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When our roads were the worst in Europe

Tunstall Court Leet

An Artist’s Impression of the Courthouse in Tunstall

During the Middle Ages, the Hundred Courts and the Court Leets were responsible for repairing roads and bridges.

When feudalism ended in the 16th century, the duty to maintain highways was taken from the courts and given to local parishes.

In 1555, a Statute for Mending Highways ordered parishioners to elect two honest men to serve as highway surveyors. The surveyors, who were unpaid, held office for a year. They were usually small farmers, local traders or innkeepers who knew nothing about road making or bridge building.

A few years later, Parliament gave the surveyors authority to collect stones and dig for gravel on land adjacent to the highway provided that the holes they dug were filled in afterwards.

Surveyors who forgot to fill the holes were prosecuted. During 1667, two highway surveyors, Joseph Delves and Thomas Ratcliffe, who had failed to fill a hole they had dug at Chell were brought before Tunstall Court Leet and told to fill it in before the court’s next sitting or pay a penalty of five shillings.

The territory over which Tunstall Court Leet had criminal, civil and administrative jurisdiction covered parts of the parishes of Wolstanton and Stoke-upon-Trent.

Neither parish accepted responsibility for highway maintenance in areas that came under the court’s jurisdiction. In 1624, when the longbridge, which carried the road from Burslem to Newcastle-under-Lyme over the Fowlea Brook at Longport, needed repairing the Court Leet asked the County Quarter Sessions for financial help. Quarter Sessions gave a grant of £20 towards the cost. A few years later, in 1636 the Court Leet ordered the inhabitants of Sneyd and Tunstall to repair the road between Little Chell and Furlong Road or pay a forfeit of ten shillings each.

Although the Statute of Labour passed in 1586 compelled householders, cottagers and labourers living in a parish to spend six days a year repairing the roads, by the end of the 17th century England’s roads were the worst in Europe.

Like most roads throughout the country, those in North Staffordshire were deep rutted, waterlogged lanes. A new system of maintenance was needed, and turnpike trusts were created.

Turnpike trusts were commercial enterprises. They repaired stretches of road and charged travellers fees which were called tolls. The first road to be turnpiked in Staffordshire was an eight-mile stretch of the London to Carlisle road between Tittensor and Talke.

Copyright David Martin – The Phoenix Trust 2013

Note: The courthouse which was demolished in the latter part of the 19th century stood in Oldcourt Street.

PH/DM

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