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Early Road Pricing: London’s Lost Turnpikes

Since 2003, the road network of central London has been subject to the ‘Congestion Charge’; a £10 fee which drivers must cough up if they wish to brave the capital’s chaotic streets (thankfully, as a London cabbie, my taxi is mercifully exempt from the charge).

Congestion Charge Logo

The idea of making people pay to use London’s roads is far from new.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the capital operated an extensive system of toll gates known as ‘turnpikes’ which were responsible for monitoring horse-drawn traffic and imposing substantial charges upon any traveller wishing to make use of the route ahead.

A map of London's turnpike network from 1790 (image: mapco.net)

A diagram of London’s turnpike network from 1790 (image: mapco.net) Please click to enlarge.

Just like today, certain lucky users were exempt from the charge- namely mail coaches, soldiers, funeral processions, parsons on parish business, prison carts and of course, members of the royal family.

Although the turnpikes were originally intended to fund the upkeep of London’s roads, they were subject to considerable corruption.

Over-charging was commonplace with scrupulous gate owners often more interested in lining their own pockets rather than ploughing the cash back into maintenance.

The former toll-keepers house (on right) at Hampstead turnpike, Spaniards Inn. Although long gone, the former turnpike lives on in the narrow road which still causes drivers to slow down! (Image: Google)

The former toll-keeper’s house (on right) at Hampstead turnpike, opposite the Spaniards Inn. Although long decommissioned, the former turnpike lives on in the narrow road which still forces drivers to slow down! (Image: Google)

Each turnpike was staffed by a lone toll-keeper, who was provided with a small cottage on site. The job was a tough one; the keeper expected to be on 24 hour duty for very little pay.

At night, toll-keepers were also easy-prey for robbers and highwaymen.

A rowdy group of travellers causing trouble at a turnpike, 1825.

A rowdy group of travellers causing trouble at a turnpike, 1825.

In London, the busiest turnpikes were at Tyburn (the site famous for public executions, now known as Marble Arch), Hyde Park, Tottenham Court Road, Elephant and Castle and Mile End Road. Just like today, these were important roads and junctions and the requirement for all traffic to filter through the turnpike gates often resulted in frustrating jams.

A scene depicting traffic chaos as race-goers return to London from Epsom (image by Mark Searle).

A scene depicting traffic chaos at a turnpike as race-goers return to London from Epsom (image by Mark Searle).

By the mid-19th century, the turnpikes were losing much business to the rapidly expanding rail network.

Consequently, the toll system was abolished in 1864 by the Metropolitan Turnpike Act. The last major gate to close was the Mile End turnpike which ceased collecting money in 1866.

Mile End Gate, London's last major turnpike.

Mile End Gate; London’s last major turnpike.

Today, the names of London’s former gates live on in the names of streets such as Notting Hill Gate and Turnpike Lane.

Notting Hill Gate Sign

Despite the 1864 act, toll gates in London haven’t died out completely.

Until fairly recently, on South Hill Drive in South Harrow, a toll gate was in operation just a stone’s throw away from the Piccadilly Line. The South Harrow charge is no longer enforced, although the gate remains firmly in place.

South Harrow toll gate (image: Google).

South Harrow toll gate (image: Google).

Today, London’s only active toll gate can be found on College Road in Dulwich which, for the price of £1, permits car owners to take a pleasant drive between Dulwich Common and Crystal Palace Parade.

College Road, Dulwich- London's only remaining active toll gate (image: Google).

College Road, Dulwich- London’s only remaining active toll gate (image: Google).

A gallery of images depicting a number of London’s now long lost turnpikes can be viewed below- please click on the pictures to learn more.

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15 responses

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. Love the photos of all the turnpikes!

  2. Brilliant. I didn’t know any of that. Love these glimpses into London.

    Are you exempt from the College rd toll as a Taxi?

    1. Many thanks, Damian. That’s a really good question… unfortunately cabs are not exempt from the Dulwich toll. Luckily, it is a route which most fares rarely require!

  3. Very insightful post. I always wondered why the road is narrow outside the Spaniards Inn. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    1. Many thanks, glad I could help fill you in 🙂

  4. Fascinating post. I live near Turnpike Lane, so I was a bit disappointed there’s no picture of how our turnpike used to look – any idea where I could find one?

    1. Many thanks for the kind comment. I imagine Turnpike Lane would have pretty much looked like a country lane in the days when it had a toll gate. I suppose the best place to try and source a picture would be the local library.

      Good luck 🙂

  5. […] London’s lost turnpikes, a history. […]

  6. As always, a REALLY interesting post! Terrific historical pictures, too. In the US, a “turnpike” has come to mean an actual road (that one must pay a toll to use). Yes… we’re always messing with our common language… Cheers!

    1. Thanks for the comment guys, that’s interesting about the U.S meaning. I imagine early America would have had a similar system… Hope you’re both well 🙂

  7. Very interesting; thanks. I live near the South Hill Drive, Harrow gate and have never yet been through it in over 30 years. Incidentally you forgot the toll on the QE2 Bridge. 🙂

    1. Many thanks for the kind comment, Keith. The QE2 Bridge sits just inside Kent though so I suppose it’s technically not a London based toll 🙂

  8. […] There were pleasure gardens at nearby Vauxhall which were a popular destination, but for those wishing to travel onwards to Westminster and the City things were a real hassle with trips having to be completed by boat (which involved a lengthy wait) or by road (which involved high costs due to the existence of turnpike tolls). […]

  9. […] When the Duke of Northumberland stubbornly refused to release the land however, the LSWR were forced to decamp to the opposite side of the Thames, meaning that passengers wishing to visit Westminster or the City had to continue their journey on foot, crossing the river via either Waterloo or Hungerford Bridge- both of which demanded a toll. […]

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