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  • Writer's pictureHeather Moll

What's a turnpike road?

In An Affectionate Heart, Elizabeth speaks to Darcy for the first time at the pedestrian path next to a tollgate, and later in the book a turning point occurs at a tollgate on a turnpike road. The trusts that established these turnpikes created a network of roads that still form the framework Britain’s roadways today.

A turnpike road was a toll road operated under a trust established through a parliamentary Turnpike Act. In the early 1700s, the roads leading into London were put under the control of individual turnpike trusts, and by the mid 18th century cross routes were added throughout England. This turnpike system that thrived through the nineteenth century and until the rail age.

So what was the point? The local gentry, clergy, and merchants were nominated as trustees and the trustees had the right to collect tolls from those using the road. They appointed administrators to maintain the highway and collect the tolls. The money raised by mortgaging future toll income permitted substantial investment in the improvement of drainage, gradients, and repairing and maintaining the existing highways. It also allowed the trusts to build new sections of road to bypass bad sections and to construct structures like embankments and bridges. The money collected also went toward erecting milestones and directing posts.

Everyone in the community benefited from better transportation and easier access to markets.

Once the trust was established, you needed to erect the actual turnpike. The term comes from the defensive frame of pikes that can be turned to allow passage of horses, but in this context, it’s just a gate across the road that was opened after you paid the toll. The trusts also applied funds to erecting tollhouses that accommodated the toll collector beside the turnpike gate. Tollhouses required an office with a good view of the road and separate rooms for domestic purposes.

The Act that established the trust for that section of road also set the maximum toll for each type of animal or vehicle that passed. A coach and four paid more than an unladen horse, which cost more than a drove of cattle. The mail coach didn’t have to pay and neither did pedestrians, and there was typically a path for pedestrians that was blocked by posts to prevent a horse or other animal from passing by without paying

In this scene from early in An Affectionate Heart, Sir William Lucas is near the tollgate in Meryton with Lydia and Elizabeth. When the newly arrived and antisocial Mr. Darcy walks by, he invites Mr. Darcy to Lucas Lodge and then introduce the girls to Mr. Darcy. Sir William has stopped everyone at the pedestrian path next to the gate and is blocking everyone’s way. From what she’s seen of Mr. Darcy so far, Elizabeth is not impressed.

“How do you do, sir?” He then looked at the narrow space between the first post and the toll gate, as if to indicate that Sir William might now step aside to allow him to pass.

“We are having an evening party tomorrow at Lucas Lodge, and I insist you and your sister join us. A small group of friends, none of the officers, just a few neighbours. I have not seen you outside of church since I persuaded you to join us for a dinner in February.”

“I am much obliged to you for your invitation, but it is not in my power to accept it.”

He will not be missed.

“Three months is too long without some society, and your sister is also welcome. These lovely ladies will be in attendance and would be pleased to make her acquaintance. Girls, may I present to you Mr Darcy, lately of Netherfield Lodge?”

The look on Mr Darcy’s face suggested that this was an impertinent freedom. Elizabeth knew she had fallen from being a daughter of Mr Bennet to only a sister to Mrs Collins, but who was this rude man who did not keep a carriage to refuse to be introduced to her?

“Miss Lydia Bennet, you might have seen in church, but Miss Bennet is lately returned from her relations in town. I daresay she spends half her time in London.”

Mr Darcy’s eyes widened in interest slightly, and then settled back into their critical observation as Elizabeth and Lydia curtsied. Lydia ignored him, eyeing a shop window display. Sir William did not seem to heed the prevailing gossip, but he was overly sociable. Scandalous rumours or not, Elizabeth could tell this Mr Darcy was a discourteous man. The silence stretched long enough to slip into awkwardness.

“Sir William, perhaps we might step aside to let Mr Darcy be on his way?”

“Maybe he could climb over the gate like you used to do, Lizzy!” Lydia cried.

Sir William laughed, while Elizabeth gasped in mortification. Mr Darcy looked indignant while Lydia said she simply had to peer in a shop window and left Elizabeth to defend her dignity.

“I remember a time when you hung on the swinging gate as each passing traveller paid their toll,” Sir William said, laughing. “Did not the toll collector once have to help you down when your foot got stuck between the rail and the—”

“I assure you, I have not swung on a gate nor climbed over one in ten years.”

Sir William seemed to finally realise her embarrassment and Mr Darcy’s disgust.

By the time the last Turnpike Act was passed in 1836, there had been 942 Acts for new turnpike trusts in England and Wales. By then, turnpikes covered around 22,000 miles of road, about a fifth of the entire road network.

Be sure to read An Affectionate Heart and find out what Mr Darcy thinks of young Elizbaeth swinging on the tollgate and what big event happens in front of one later in the book

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Apr 24, 2022

We here in Pennsylvania have the oldest turnpike system among the states. Much of that road near us is undergoing widening and upgrading.

Heather Moll
Heather Moll
Apr 25, 2022
Replying to

Oh that's interesting. So much history near you.

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