Northumberland and Durham Family History Society

Members of the Northumberland and Durham Family History Society enjoyed a talk on A Predilection for Steep Banks, the Morpeth to Coldstream Turnpike Road, c1750-1850, by Derek Cutts.

This talk took a look at the state of the roads in our area from the early 18th century and explained the development of turnpikes. Prior to the mid-18th century, the custom was for each man to provide four days’ unpaid labour annually to repair roads in the district. Inevitably this meant huge variation in the state of upkeep.

We learnt about the Earl of Oxford who required one coach, two companions, 10 servants and 17 different horses for travelling to his estates in Northumberland.

On his return journey, he hired a guide from Berwick to Belford who chose a route via Goswick, an unlikely route proven when the tide diverted them inland and lengthened the route to 16 miles over six hours instead of 12. Details of the journey were recorded in the diary of one of his companions.

Travelling in the past was a dangerous affair. Drowning from overturned coaches at river crossings, drunken driving and even falling off horses were common occurrences. The ride was bumpy and uncomfortable even at the low speed of 7mph. It was also very expensive as the slow speed meant frequent stops and purchase of meals so most people had no choice but to walk.

Not only was there no definite route in many cases with travellers choosing the easiest one on the day, there were obstructions to contend with.

Highway robberies were common with cases of travellers not only being robbed of their money but of the clothes they were wearing. Silvanus Broadwater was a highwayman eventually caught and imprisoned after his exploits on Rimside Moor on the route of the present A697.

Northumberland was one of the last counties to be turnpiked and the reasons for this were illuminating. Wealthy landowners exerted huge influence over where roads were improved from mere dirt tracks to main highways.

Candidates in elections were responsible for the cost of transporting their supporters in the days when there was a sole polling station for casting votes.

Glendale suffered neglect for political reasons. It was therefore in their interests to ensure roads were safe and in good repair.

Gentlemen needing to attend the Quarter Sessions at Alnwick, Morpeth, Hexham and Newcastle provided a major reason for these towns being served by the best roads. It is no accident that many large country houses, such as Blagdon, Belsay, Wallington, have a major road close by.

The first turnpike in Northumberland appeared by 1740. Turnpike Trusts appointed toll collectors and surveyors and the money raised by charging travellers passing though was used to repair the road, build bridges and erect milestones.

A few milestones from these days still survive. Vehicles with narrow wheels were charged most as they caused more damage to the road surface.

From 1790 to 1850, more and more turnpikes appeared as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, growth in agriculture and farm rents rising. But the advent of the railways had a disastrous effect upon further development of roads.

The famous engineer Thomas Telford recommended the route from Newcastle to Edinburgh via Wooler instead of the Great North Road via Belford and Berwick but his recommendation was not taken up. If it had been then Belford would have been a very different place and the famous Blue Bell Hotel might not have survived to the present day.

Derek’s talk was crammed with information and cast a new light upon the subject. It was well-illustrated with some amusing pictures of the risks of travel in days gone by.