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Transport records roads and road transport

Roads and road transport are as old as civilisation itself, but for early times we have to rely on archaeological evidence. The Statute of Winchester (1285) recognised the upkeep of roads as a manorial obligation, and this responsibility fell upon the tenants who could be ordered by the Court Baron to scour ditches and remove obstructions. At a court held for the Manor of Ampthill in 1503, William Bilcokkes was ordered to remove a rubbish heap from the Kings Highway in front of his house. Such early references appear to be quite rare, and a detailed investigation of surviving manorial records would be necessary to find out more (see MANORIAL card index).


Local people sometimes left money for road maintenance in their wills. In 1446 John Crowe of Little Staughton left £10 for making a causeway, or raised road, from the ash tree by John Lawe's gate towards Little Staughton church [Ref: PR181]. The published volume of Bedfordshire Wills, 1480-1519 [BHRS XLV, 1966] gives some other examples.


The Highways Act of 1555 transferred responsibility for the roads from the manor to the parishes. Every man had to work on the roads for four (later six) days `statute duty' and provide horses and carts for the work. One or two men were appointed annually as unpaid Surveyors of Highways by local Justices of the Peace. The Justices were responsible for auditing the accounts and could prosecute parishes for failure to maintain roads. It is not until the second half of the 17th century that there is any written evidence of the system in operation. The records of the Bedford Assizes, 1653-1694 [Ref.HSA] mention various parishes indicated for failure to maintain highways, while a few parish archives contain lists of surveyors appoinments; Chalgrave, 1672-1835. Pulloxhill, 1624-1770, and Shillington, 1652-1850.


In the 18th century the quantity of source material increases greatly. The earliest surviving parish surveyors account books (Wilstead, 1702-1730; Houghton Conquest, 1720-1804; Melchbourne, 1740-1800) record expenditure on labour and materials. The Quarter Sessions records, commencing in 1714, record indictments similar to those in the Assize records, and it is noticeable that the volume of business increases in the 1790s with the diversion and stopping up of roads under the Enclosure Acts.


In 1706 the section of Watling Street from Woburn to Hockliffe was converted into a turnpike road by local Act of Parliament. This was the first toll road in the county although there was an unsuccessful attempt to turnpike the Great North Road in 1621-22. By the 1820s nearly all the main roads in the county were administered by turnpike trusts [BHRS Survey III Turnpikes and Pounds 1936]. Fairly complete records survive for four trusts: Hockliffe to Woburn (est. 1706), Biggleswade to Alconbury Hill near Huntingdon, (1725), Bedford to Sherington Turn near Newport Pagnell (c1754) and Bedford to Hitchin (1757). Under an Act of 1822 turnpike trusts were obliged to submit their accounts to Quarter Sessions and many of these records survive along with papers concerning the dissolution of the trusts [Ref.QT catalogue].


By the late 18th century it was evident that the parish system of highway maintenance, never very effective, was becoming even less so given the increasing amount of wheeled through traffic and the unfair burden this imposed on parishes on major routes. Parishioners were still liable for statute labour on turnpike roads. The surveyors' account books, which survive in part for about one-third of Bedfordshire parishes, show that there was little uniformity in standards of highway maintenance. At Pavenham between 1793 and 1825 one man served annually as joint parish constable and surveyor of highways [Ref: P68/21/1]. By contrast, Thomas Lilburne, a professional map-maker and surveyor, kept the Cardington accounts meticulously for at least 16 years until his death in 1823 [Ref: P38/21]. Despite the failings of the system parishes were reluctant to relinquish their independence and consequently the clause in the 1835 Highway Act allowing them to unite for highway purposes remained a dead letter. However the Act did have important consequences for record keeping for it abolished statute labour in favour of highway rates and encouraged commercial stationers to produce pro-forma highway account books and rate books. Not all parishes used the new books, but a few examples do survive. The simple manuscript accounts of receipts and disbursements give way, in 1836, to accounts under seven headings; day labour, contract work, materials, team work, tradesmen's bills, rent of pits and quarries and incidental expenses. By 1837 expenditure was covered under 19 headings and included a copy of the schedule of the general state of the roads which the surveyor had to submit to Petty Sessions. Few surveyors filled in their own office copy, but William Kitchen of Potton did in 1838. "Improved and improving" was his verdict on the town's nine miles of road. The Petty Sessions minute books [Ref:PS catalogue] which date from c1830 record the proceedings of the Highway Sessions, including the appointment of parish surveyors, and they should not be neglected in view of the severe losses of parish account books. By the middle of the nineteenth century other bodies had largely superseded the parishes as highway authorities in urban areas. The Bedford Improvement Commissioners, (est. 1803; Records Micf.15) and the Luton Local Board of Health (est. 1848; Records at Luton Museum) were particularly active in this respect. Poor Law Unions were responsible for the removal of nuisances from highways in rural areas under an Act of 186 [Ref: PU catalogue; main committee minutes].


Until the 1830s the mode of travelling was the same as it had always been - on foot, horseback or by wheeled vehicle. We have to rely on occasional references in official archives, private papers, and in printed sources such as newspapers for our information, simply because there was no central or local authority in existence responsible for the regulation of traffic. This would only come with the regulation of railways in the 1840s, traction engines in the 1870s and the licensing of motor-cars in 1903. For the earlier period the accounts and papers of the Bedford and Kettering coaches, 1803-1815, kept by shareholder John Rawlins of Bedford are the most noteworthy. [Ref: X37/1-19, 27]. Rawlins little realised that public coaching would be destroyed by the iron horse. The opening of the London-Birmingham main line in 1837-38, which passed near Leighton Buzzard, and the construction of Bedfordshire's railway network in 1846-1872, dealt an almost instantaneous blow to the coaching routes and hastened the end of the turnpike trusts which were all dissolved between 1867 and 1879. Meanwhile the parishes remained responsible for highway maintenance until the Highway Act of 1862 compelled them to unite under Highway Boards [Ref.HiB catalogue]. At first the vestry levied a rate on the parish to meet the precepts of the Highway Boards, but in 1878 a common fund was established to help pay for half the cost of maintaining the "disturnpiked" main roads. Quarter Sessions paid the balance out of the county fund and were also empowered to main roads [Ref.QSP7, 23, 25]. The Local Government Act of 1888 transferred responsibility for main roads to the new County Councils. Bedfordshire County Council formed a Highways Committee in 1889 [Ref.Hi catalogue; see green M & P catalogue for maps of main roads and turnpikes]. The office of County Surveyor, established in 1816 with responsibility for County buildings and bridges, now included care of main roads. In 1894 the unpopular Highway Boards were dissolved and the care of minor roads went to the new Rural and Urban District Councils [Ref.UD and RDC].


The highway functions of the county and district authorities since 1888 have been affected by new road users and consequent central government legislation. In 1880 Quarter Sessions made byelaws regulating the use of bicycles [Ref: HiV92], but it was the coming of the fast motorcar with its need for wide well-surfaced roads that greatly influenced policy. The County Council was responsible for vehicle licensing under the Motor Car Act of 1903 [Ref.TL catalogue Vehicle Registration Documents] and for widening roads under the Road Improvement Act, 1925, and later legislation. Locally levied rates and the income from taxation licences were no longer sufficient for maintenance of trunk roads such as Watling Street (A5) and the Ministry of Transport provided grant aid for reconstruction in 1929-1930 [Ref: HiV34; 62].

This brings the chequered history of roads and road transport almost up to date and it is hoped that this guide will encourage the use of important but hitherto little used archives.