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Turnpike Trusts and the Great Days of Coaching

 

The roads of the eighteenth century had seen few improvements since the departure of the Romans. The highway to Swansea was frequently riddled with deep pot-holes, and in 1766 a hearse bearing Mr. Waters to his burial in Neath toppled over the side of the Portway at Cardiff. This threat to life and limb is reflected in an earlier complaint of 1697 which records that the road at Ely was "filled with water and was a danger to the King's subjects'. Coach journeys were lengthy, dangerous, and uncomfortable. Estimated times of arrival, if given at all, were subject to the gloomy proviso, "God willing'.

An act of 1555 made parishes responsible for the maintenance of their roads. Often they were slow to carry out repairs and it was left to the Grand Jury at the Quarter Sessions to goad them into action. Thus the highway from the North Gate to Maindy was repaired in 1735 only after the parishioners of St. John's received such an order.

The necessity for better roads became so obvious that local landowners and other interested parties, with the backing of Parliament, formed turnpike trusts to build new highways. A meeting at Swansea in 1762 recommended the construction of a road from Swansea to Cardiff. An act of 1764 divided the route among five turnpike trusts, centred at Swansea, Neath, Bridgend, Cowbridge and Cardiff. The gentry invested enthusiastically in these trusts which were given the power "to raise capital and make charges by gates and toll bars for the more effective making and improving the roads of Glamorgan'.

The Cardiff Trust was responsible for the highway from Rumney Bridge to Bonvilston. As construction began on this section in 1766, secondary routes were developed by the local parishes, anxious to link up with the main thoroughfare. The road over Leckwith Hill from Dinas Powis to Cardiff, built at this time, is an example of such enterprise.

The trust was allowed not only to erect toll gates, but also to set up temporary chains which were often brought into use when fairs or market days were in progress. The Western Toll Gate, placed near the junction of Cowbridge Road and Cathedral Road, existed until 1858. Another toll gate at Llandaff survived well into the nineteenth century and was situated where the roads fork to Llandaff North and Llantrisant.

Excessive tolls could cause anger. There was a limit to  the maximum charge but difficulties arose when frequent journeys were necessary. Riots in Glamorgan never matched the scale of the Rebecca Riots in West Wales but, as a result of that unrest, a new "Roads Board' was appointed in 1845. During the next thirty years, the board gradually assumed responsibility for roads in Glamorgan and eliminated most of the tolls.

 

The building of better roads was to produce the golden age of the stage coach between 1790 and 1840. As early as 1795, the mail coach from London was arriving at the Angel Inn after a journey of 22 to 25 hours. The coach was a magnificent sight as it sped along the open road, the coachman in top hat, the guard in a scarlet coat, and the horses resplendent in their ribbons. As they galloped up to the toll gate, the guard blew his gleaming horn, the "yard of tin', to warn of their arrival. Woe betide the keeper if the toll gates were not open, for such an offence carried a fine of £2. In time the mail coaches became so punctual that people set their clocks by them.

After 1800 the coachman no longer feared the  possibility of an ambush by highwaymen, even at lonely spots such as the  Stallingdown or Hounslow Heath. But the possibility of catastrophe was  ever present, especially when road conditions were treacherous. On 7  October 1790, in the wake of high tide and flood, the mail coach  overturned at Roath Bridge near St. Margaret's Church. The passengers  and horses were rescued with some difficulty but the mail bags were  submerged for two hours.

In 1830 the traveller from London  to Milford Haven was usually able to complete his journey of 273 miles  in 34(1/2) hours. The coach departed from the Swan with Two Necks in Lad  Lane at 7.15 p.m. and travelled along the Great West Road to Bristol.  The following morning it crossed the channel by ferry from Redwick to Black Rock, near Portskewett. After stopping at Newport, the coach passed through Rumney and crossed Roath Bridge, before proceeding along what is now Albany Road. The carriage came to a halt outside the Angel Inn at 3 p.m., where a large crowd greeted it to hear the latest news from London. Half an hour was sufficient time to unload the mail before the coach was once more trundling westward towards Swansea and Milford Haven. Only the wealthy could afford this form of travel since the fare for the most comfortable seats was 5d a mile, and an exposed seat outside the vehicle was only slightly cheaper.

 The coaching age brought new commercial benefits to Cardiff. The town not only became a focal point for connections to other parts of the county, but also a busy centre for the posting, or hire of post-chaises. John Bradley, who styled himself as a postmaster, an innkeeper and a mail contractor, prospered enormously from the trade. John was the owner of the Cardiff Arms Hotel and managed the post office in Smith Street, near the "Pillars', while other members of his family drove the mail coaches and provided livery stables at the Angel Inn. The Bradleys continued to thrive in Cardiff, even when the last stage-coach had departed. They lived in a corner house where the Park Hotel now stands, and the future Park Place was then known as Bradley's Lane.

The travelling time to London,via Gloucester and Cheltenham, had been reduced to 15 hours by 1840 but the days of the mail coach were numbered. For the last time it set forth from Cardiff on 2 August 1850, "with banners flying and its horn blowing until it had passed Roath Court'. The railway was both cheaper and swifter, but no period in the history of travel has been more colourful and romantic than the fifty years or so of the coaching era.