for neglect of road repairs. Of these, no fewer than 40 (approximately 60 per cent) concern roads already brought under the authority of turnpike trusts, whilst 20 (approximately 30 per cent of total presentments) involve the roads of the Kidwelly Trust, whose trustees were by far the worst offenders in this respect, as the following table illustrates:

  PRESENTMENTS RELATING TO TURNPIKE ROADS IN:  
NAME OF TRUST 1792 1793 1794 1795 1796 1797 1798 1799 1800 TOTAL Presentments 1792-1800
Kidwelly - 1 - 6 - 2 3 5 3 20
Llandeilo and Llandybie 1 - - - - - - - - 1
Llandovery and Llangadog - 1 1 1 - 2 1 - 2 8
Llandeilo Rwnws Bridge - - 1 - - - - - - 1
Carmarthen and Lampeter 1 - - - - 1 - - 2 4
Three Commotts - - - - 1 1 1 3 - 6

As early as January 1791, the South Wales Association for the Improvement of Roads (a body founded in 1789 by the landowners and industrialists interested in the improvement of the coastal mail coach road between the Severn and Milford Haven) had threatened to take legal action against the parishes responsible for the repair of the Kidwelly Trust's road between Pontardulais and Kidwelly, the greater part of which was "so extremely bad that it is not passable without considerable difficulty and danger, and some part of it even left in its original state, so as never to have been amended or altered within the memory of man."36 Again, the few presentments of parishes for neglect of repairs to turnpike roads during this period, that are recorded in the papers of the Court of Great Sessions (Carmarthen Circuit) deal almost exclusively with the roads of the Kidwelly Trust.37 A possible explanation of this interest shown in the condition of the Kidwelly Trust's roads is that the local Magistrates, embarrassed by the adverse publicity given to the roads by the South Wales Association (whose sole concern at this time was the improvement of the coastal road), themselves presented the parishes concerned before the Association intervened. That the condition of these roads was worse than that of the roads of many of the county's other trusts seems unlikely. The road that appeared most frequently in the Quarter Sessions presentments for the years 1793-1796 was that from Laugharne westwards to Tavernspite a line that received little attention from the trustees, and which was to be officially abandoned by them in 1802. The great majority of presentments for the years 1797-1800, on the other hand, refer to the road between Carmarthen and Swansea via Llannon and Pontardulais, a route which at this time replaced the coastal line through Llanelli and Kidwelly as the Mail Coach road. As the main line of communication through the county, it was to be expected that neglect of its repair would occasion fairly prompt action.

The early decades of the 19th century witnessed an intensification of presentments of parishes for neglecting to repair turnpike roads, and there can be little doubt that the additional burden of having to maintain turnpike roads, besides their own highways, weighed heavily upon the shoulders of the parishioners, especially as they were liable to be fined anything up to 1,000 for neglect.38 The antiquated machinery of statute labour was proving hopelessly inadequate to maintain even parish highways under the ever-increasing volume of wheeled traffic; yet it was also expected to maintain turnpike roads in a reasonable state of repair. Even so, in spite of its iniquity and futility, this system was to remain, unmodified, the basis of road repairs until 1835.

Thus far, the picture drawn of the effects of Carmarthenshire's turnpike trusts, during the early years of their existence, upon the county's roads, has been anything but encouraging. There is, however, a brighter side. The Reports compiled for the Board of Agriculture in 1794, whilst condemning the lines followed by the early turnpike roads, at the same time praised the "present trustees . . [who] are now busy in making new roads round the bottoms of those hills which their less considering predecessors had boldly climbed over."39 The turnpike roads "of modern date" showed a marked improvement both in their construction and in their line of direction, this being attributed to "the knowledge the gentlemen of the county have acquired, by experience in road-making."40 Again, the evidence left by contemporary tourists, although in many instances highly critical of the county's roads, does give a general picture of a very gradual improvement in their condition by the close of the century. Moreover, the turnpike system, which had often encountered considerable initial opposition, had by this time firmly established itself within the county. There was still an enormous amount of work to be done, however. Many of the old pack-horse tracks had yet to be replaced, whilst scientific methods of road construction which would improve the surface and foundation of a road were urgently required. The 19th century was to witness many advances in both respects; it was also to see the turnpike trusts founder still deeper in financial difficulties.
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