top of page

Detested but essential turnpikes ... 1

Updated: Mar 7, 2023

High Wycombe Toll House at the Chiltern Open Air Museum

This is the first of a series of posts about our local toll road system, the local tollhouses and the benefits and disruption that turnpikes had for travellers and the local community.

A turnpike road was a toll road operated under a trust set up by an Act of Parliament to raise funds for the repair of the roads. The first such act was in 1696. Charles Sergison’s account books for 1712 show that 'he paid tolls of ten pence for a coach and two horses at Borde Hill and another occasion, a toll for a coach and six horses and two saddle horses only eight pence.'

For some 160 years Cuckfield was an integral part of the turnpike network that spidered its way across the UK. In Sussex, as elsewhere, this toll system severely hampered movement locally and was detested by residents who found that they couldn’t afford to travel so often. Businesses and road users did their best to avoid them and had to factor in the regular fees into their service charges.

The first stretch of toll road on the London/Brighton route was set up in 1755 between Reigate and Crawley. Not only was this the first of the toll gates on the Brighton road but also the last to remain in regular use. [More below the map...]

Just some of the toll roads and tollhouses

On the positive side, without the constant maintenance of the road system paid for by the tolls in Sussex the coaches and carts would have continued to get bogged down in the notorious sticky clay soil. And it meant that at last Brighton could be accessed from London throughout the winter.

Before the turnpike roads were introduced the journey from London to Brighton would take a full two days and entail an overnight stop-over. But after the road improvements were made, and with constant maintenance the travel times were significantly cut. This was dramatically demonstrated by the Prince of Wales on 25 July 1784 when, on one leg of his return Brighton to London coach journey, he reduced the journey through Cuckfield to just four and a half hours.

The Rebecca Riots (see blow) Attacking a turnpike gate in protest at charges


The toll gates were under the control of the Road Commissioners who leased them by auction for a year at a time. With the proceeds they employed labourers to keep the roads under repair. The toll keepers were allowed to earn what they could.

Charges were 6d for every horse drawing a carriage and 4d for every horse ‘employed in husbandry’ and the tolls were doubled for heavily laden vehicles in winter. In 1806 Edward Pitt of Cuckfield paid £200 a year to lease the Brighton-Cuckfield turnpike.

The Trust's debt incurred in initially improving the road proved difficult to reduce. Although they had managed to reduce debt to £3,917 2s 1d (£3,917.10) by 1850, with an income of only £437 in that year, the chance of redeeming the mortgage debt in full by the time that the Trust’s powers expired seemed unlikely . It was calculated that at this level of income, without expending further sums on repairs and administration, it would take nine years.

But the payment was so unpopular that when the lease of the Butler's Green toll house ran out in 1866 that the people of Cuckfield got together and found the money to close the toll booth by compensating the bond holders. This is explained in the Sussex Advertiser, 6 November 1866:

A meeting was accordingly held at Cuckfield, to consider the steps to be taken, at which it was resolved to raise by subscription a sum equivalent to a large portion of the debt, and make an offer to the trustees and in case they did not accept of it, to oppose tooth and nail the passing of the bill.

Terms were come to, and the act allowed to die out, and the road will, in future, be kept up by the parishes, in much better form than has been the case for years. Butler’s Green gate has been a terrible impost on the road from this to the station, and collected a heavier sum in tolls than all the rest put together, much to the injury of the Boardhill parish lane, that has been terribly cut to pieces by the heavy traffic going that way to avoid the gate, and the bar gate at Tyler’s-green also a great nuisance, both being a heavy expense to the trade of Cuckfield but they are gone for ever … [adding]…that four tollgates in the vicinity had recently have been done away with.

1806 the 'six tollgates of Cuckfield'

According to Maisie Wright in her 1991 'A Chronicle of Cuckfield' a lease dated July 1806 shows that the trustees let to 'Edward Pitt of Cuckfield gentleman' the six tollgates of Cuckfield for one year at a rent of £2,000.

Settling scores with a tollkeeper

Toll collectors

The toll-collectors had to have their full names painted on a board at the tollhouse. They were a tough breed and physically capable of fending off violent travellers. But they were liable to prosecution for the use of ‘opprobrious or abusive language’.

The book 'Recollections of Brighton in the Olden Time', by Samuel Shergold, gives us more of an insight into toll charges:

Tolls, subject to exemptions and double payments, were as follows:

For every Horse, Mare, Gelding, Mule or other Beast drawing any Coach, Chariot, Landau, Berlin, Chaise, Calash, Barouche, Curricle, Phaeton or other such carriage, or in any Waggon, Wain, Cart or carriage, employed in moving goods for Hire from Place to Place, the sum of Sixpence.

