Milestones and Turnpikes…are we there yet?

Wishing all our members a very Happy New Year

and welcome to the first Local History Society meeting report of the year.

The meeting for January was well attended with a full hall and several potential new members were welcomed. There were a few notices to be announced before the evening’s speaker was announced. 

Our speaker was Mr Michael Knight from the Milestone Society. The evenings topic was to be about Milestones and Turnpike Roads. Using the overhead projector and acetate diagrams and images, Michael gave us a fascinating insight into the development of the roadway system in the British Isles from Roman to modern times. The main emphasis of the talk was on the 18th century Road Acts that saw major road improvements paid for by Turnpike roads and Tolls.

Michael then went on to talk about Milestones. Their history and the discovery and recording of as many of the ancient milestones and finger posts the country’s heritage archives.

Michael Knight member of the Milestone Society. The pointing finger image is to be found on many ancient milestones and was the influence for the Finger road signposts.
An old Milestone on Lincoln Road, Peterborough
The milestone – which states the distance in miles to Peterborough city centre, Market Deeping and Lincoln – is located on Lincoln Road at the junction with Burghley Road.
Photo copyright Paul Bryan licensed for reuse under the Creative Common Licence

 A Modern Milestone. Sustrans Millennium Milepost

Copyright Mat Fascione and licensed for reuse under the Creative Common Licence.

To be found along the Hereward Way near Whittlesey, these Sustrans Millennium Milestones make Cycleways across the Country.


Precis of a Talk given by Michael Knight, on the topic of Milestones and Turnpike road 

This topic, with an uninspiring title, attracted a January meeting audience of 52 members. 

Commencing with an overview of the County area of Northampton, Michael explained the, then new, system of ‘agencies’ becoming responsible as Trustees for the improvement of roads through a turnpike organisation. A county network of main routes were ‘amended and widened’ by a series of 26 Parliamentary Acts between 1707 and 1827.

Reviewing firstly a Petition of 1752, local dignitaries sought regal approval to upgrade a road commencing at Market Harborough and eventually concluding in Huntingdon – an early need for a west to east route since mirrored by the A14 trunk road across the county. Emphasis was then given to a 1756 Petition involving 487 Trustees, which sought ultimately to link by road two Cathedral cities, now designated A15.

As a consequence of improving the route hitherto ‘in a very ruinous Condition and in several Places very narrow and incommodious’, it became a legal requirement to erect milestones denoting distances between towns and also distances by the shortest route to London. Examples of various road signage were shown, including the iron plaque (London 79/Thorney 7) housed in a brick-wall pillar in Wheelyard.

However, the closest milepost to St Mark’s Church is a magnificent cast-iron marker ‘Lincoln 51 Miles’ which is one of a series within the Soke, cast in the Stanley Foundry. Other survivors of this suite occur in Werrington, Glinton and across the River Welland in Market Deeping; this latter example indicates ‘to Lincoln 43 Miles’.

The Act of 1756 was still operational when, just a century later, the construction of St Mark’s Church on Lincoln Road was completed. The nearest tollgate barred Lincoln Road at its junction with Marham Lane, Walton.

The talk was enlivened with cartoons and anecdotes around the once-prosperous business of coaching. At its peak, in the period 1815-1845, gradual competition from steam locomotion along the ‘permanent way’ saw, by the 1870s, the demise and dis-turnpiking of Britain’s main highways. Perhaps the most bizarre road marker is No 12 Guidepost of the National Cycle Network standing against the wall of John Clare library.

On view, for the edification of Society members who were curious to learn more of road signage, were Shire Book Publications ‘Turnpike Roads; Milestones; Road Signs; the Drovers’.

Ending his Talk, Michael gave the Aims of the Milestone Society which had been honoured in 2017 with the British Empire Medal, for services to roadside heritage.     

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