Early road improvements

In the early part of the eighteenth century, most roads were in a terrible state. Many were simply rutted dirt tracks which were impassable in periods of wet weather, or during periods of snow and ice. Journeys could be hazardous, even on major routes.

Road improvements began with the setting-up of turnpike trusts which were bodies set up by individual acts of Parliament, with powers to collect road tolls for maintaining the principal roads in the country. The first turnpike trust was created in 1706, and by the 1830s over a thousand trusts administered about 30,000 miles of roads in England and Wales, under the terms of some 4,000 separate Acts.

Turnpikes consisted of a gate or barrier, setup to collect tolls. The trustees were authorised to collect tolls for 21 years in return for repairing a particular road. Tolls were paid by users once a day for the whole length of the road, and regular users could pay quarterly. The law stated that anyone riding within a certain distance of a toll gate had to pay a toll, whether they passed through or not.

The old toll house on Penn Road. From the Wolverhampton Journal.

One of the most important turnpike roads to pass through the Black Country was Thomas Telford’s Holyhead Road, later known as the A5. The route from London to Holyhead was improved because of the Act of Union between England and Ireland, passed in 1801. Due to the Act, the amount of traffic between Dublin and Holyhead increased dramatically, including the one hundred Irish MPs who had the right to attend the Parliament at Westminster. The route from Holyhead to London was tortuous, with many bad roads and long delays, which led to frequent complaints about the appalling state of the road, and the long journey time.

A parliamentary committee set up to organise the necessary improvements for the Holyhead Road, appointed Thomas Telford as the consulting engineer. Telford surveyed the route and presented his plans to Parliament in 1811. It took another four years for the funds to be authorised, and thirteen years to build, at a cost of more than £500,000. He began by organising the route from Holyhead to Shrewsbury, including the building of the Menai Suspension Bridge. Work on this part of the road began in 1815 and took five years to complete. In 1820 work began on the remaining part of the route, which was completed in 1828. The work on the road was undertaken by 24 independent turnpike trusts.

The new road reduced the journey time of the London mail coach from 45 hours to 27 hours, allowing improvements in speed from a maximum of five to six miles an hour, to nine to ten miles an hour.

The section through Wednesbury was completed in about 1826 and placed under the Bilston Turnpike Trust who built a toll house at the top of Dangerfield Lane, Wednesbury. Two other turnpikes were setup in the town, one in Lower High Street and the other in Upper High Street near the High Bullen.

When Telford examined the section between Tettenhall and Wolverhampton he decided to completely avoid the Tettenhall ridge by diverting the road through Aldersley to the Wergs. The chairman of the Wolverhampton turnpike trust rejected Telford's plan because the Aldersley area was waterlogged, and wouldn't provide a proper surface for the road. Telford responded by suggesting that a tunnel should be built through the ridge to Upper Green, but this was also rejected by the Wolverhampton turnpike trust, who finally decided to blast the cutting through The Rock, and build the new canal bridge, and the embankment. After many difficulties, the work was finally competed in 1823.


For the first time vehicles could easily pass between Newbridge and Upper Green, avoiding the fearsome gradient at Old Hill. It had been an expensive undertaking, which greatly increased the tolls that were payable on the road. Initially tolls were collected at Chapel Ash, but this was abandoned in favour of two gates, one at Newbridge, and another at Compton. The new road, and the improved access to the upper part of Tettenhall, allowed the village to greatly expand, and made it an attractive place to live for the well to do.

Lord Dudley supplied capital for many of the turnpike trusts setup in the Black Country. By 1779 he had loaned around £6,200 to local trusts including the Stourbridge to Dudley trust, the Wolverhampton to Birmingham trust, the Dudley to Wednesbury trust, and the Wombourne to Bilston trust.

The toll house built for the Walsall Road Turnpike Trust, set up in 1750, now a restaurant.

In 1784, Mr. Fletcher of the recently built George Hotel in Walsall, obtained an Act of Parliament for the building of the road from Walsall to Stafford, and the widening of the Birmingham Road as far as Hampstead Bridge. In 1788 a turnpike Act provided for the repair and improvement of the roads to Wolverhampton, Sutton Coldfield, and Hampstead Bridge. It also allowed the reconstruction of the Birmingham Road.

Another turnpike Act, Passed in 1793 allowed the road from Churchbridge to Stafford to be improved. This reduced the journey to the north by four miles and greatly improved the town’s link with Chester, Liverpool, and Manchester. It also encouraged traffic heading north from Birmingham to pass through the town, increasing the prosperity of the local inns and shops.

In Willenhall the traffic from Walsall passed through the narrow streets in the town centre, and along Wolverhampton Street. The decision was taken to build a road to by-pass the town centre, to provide a faster and more direct route through the town. This was achieved around 1818 by the building of New Road, a turnpike road which links the main Walsall Road to the western end of Wolverhampton Street. The old toll house is now a shop at 9 New Road.

In nearby Darlaston, the road to Wednesbury from the Bull Stake, called Darlaston Road was built under the terms of a 1787 Turnpike Act, and in 1776 a turnpike trust was setup to raise money to build a new road through Moxley (High Street) to join the Wednesbury Road at its junction with Dangerfield Lane.

All of the main roads in Wolverhampton were improved and administered by turnpike trusts. The Penn Road became a well-maintained thoroughfare thanks to the efforts of the turnpike trust, set up in 1761. The toll house stood on the corner of Coalway Lane, one of six between Wolverhampton and Stourbridge. Others were at Himley, Kingswinford, Bromley Lane, Wordsley, and Coalbournbrook near Stourbridge.

The road to Stafford was turnpiked by 1770, running through Penkridge and Dunstan to Green Gate on the south side of Stafford. There were three tollgates on the Wolverhampton part of the road. The first was at the bottom of Lower Stafford Street, followed by another known as Oxley Gate, near Oxley Manor lodge, and another at the bottom of Bushbury Lane. In 1824 the tollgates at Chapel Ash and Bilston Street each collected over £1,200.

The old New Road toll house in Willenhall.

Other toll gates were at the Fighting Cocks, where there was a gate for Sedgley, and one for Bilston, another was at the top of Ettingshall Lane, and another stood on the Willenhall Road stood near the junction of Lower Horseley Fields and Lower Walsall Street. On Cannock Road, a toll house stood on the corner of Bushbury Road, and on Compton Road, toll gates were at the Wolverhampton end of the road, at Horsehill, and at the bottom of Richmond Road. There was also a toll bar at the bottom of the hill at Compton leading to Finchfield.

The improved roads had a great impact on traffic, which soon increased throughout the local towns, and encouraged the development of town centres, and local industries.

Return to the
  Proceed to