Turnpike Trusts and the Great Days of Coaching
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
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.
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.