It’s easy to take for granted the network of roads that binds East Lothian together – although we may complain about their condition from time to time. As with many other things, that’s nothing new! As late as the middle of the 18th century, the county’s roads were little more than tracks that were often impassable in the wet and winter. They were supposed to be maintained by parishes utilising ‘statute labour’ – an obligation on landowners (and tenants) that was widely abused. Toll roads were seen as a solution.
The situation began to change with the 18th century development of the turnpike system. By establishing a trust under an Act of Parliament a road could be improved and maintained by levying tolls on users; at first applied to arterial routes, ‘turnpikes’ (roads with toll bars) were established in many rural areas alongside the remaining statute labour routes. This system held until the development of the railway network, which, by drawing away the heavier and more lucrative traffic, prompted the transfer of toll roads to county council control, where maintenance could be agglomerated with the local rates.
The skein of toll roads crossed parish and county boundaries creating a need for a new kind of administration. Eventually, East Lothian was served by a number of Turnpike Trusts. Within the county, the Trust responsible for the Great North Road (the arterial route between London and Edinburgh) was the most important. Next came county sections of subsiduary arterial routes: for example, the Kilpallet Road Trust covered the East Lothian section of the Tranent – Duns Road, the modern B6355. Finally, there was a complex development of minor toll roads and trusts, often on a parochial scale but sometimes linking settlements. Some of these were for a period indepedent but could link or demerge over time. Similarly, toll places on these toll roads could be created or closed as traffic flows changed.
Trustees were drawn from the landowners along the route; they appointed clerks and surveyors who in turn administered the operations of road contractors and toll keepers. As the system became embedded in the county dynasties of toll-keeping families appeared: the Kerrs at Dolphinston and the Sounesses at Salton are good examples. Further, almost from the first, it was determined that a woman could bid for and hold a toll bar in her own right.
Each toll place was let annually to a named individual for an agreed sum. Experienced keepers became adept at positioning their bids to maximise the difference between the letting fee and the tolls collected – their living expenses and profit depended on this margin. They were, however, in a precarious position. They became liable for the full sum bid for and if expected traffic did not match the bid the Trustees generally demanded the shortfall. Plans could be thrown awry by private arrangements made with the Trustees (‘compounding’) by businesses, landowners and even communities along a route. Other hazards were failures of large businesses along a route (leading to a reduction in expected tolls). Toll keepers’ protests against these eventualities and other sharp practices are common in Trust minutes; they were generally brushed aside.
If you have toll keepers in your family history, their annual movements can be traced through Trust minutes, which are rich sources of incidental detail. But be aware that when named individual holds multiple tolls in a given year then sub-contractors or even individual family members might be stationed at some places – cross referencing with censuses can show the system in action.