Are tolls still a turn off?

PUBLISHED: 12:14 10 April 2012

Celebrating the abolition of tolls in Honiton.

Celebrating the abolition of tolls in Honiton.


Nostalgia: a look back at turnpikes as Prime Minister plans new road tolls.

What do you think about the Prime Minister’s plans for private road tolls? He wants to revive the ‘Victorian spirit’. Before answering, you might like to remember that it is only 100 years ago Honiton folk danced in the streets - to celebrate the end of the hated ‘turnpikes’.

Local historian Terry Darrant explains these were named after the barrier of pikes fastened to gates to prevent people avoiding paying the tolls. This made it fairly tricky to jump over! It doesn’t surprise me since, in my native Wales, there were riots against toll gates. Men dressed as women, known as ‘Rebecca-ites’, and tore the gates down, pikes and all. They saw them as an unfair poll tax on the poor. Dragoons had to be sent to restore order.

Terry Darrant, who has made a study of Turnpikes in his book Honiton - A Glimpse Back* suggests Honiton was the last place to keep an active tollhouse. He describes the setting up of Honiton Turnpike Trust in 1765, which helped to improve what were then little better than muddy and uneven tracks. The Trust could levy a fee of 6p per pound for their work in paving Honiton’s streets.

From 1790, they began levying tolls on roads in and around the town. Toll charges varied from 1d for an unladen animal (about £1.20 today), 4d for a horse and cart (£5) and 1s.6d (£20) for a coach and four horses. At Totnes in 1835, the turnpike charged a massive five shillings for a steam powered vehicle! This may explain their increasing unpopularity.

Poorer people may not have rioted, but they used ingenuous methods to avoid paying - like the farmer who took his beasts along the Gissage!

The Prime Minister compares ‘road pricing’ (tolls) to water bills, which he claims have been reasonable and good for the companies and shareholders. Perhaps, he has studied Honiton’s profitable Turnpike Trust. In 1835 it earned £1,081 for the treasurer Christopher Flood, £120,000 in today’s money, which may explain why he was a banker as well as treasurer to the new parish church. Terry lists 20 toll gates which were placed strategically in and around the town, three of which still survive - Kings Road Gate better known as The Copper Castle (named for its copper roof), Potters Kiln Gate (Holyshute Cottage) on the Taunton road and Manna House on the Exeter Road, the most profitable, taking £1,500 at its peak (almost £200,000 today).

Tolls were also charged within Honiton and on many country roads such as those to Gittisham, Weston, Luppitt, Churchstanton, Combe Raleigh, Whimple, etc . One of the reasons why it took almost a day and night to get to London was the delay caused by waiting at toll houses, as those who queue to pay their £5.50 on the Severn crossings at holiday periods will know.

The coming of local authorities, Road Traffic Acts and steam railways, which ended the coaching era, reduced the income of turnpike trusts. Combined with the greed of some owners and cost of macadam, profits fell and most turnpikes became uneconomic.

As the Victorian era came to a close, Honiton’s toll houses were sold off to great rejoicing in 1910.

The AA does not think we should welcome them back, claiming the tax on road users already pays for roads and much else.

What do you think? Send your views to or write to the address at the top of page 4.

*HONITON - A Glimpse Back by Terry Darrant is available from Honiton Tourist Information Centre.

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