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In England, roads, in the form of track ways, have been with us since the Stone Age. However, the Romans constructed the first true roads as we know them. Constructed primarily to enable their armies to move quickly and safely from place to place, they also assisted in trade and the movement of people from city to city. These roads, skilfully constructed by the Roman engineers and planners lasted for centuries, but after the Romans left in the 5th Century, the roads started to erode through lack of proper maintenance.

The Highways Act of 1555, had established that the responsibility for the maintenance and construction of roads was the responsibility of the local parish through which the road past, under the authority of the county or borough Quarter Sessions. Highway boards took over this area of the work of the parish in 1835, until county councils, who took charge of all county roads, were set up in 1888. This was not popular with the local residents who were expected, by law, to work unpaid on the roads for six days each year, and despite regular indictments at the Quarter Sessions, many parishes, especially in the rural areas, neglected their duties and the roads remained in a poor state, often deeply rutted and extremely muddy. This system of maintaining the roads continued from about 1555 to 1835, but by the 18th century, it had become clear that this system was not coping with the change in usage. Due to the growth of the manufacturing industries and the need to transport raw materials and finished goods, along with the arrival of the stagecoach, the existing roads were simply not able to cope with the increased heavy traffic.

Travelling through Devon in 1630, the antiquarian Tristram Risdon had observed that the roads and pathways were; "Rough and unpleasant to strangers travelling those ways, which are cumbersome and uneven, amongst rocks and stones, painful for man and horse." Long after Risdon's time, many of the roads were still little more than pack-horse routes, along which goods were transported as well as lime, sand and yard dung to manure the fields. William Marshall, writing in his 'Rural Economy of the West of England (1796), remarked that transportation in North Devon consisted of "Leith carts and Highland sledges (or implements very much resembling them)". Travellers went on horseback, carriage, or on foot with goods being carried on pack animals.

In 1663, an Act of Parliament established the first Turnpike Trust, the intention being to improve the existing roads, although later Trusts built on entirely new lines. Turnpike trusts consisted of a group of people who would get together and asked for permission from Parliament to take over a section of road, or build a new one, usually for a period of around 21 years. The idea being, that after the initial financial outlay, raised as shares amongst the Trustees, the cost of improvement to be recouped by charging travellers a toll, collected at gates or turnpikes, at intervals along the road. The Trusts optimistically hoped that any additional monies raised could be used for the ongoing maintenance of the road.

Travellers on foot were exempt from charges, as were soldiers and Royal Mail coaches. However, all other users had to pay a toll based on the size of the carriage or wagon, and the number of horses pulling it, or in the case of stock, the number and type of animals in the drove or flock. Higher rates were charged for wagons and carts having wheel-trims less than three inches in width, for it was thought that wider wheels would help to act as rollers on the road surface. In the Witheridge area, a turnpike road was established from South Molton to Tiverton via Rackenford, and another from South Molton to Exeter via Alswear, Meshaw Moor, Drayford, Thelbridge Cross, Kennerleigh and Crediton. Witheridge therefore missed out, which may have contributed to its failure to become a borough. However, Witheridge names occur among the trustees, such as Partridge, Cooke, Shortrudge and Melhuish.

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A good idea though the Turnpikes was, Vancouver in Agriculture of Devon 1808 accused Devons roads of being narrower than they should have been, badly maintained, worn by lime carts, and broken into so many holes and unevenness as to endanger the knees of the horses and the neck of the rider. They could not therefore have done the newly introduced coaches much good either; the route from Barnstaple to South Molton, Rackenford and Tiverton was a through route to London. Turnpikes needed a shot in the arm and they got it from an unexpected source, namely the railway. North Devon in the 1830s woke up sharply to the fact that the railway would run from London to Bristol and on to Exeter. It was vital that North Devon improved its road in order to connect to the railway. Tiverton helped with a new turnpike that linked the town with Nomansland, Thelbridge, Chawleigh and the new Exeter-Barnstaple turnpike at Eggesford. It was better still for Witheridge when in 1837 the trustees of South Molton Turnpikes proposed an Act for a number of roads from that town, including a direct road through Witheridge connecting with the other at Westway Cross.

