The British road network in the Seventeenth Century was a disgrace. When a gentleman of South Wales was asked in parliament on the state of the local roads he replied ‘we ride around in ditches’.
In Glamorgan, the principal arterial road running from east to west was the Via Julia Maritima; the Roman road, built in the Antonine period to link up the forts at Gloucester, Caerleon, Cardiff and Neath. To an extent it still is as its course is now loosely followed by the A48. In the Eighteenth Century it was clear to observe that there had not been much in the way of maintenance done since the Romans had left. It was in a terrible state.
One of the more famous casualties of the state of this road (in folklore at least) was Richard Cromwell. The son of Oliver Cromwell; Lord Protector. Richard Cromwell was known to be very close to Colonel Philip Jones of Fonmon Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan and the story goes that after a very boozy lunch at Fonmon, he was heading home to London along the Roman Road. His coach struck a pothole with such a jolt that the impact threw him from his seat and out onto the road. Hence the nickname “Tumble-Down-Dick” and the stretch of road ever since known as ‘The Tumble’. A steep hill west of Culverhouse Cross near Cardiff.
With copies of the old Carmarthen to Cardiff Stage Coach timetables and a bit of simple arithmetic we can calculate that the average pace of traffic along this road was just 4 mph. Although to be fair, that sort of speed might seem aspirational if you have ever approached the Brynglas Tunnels on the modern day M4 .
So the solution came from an act of parliament. The first one being passed in 1663 to permit the formation of a ‘turnpike’ called ‘the Great North Road’ which ran between Wadesmill in Hertfordshire and Stilton in Huntingdonshire. Clearly the people of Wadesmill could not get cheese fast enough before 1663! Soon the model was replicated all over the country. Turnpike trusts were established which were non profit making organisations who co-ordinated the collection of tolls and the distribution of funds to engineers and contractors for the building, maintenance and repair of the roads. They did this on behalf of land owners, community councils and the church who owned the land the roads ran across.
The name ‘turnpike’ is derived from the name given to the gates which were erected across the roads at toll houses. People had to stop at these gates, pay for passage to the next one, and then ‘the pike would be turned and the gate opened’. These gates have now all gone, but many of the old toll houses still remain. Here is a selection from across the old county of Glamorgan.
Glamorgan Toll Houses
- West Gate toll house Cowbridge
- Penarth Road toll house Cardiff
- Old town toll house Llantrisant
- Llandaff toll house
- Bridge keepers lodge Tongwynlais
- Talbot Road toll house Llantrisant
- Cimla Road toll house, Neath
- Newcastle Hill toll house, Bridgend
- The Castle Hotel Toll Hose, Derwen Road, Bridgend
There are many people who equate the scale and success of the industrial revolution in Britain to the improvements made to our road system through these schemes. It undoubtedly led to big improvements in productivity as people, materials and goods became able to move around the country quicker and easier. By the time the last act of parliament was passed in 1836, there had been 942 Acts for new turnpike trusts in England and Wales. By then, turnpikes covered around 22,000 miles of road, about a fifth of the entire road network.
Where were the Glamorgan Turnpikes?
The Via Julia Maritima became the template for The Glamorgan Turnpike in 1764 but work on rebuilding and re-routing continued for the best part of the next 100 years. For example the old 15th Century bridge in Bridgend was totally inadequate for 18th century traffic but it was not until 1821 that the trust laid the foundations of the ‘new’ bridge crossing the Ogmore at Bridgend. The improvements also involved the introduction of milestones many of which are still around like the example here which stands in Bridgend town centre. As you can see from the date stamp. These were introduced in 1836.
I’ve always loved this particular one. I love the regency style arches and flourishes. The information is also useful. It tells travelers that they are in Bridgend Town & District, that this section (at the bottom of Caroline Street) was part of the parish of Coity, also the distance to Pyle to the west and Cowbridge to the east, as well as London for those making the two day trip to the capital.
This of course was not the only turnpike. The roads were graded by importance. The old Roman Road was the principal road. The one used by post and stage coaches and the one used for longer distance travel. However there were other turnpike roads to carry local traffic north into the industrialised valleys. You will note from this map, that except for Dinas Powys (where the street name for the road concerned is still called Old Turnpike Road) there is nothing else in the Vale of Glamorgan south of the Roman Road.
The tolls charged would fluctuate dramatically and this was part of the reason why they became such a subject for hatred. Especially here in Wales.