1854 Act of Parliament relating to Cuckfield (the author's copy)

For every Horse, Mare, Gelding, Mule or other Beast drawing in any Waggon, Wain, Cart or other Carriage, employed in Husbandry, the sum of Fourpence.

For every Horse, &c. laden or unladen and not drawing, the sum of Twopence.

For every Drove of Oxen, Cows or Neat Cattle, the sum of Tenpence per score.

For every Drove of Calves, Hogs, Swine, Sheep or Lambs, the sum of Fivepence per score.

Only two tolls were to be taken from the same person on the same day between Brighton and Lovell (Lowfield) Heath, and only one between Brighton and Cuckfield.

All and every carriage or carriages whatsoever laden with Timber, Plank, Boards, Wood, Hay or Straw for sale, Bricks or Tiles, Gun or other Iron, Hop-poles, Chalk, Chalk-Marl or coals…passing through any of the gates or Turnpikes … between the Twentieth Day of October in each year and the First Day of April in every succeeding year…shall pay Double the Tolls.

Road closures

Maisie Wright, in her book 'A Chronicle of Cuckfield', explains how the toll system affected not only the main trunk roads but also the side roads:

The Acts of Parliament which established the tollgates also enacted that the trustees might close off some lanes to prevent evasion of tolls. Cleavers Lane near Slough Green [emerging again at Holmsted Hill] and Pickwell Lane at Ansty [and another nearby at Ansty Cross, probably Deak's Lane] were closed, but many of the old lanes and bridleways enjoyed by walkers and riders around Cuckfield today were made by landowners over their own fields to avoid toll charges for their farm carts and horses.

[The square brackets were added with information from the History of the Parish of Cuckfield, Rev James Hughes Cooper.]

Cooper adds that ‘many of the old lanes and bridleways enjoyed by walkers and riders around Cuckfield today were made by landowners over their own fields to avoid toll charges for their farm carts and horses.’

Changes to the system

Over the 100 years or so that toll roads existed in Cuckfield many changes affected Cuckfield such as the closure of side roads, new routes and change in tariffs.

Newspapers and Parliamentary papers detail many changes that had to be approved by Parliament. For example in an Act of 1854 the following additional tolls reflected the progress of the times:

For every carriage propelled or drawn by Steam or other Power other than Animal Power the sum of one shilling per wheel.

For every Velocipede or other such like Carriage or Machine, the Sum of Twopence.

Out of the tolls not more than £850 was to be spent in a year upon the actual repairs of the roads until all other expenses, interest on capital, reduction of debt, &c., were paid.

This Act was finally repealed in 1876.

This unhappy time is recalled in a poem that recalled the closure of the toll houses:

No more the sleepy toll-bar man

Is roused at early morn.

And turns reluctant out of bed

With a curse on that long tin horn.

No more in his nightshirt, as of old,

And his nightcap on his pate,

Does he hurry across the frozen road

To open the turnpike gate.

No more as he's just turned into bed,

And has just got warm again,

Is he doomed to attend to his toll-bar gate,

And battle with snow and rain.

He snoozes all night till broad daylight;

His slumbers at early dawn

Are not disturbed by the old mail coach.

Nor the sound of the old mail horn.

In future articles we will look at the toll houses dotted around and in Cuckfield and the change in turnpike routes.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.

Other articles on Cuckfield Connections about toll houses and turnpikes:

1819: Notice: auction of Mid Sussex Turnpike Tolls

Detested but essential turnpikes ... 1

The tollbooth at Whiteman's Green ... 2

Fury at Butler's Green tollhouse ... 3

Bolney tollhouse - keeps moving ... 4

The mystery of the Hickstead tollhouse ... 5

Four tollhouses ... 6

1867: The challenges of maintaining Cuckfield roads after the abolition of turnpike gates



Turnpike Roads by Geoffrey Wright, Shire Library

Recollections of Brighton in the Olden Time, by Samuel Shergold, 1904

Map: ‘Turnpikes To Brighton’ by Dr Brian Austen in Sussex Industrial History, Journal of the Sussex Industrial Archaeology Society, No 41, 2011 (P39)

Illustration: Rebecca Riots in Wales. Men and boys, many dressed as women, attacking a turnpike gate in protest at charges at tollgates on public roads. Another of their main targets was union workhouses. From 'The Illustrated London News' (London, 11 February 1843).

Fisticuffs picture from 'Coaching Day and Coaching Ways' by W Outram Tristram, 1887.

Poem ‘Alas! Alas! Where Is It Gone!’ from A Manual of Coaching by Fairman Rogers 1901


bottom of page