THEY came in all shapes, sizes and genres of architecture: rough-hewn stone huts, booths made of mud, converted thatched cottages, former stables, gothic estate lodges, fashionable roundhouses… and some that were fancily adorned with church-like classical porticos.

One surviving Wiltshire example resembles a medieval stronghold with its stern, eye-catching castellated walls while another appears to have materialised from the pages of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale having been elaborately erected in the style of “Strawberry Hill Gothick.”

It may surprise some but Swindon – Old Town and for a short period the New Town fast emerging alongside the railway works – was once encircled by a series of sentinel-like structures that no-one either entering or leaving in any form of transport could pass without digging into their pockets.

Sadly, none of Swindon’s turnpike houses that existed more than 150 years ago are here today. Just outside of town though, a lone survivor can be found off the beaten track and largely hidden from view on the Wroughton side of the A361 M4 bridge.

And if you strike out a little further to Chiseldon, Purton, Liddington, Burderop, Avebury or Aldbourne you will come across some hardy, often rather quaint survivors that have long since been converted for domestic use and some of which are now listed buildings.

The 2004 publication Wiltshire Tollhouses (The Hobnob Press) by Robert Haynes and Ivor Slocombe estimates there were probably more than 200 tollhouses and their accompanying turnpike gates throughout the county during the 18th and 19th Centuries – around a quarter of which remain now.

In today’s Borough of Swindon there were maybe 15 or so tollhouses – including four still standing. “Almost inevitably with the expansion of such a large town the old tollhouses and all traces of them have disappeared,” wrote Slocombe.

The arrival of photography largely coincided with the disappearance of ‘pike houses, so monochrome images of these structures that were an integral part of local life for more than a century are rare.

But we can thank one man for giving us some idea as to what Swindon’s comparatively modest (compared to many) tollhouses looked like. In 1908, almost 40 years after our turnpike gates were slammed shut for the last time, an artist called ‘S Adye’ toured the town making sketches of the half-a-dozen that remained.

In pen-and-ink he depicted former tollhouses at Stratton Road, Rushey Platt on today’s Wootton Bassett Road, Coate Road (now Marlborough Road), Regent Street, Cricklade Road and the old Wroughton Road (later Croft Road.) All are shown in fields that have long since been covered with bricks, concrete and tarmac. Adye’s drawings, which became popular local postcards during the Edwardian age, today shine a welcome light on a long lost fragment of Swindon Heritage. It is not difficult to see how the era of the turnpike came into being and why for 150 years or so it thrived… despite inevitable cries of ‘highway robbery’ from many who used them.

As Britain’s population spiralled some 350 years ago so too did the amount of traffic generated on its roads which were little more than tracks. Hooves and cartwheels were taking their toll, if you’ll excuse the pun, churning them into near impassable, mud-caked morasses.

Local parishes, who were responsible for the upkeep of highways, were unable to cope, prompting the introduction of turnpike trusts which maintained stretches of road and charged travellers to use them.

The first turnpike was opened in Hertfordshire in 1663, setting a trend for thousands to follow. As a result roads improved immensely. Traffic was smoother and faster. And many a trust, which usually comprised groups of local people, made a healthy packet.

From private coaches to farmers driving their herds, everyone had to pay to pass. The alternative was to negotiate unkempt, bumpy, sludge-like lanes of mud and rock that had not been turnpiked.

Payment was based on the weight and type of vehicle – prompting the introduction of weighbridges at some gates – or the number and type of animals being driven through.

Wiltshire’s first network of tollhouses – four of them – emerged around Devizes in 1706. One of these was replaced somewhat pretentiously around 100 years later by octagonal, almost folly-like Shanes Castle with its “battlement cresting.”

By the second half of the 18th Century most of the main routes around market town Swindon (Old Town) were turnpiked, starting with the roads to Wootton Bassett and Faringdon in 1757. And as the cash rolled in, countless trusts sprung-up with an eye for profit. Fees were set by Parliament but some road-users, such as those frequenting the Swindon-Devizes passage through Wroughton, were so enraged at what they considered extortionate rates that they opened up an old lane around the Wharf Road tollgate.

Rivalry was fierce among turnpike trusts and after a route from Marlborough to Swindon via Chiseldon and Burderop was opened in 1761 an alternative followed via what is now Marlborough Road.

After so many decades of coining it, toll roads eventually became as outmoded as they were once innovative. By the mid-19th Century, they suffered the same fate as the canals which had thrived during roughly the same era.

They were stomped into oblivion by the loud, noisy, super-fast intervention of the railways… of which Swindon, of course, can take much credit.

  • TOLLS were collected from eight to ten strategic points around Swindon from the 1750s to the mid-19th Century. They ranged from turnpikes that were six miles to 40 miles long.

    Tollhouses existed in Wootton Bassett Road, Coate Road (now Marlborough Road), Drove Road and thoroughfares that we today know as Stratton Road, Croft Road, Regent Street, Whitehouse Road and Manchester Road.

    Fred Large tells us in his 1932 book A Swindon Retrospective 1855-1930 that at one time only three buildings existed in the fields near Swindon station: the Great Western Hotel, the White House pub and a toll cottage near the Transfer Bridges.

    Nearby there was another turnpike that he described as “a little one-storey cottage under some high elm trees near the commencement of Manchester Road.” Its’ old tollhouse is long gone but Swindon’s Marsh Gate industrial estate takes its name from the former turnpike on which the development is located.

  • TOLL payments could be calculated on a large range of criteria – from the width of the wheel of a carriage to the number of horses pulling the conveyance.

    One of Wiltshire’s finest surviving tollhouses is the two-storey hexagonal Collins Lane Gate at Purton that still features the painted toll-board denoting the charges.

    It tells us a sum of four-and-a-half pence had to be stumped-up for all “coaches, chariots, chaises, hearses, gigs and chaps.”

    Calves, sheep, lamps or pigs required a payment of five pence per score (20.) On the A4 at Mildenhall near Marlborough is one of Wiltshire’s most flamboyant tollhouses, a Disneyesque structure of the “Strawberry Hill Gothick” variety.

    Equally distinctive is the almost toy-like thatched cottage a mile outside of Aldbourne on the Swindon-Hungerford A419 that was built in 1814 and oozes fairyland charm.