Freeing the Streets of Victorian London

By Atkins, Peter | History Today, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Freeing the Streets of Victorian London


Atkins, Peter, History Today


* Victorian values are perhaps less fashionable in 1993 than they were in 1983, but the political debate in many respects retains its flavour of deja vu. One issue to rear its head recently has been that of privatised pay roads or turnpikes, about which there was also a long running discussion in the nineteenth century. Indeed our forbears were exercised for something like fifty years with the desire to rid themselves of all kinds of barriers to free movement by road. Londoners suffered particularly from the oppressive combination of turnpikes, toll bridges, and gates and bars across private roads.

There had been bars at the gates of the City of London since at least Norman times to control access, but the eighteenth century saw the introduction of a variety of barriers beyond the ancient walls. For decades they were tolerated by the public but in the 1820s there came an awakening of interest which gradually grew into a political campaign enphasising the freedom of the individual to travel without let or hindrance.

In 1826 an Act created the Metropolis Roads Commission to consolidate and run the many turnpike trusts in London north of the Thames. Some were hopelessly inefficient and the Commission was given the tas of clearing their debts. Although turnpike gates soon disappeared from the built-up areas, it was not until 1864-65 that those on the approach roads could be handed over to the local authorities without a financial burden. It was this Victorian obsession with avoiding a call on the public purse which held up road reform.

The City tolls were abolished in 1854 and there was agitation by the Toll Reform Association and other groups to extend this to the rest of London. Petitions were presented to Parliament and the government was forced to appoint a Select Committee and a Royal Commission to look into the issue, leading directly to the winding up of the Metropolis Roads Commissions and most trusts south of the river. This showed that single issue pressure groups could have a political impact, even if the pace of change was painfully slow. Other campaigners took heart.

A second source of public annoyance in the 1830s was the toll to cross the Thames bridges. Of the sixteen bridges only Westminster, London and Blackfriars were freely open to vehicles and passengers. The others were run by private companies which made a charge. The Metropolitan Anti-Bridge-Toll Association was founded in 1839 to fight the perceived absurdity of people crowding over a few bridges when others were under-utilised. Several petitions were presented to Parrliament, one with over 10,000 signatures, another sponsored by the Archbishop of Canterbury and 900 merchants, bankers and businessmen from the City, but the stumbling block was always the need to compensate the bridge companies. Ironically, several were loss-makking and would have been delighted to be bought out.

Again, reform was very slow in coming. There were several parliamentary enquiries and debates about the means to raise the necessary 1,300,000 [pounds] purchase price, but it was not until 1879-80 that the bridges in central London were finally opened.

A third type of street obstruction was that erected by the aristocratic landowners in the West End of London. From the late eighteenth century they decided that the best way to protect their investment in residential estates for the glitterati was to keep out noisy traffic, cattle being herded to market, and undesirables such as tramps, organ grinders and other street folk. Gates, swing bars, and posts were used to preserve the tranquil oases of the rich. Some landowners or residents' associations retained liveried gatekeepers to regulate the flow of traffic and lock the gates at night, others kept their gates locked only on Sundays and holidays.

The Bedford Estate employed uniformed ex-prison officers, and they had a reputation for surlines and even violence. In one notorious incident in 1874 the keeper of the Gordon Street gate was assaulted by a cab driver who had been denied access and a fracas ensued. …

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