In the industrialised areas, ordinary people were being squeezed from all sides. Low wages, high rents, taxes and church tythes took their own toll. In rural areas these same issues were confounded with a run of poor harvests in the early 19th Century which drove crippling rural poverty. Having to pay to travel by road was the last straw. Especially as costs would rack up if you were transporting livestock as the example here from the Cefnglas Gate north of Bridgend demonstrates.
These were the seeds of dissent which blew up in the form of the Rebecca Riots in 1839, although most of that action took place in rural Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and Powys.
The Rebecca Riots
It all started with the tollgate at Efailwen between Whitland and St Clears on the Pembrokeshire/Carmarthenshire border. An attack was led by a man with a blackened face, wearing a wig and women’s clothes, astride a white horse and waving a sword. The stirring figure of ‘Rebecca’. There was a great deal of irony intended in the protestor’s getup: women traveling alone were exempt from paying a toll. The name Rebecca, meanwhile an allusion to the most beautiful woman in the Old Testament (her name becoming the Hebrew word for ‘alluring’) had its own barbed significance when applied to a big burly bloke in a dress. If such figurative subtleties registered with the turnpike trustees, we will never know. But they couldn’t have missed the protestors destroying the toll gate and attacking the toll collector.
Shortly after this first attack, a new tollgate was placed near the Mermaid Tavern in St Clears, on November 18th 1842. This new imposition upon the locals became the site of a four-month battle between the rioters and the authorities. The mob’s modus operandi remained consistent throughout: they would descend without warning, led by the figure of Rebecca, before just as quickly disappearing into the night. There are claims that their numbers reached as many as 100 men, armed with scythes and billhooks.
Police and troops were called in to help protect the gates, but Rebecca and her daughters were consistently one step ahead of the law. Here in Glamorgan, we had a Police force, which they didn’t have in Carmarthenshire at the time. It was Glamorgan police who were sent west to deal with the uprising. But pretty soon, the unrest started to head east towards them. On 6th September 1843 a crowd of over 100 descended onto Pontarddulais near Swansea. Chief Constable Charles Napier of the Glamorgan Constabulary however had been tipped off to expect trouble and lay in wait with his own men and a battalion of infantrymen. Shots were fired, 7 people were arrested and they were tried at the Cardiff Assizes.
Two ring leaders were identified, both Glamorgan men. Their names were John Jones and David Davies both inhabitants of Pontyberem. They were sentenced to seven years transportation. At their trial it was established beyond a reasonable doubt that the two had been present at the riot at Hendy Toll Gate where the toll collector, Sarah Davies an elderly lady of 75 years was killed.
The more I find out about these two men the more incredulous I am that they were friends as they were very different people with very different backgrounds.
The nature of John Jones meant his involvement in an act of riot and insurrection would not have come as much of a surprise to anyone. He was originally from Merthyr Tydfil where he was known to be “a heavy drinker”. He had laboured for many years in the copper works at Pontyberem, then he became a soldier. After leaving the army, for a brief period he made a living as a prize fighter.
David Davies also lived in Pontyberem and was a coal miner but he like Jones was not born locally. He was born in Llancarfan in the Vale of Glamorgan where he had been a farm labourer. Unlike Jones, he was not a drunkard nor a fighter. In fact he was quite an artistic person who wrote poetry. He was also a lay preacher in the Weslyan chapel. So what on earth these two men had sufficiently in common to form a friendship is beyond me? It just goes to show what a uniting influence 19th century insurrection was in Wales. Because, let’s face it, we had the Merthyr Rising, The Rebecca Riots and the Chartists Revolt all in the space of a decade.
Funnily enough if you want to hear more about that, I am broadcasting a radio show about Welsh 19th Century insurrection on Monday 19th June 2023 at 7pm on Bro Radio. But if you can’t wait till then (or if you’re reading this after 19th and you missed it) it is available now on my YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/fZRrPJ3eDKEhttps://youtu.be/fZRrPJ3eDKE. And why not subscribe while you’re there?
The protests came to an end in 1844, partly because a Commission of Inquiry was set up to reform the Turnpike Trusts, but mainly because the introduction of railways meant that the turnpikes had lost their monopoly on the movement of people and goods around the country.
If you want to read more on what it was like traveling around Wales by road in the 18th century, I dedicated quite a lot to the subject in my book Historic Pubs of Wales (which is available from all good book shops in paperback and as a Kindle download)