Drayford Toll House

This Act of Parliament, passed in 1839, laid down in minute detail the specifications for the road including the 20ft width, the camber, the drainage, the hedge banks, and their planting, as well as the provision of pavements, where the road passed through the village itself. The new road entered Witheridge parish at the point were West Yeo Bridge crosses the Adworthy Brook. An old road plunged straight down and straight up again but 1830s thinking preferred a more gentle descent and climb, to make it easier for the horse-drawn vehicles that had largely replaced pack-horses. The road then curved and ran level to Dart Cross, whence it sliced straight through the fields of Dart Raffe and West Yeo before dropping down to cross the river on a causeway and a new bridge over the Little Dart River. The bridge engineer, G A Boyce, had his name on it. The bridge was high above the water and the road ran diagonally up the steep slope on the other side of the village. Just passed the old road to Witheridge Mill was, on the left, a tollhouse, known as Witheridge Town Toll Gate. Investment money had to be raised, to purchase land to acquire and knock down buildings in the village. It is clear from what eventually happened that not enough money was raised to meet all the conditions. Where the road passed the churchyard, the church poor houses were purchased and demolished. The act did not require the trustees to buy and knock down the houses on the other side of the road, so no pavement was built, and the width of the road is below standard. Similarly, there was no requirement to knock down the buildings at Trafalgar Square so the pavement is seriously deficient on both sides of the road.

The Trusts also experimented with new ways to build roads, adding new methods of making roads stronger and last longer. Very few trusts would ever make money, most in fact lost money, however they did leave a legacy of improved roads. At the same time, Britain saw the arrival of the first railway lines, which became a very popular and safe way to travel. They were fast and more difficult for highwaymen to stop. People stopped using the stagecoaches and the Turnpike Trusts gradually became bankrupt, with the last company closing in 1895.

Coach proprietors were quick to cash in on the new road, and in the early 1840s Mr Marsh's 'Emerald' coach left the Golden Lion daily at 8am, picked up in South Molton and Witheridge and reached Tiverton Station in time for the 12.40 express train for Taunton, Bristol and Chippenham, reaching Paddington at 5.25pm. White's Directory for 1850 shows coaches leaving South Molton three times daily to connect with trains for Bristol and London. To attract the coaching trade the proprietors of The Angel rebuilt their old thatched premises in the form it is today, and the Benson family knocked down most of Hodge's Tenement and built Aston House (later The Mitre). This was opened as a coaching inn but The Angel had stolen a march on them and it closed as an inn, not to reopen as such for another 120 years. The Bensons used it for many years as a vicarage after the original Parsonage House had burnt down.

The tolls to be paid to pass through each tollgate were set out in the Act of Parliament. For each horse drawing a stagecoach or wagon the charge was eight pence, unless the fellies of the wheels were less than 6" in width, when they paid a shilling. The narrower the wheels the more the surface could be cut up. Any vehicle drawn by "steam, gas or machinery" paid two shillings. Droves of oxen or other cattle were charged at one shilling and three pence for 20, and sheep at seven pence halfpenny. Return journeys within 24 hours would be free. Needless to say attempts were made to avoid payment. At Thornham Tollgate a friendly farmer of East Worlington would allow a flock of sheep to be driven through his fields, so avoiding the gate, and horse riders were known to spur their horses on to jump the tollgate and escape payment.

By the 1870's it was clear that the system was not working. Investors were not being paid interest, the value of their capital was declining and the turnpikes were not being well managed or maintained. Together with many others, the Trust was wound up on May 1st 1882, and investors received a token sum when roads became a County responsibility. The Witheridge Town Tollhouse was sold for £20 to the Vicar, who repaired it, added a bedroom and rented it out for a shilling a week. The Cannington Tollhouse at the top of the village was bought by George Cutcliffe for £25; only it's garden can be seen today. Part of the front wall of the Town Tollhouse can still be identified, near the lower iron gates of the churchyard.

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That Mr Boyce and his workmen did a good job 190 years ago is proven by the fact that the line and width of the road are as they left them in 1840; only the tarmac surface is relatively new. West Yeo Bridge and New Bridge are structurally sound, although the latter has taken a few knocks over the years. Mr Boyce could not have foreseen the coming of the motor vehicle or the huge increase in weight and amount of traffic. As far as Witheridge is concerned, only the road east out of the village has had to be straightened and widened.

(W.C) Tollhouse: In the early 1900s, the ruins of the "Cannington" tollhouse could still to be seen at Chapner Cross, by the small garden that remained.

(Mrs Gard) The road to South Molton was known as Rock Road on account of the quarry and Mrs Gard is certain that "old Mr Venner" always said the turnpike gate and toll house was situated on the site of Thornham Chapel. (Mrs Gard's husband was a County Council roadman and also swept chimneys.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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