Coleorton Highways

Recent headline: "The number of potholes filled in by councils in England and Wales has increased during the past year to almost 1.7 million" a survey by The Asphalt Industry Alliance says.

Sometimes it feels like there's a few million more to be fixed, especially if you're on a bike. And then we have to deal with road closures and traffic lights while they are fixing the holes and when utility companies are fixing pipes and cables.

But spare a thought for former Coleorton residents - who had to drive their horse-drawn carts and carriages, or walk or go by horse or donkey in quite appalling conditions.

Between the 15th and 17th centuries Coleorton was a major provider of coal - a main source of income for the owners of Coleorton Hall and others who invested in mines. Mostly coal was taken from the pits to the market by "higglers" using convoys of packhorses or donkeys with panniers.

The passing of the Highway Act in 1555 during the reign of Mary I put responsibility for the maintenance of roads upon the parish through which they passed. Every able-bodied man was required to work upon the repair of the roads in his parish for a number of days each year. This arrangement was adequate for local roads but didn’t address long-distance routes which were often haphazard and unpassable. There was also resentment within the parish as it was felt that roads were being repaired for the benefit only of strangers passing through. Mostly the regulations were ignored and roads failed to improve.

Following a theory that wide wheels would flatten out the ruts and consolidate the surface very wide wagon wheels were introduced. In practise the wide wheels caused such friction that many more horses had to be used to move the equivalent load with carts than using packhorses, which could more easily negotiate mud in winter and hard ruts in summer. Each horse could carry about 280lbs.

Something clearly had to be done about the state of roads to ensure commerce could flourish. At the beginning in the 17th century Turnpike Trusts were introduced - private bodies set up by individual acts of Parliament, with powers to collect tolls and responsibility for maintaining the principal roads in England.

The Turnpike Trusts serving Coleorton were the Hinckley-Melbourne Trust who ran the Turnpike, running from Hinckley through Swannington, Peggs Green, Zion Hill and Newbold to Melbourne and also Nottingham Road at Peggs Green, and the Loughborough and Ashby Trust which ran the road along what is now the A512 and also the Rempstone Road through Belton to Coleorton.

Travel on turnpikes was not always safe. The risk of attack by footpads and highway men was real. It was said at one time that highway men were "as common as crows". In 1772 the death penalty was imposed for being armed and disguised on high roads. In 1783 Thomas Fretwell and George Leedham were arrested in a Coleorton public house (probably the Packhorse Inn) for armed robbery on the highway near Ashby-de-la-Zouch and at Queneborough. They escaped hanging but were deported.

At their peak in the 1830s, over 1,000 trusts administered around 30,000 miles of turnpike road in England and Wales, taking tolls at almost 8,000 toll-gates.

Local roads were still rather variable, however. In the Coleorton Parish Chest the old Account Book lists the holders of the office of “Surveyor of Highways” between the years 1777 and 1812 together with the expenses. Wages paid to Coleorton labourers for work on the roads was normally one shilling a day. Payment for getting a load was 2 pence per load while for spreading loads he received three shillings and four pence per hundred loads. The cost of upkeep of roads was covered by a local levy of up to 4 pence. It was said that the Surveyor of Highways at Coleorton "maintained a tolerable standard".

After a visit to Coleorton Hall with her brother William in 1806 Dorothy Wordsworth wrote: "The roads if you do not go very far from home are by no means as bad as I had expected, for instance the Ashby Road till you come to the turnpike is very well. Afterwards to be sure it is shocking and I have no doubt the Ashby people think we are marvellous creatures to have the courage to wade through it."

The Highway Act 1835 placed highways under the direction of Parish Surveyors, and allowed them to pay for the costs involved by rates levied locally. The surveyors had to maintain the highways and if he failed could be summoned before the courts and ordered to complete repairs within a limited time. The surveyor was also charged with the removal of “nuisances” on the highway and could fine or charge perpetrators under common law. Several more Acts were passed relating to road use and safety, such as driving on the left.

Toll Gates ad 1836Turnpike Tollgates were still run by private Trusts who put out tenders for annual contracts to run them and paid their investors dividends. Comparing ads from the Hinkley-Melbourne Trust in 1836 and 1840 which showed receipts from the previous year there was a marked decrease. Froggatts Lane Gate at Peggs Green would have expected to make money from the coal traffic from Peggs Green mine until the Coleorton Railway construction started in 1833 to take coal to the Swannington incline for onward transport to Leicester.

By the early Victorian period toll gates and the multitude of small inefficient Trusts were perceived as an impediment to free trade. Alternative means of travelling long distances such as railways, rivers and canals were opening up and many Trusts got into debt and failed. So during the 1870s the Trusts were gradually closed down and in 1888 the Local Government Act gave responsibility for maintaining main roads to county councils. And that is where we are today with Highways England looking after the national motorways and A-roads and our LCC maintaining local roads.

Sources

Sandra Dillon, Coleorton Heritage Group, May 2021