Charging a fee for travelling into central London by road is by no means a modern phenomenon. By the mid-eighteenth century, anyone entering the city had to pay their way through the numerous gates and tolls erected by Turnpike Trusts. The term ‘turnpike’ derives from the spiked barricade used for defence in medieval times.
Turnpike Trusts were established by Parliament to raise revenue to remedy the increasingly ruinous state of many roads. The first began operating on the Great North Road in 1663. Less than a century later, turnpikes had become so widespread – and unpopular – that Alexander Pope could complain:
Who makes a Trust, or Charity a Job,
And gets an Act of Parliament to rob?
Why Turnpikes rose, and now no Cit nor clown
Can gratis see the country, or the town?
During the latter half of the eighteenth century, the passing of well over a thousand Turnpike Acts did achieve some improvement in the condition of roads. However, the proliferation proved unsustainable. Thanks to often-dismal financial management, lack of co-ordinated charging, and complications surrounding the procurement of labour, the political tide eventually turned against Turnpike Trusts. Expansion of the railways set the seal on their fate. From the middle of the nineteenth century roads were ‘disturnpiked’ as leases expired and their maintenance provided instead by various systems of local rates.
The Kensington Turnpike Trust was formed by Act of Parliament in 1725 to care for several important roads to the west of London. The Kensington turnpike features in novels by Dickens and Thackeray, whose house at 16 Young Street fell within the Trust’s jurisdiction. The heroines of ‘Vanity Fair’, having left their boarding school, arrive in London by carriage:
"By the time the young ladies reached Kensington turnpike, Amelia had not forgotten her companions, but had dried her tears, and had blushed very much and been delighted at a young officer of the Life Guards who spied her as he was riding by…"
In 1811, the Trust commissioned the artist, Joseph Salway to record everything under its management. By then it had expanded its operations significantly to boast responsibility for some 16 miles of roads and numerous related buildings and facilities. This collection of Salway’s images has been chosen from the complete set of originals. It depicts the two and a half miles from ‘Counters Bridge’ – the westernmost point of today’s Kensington High Street – through Kensington and Knightsbridge to Hyde Park Corner.
The road follows an ancient route into London. In Saxon times, travellers approaching the walled city would have picked a path through Middlesex forest to Chenesiton, as Kensington was then known, a small settlement raised above the swampy land bordering the Thames. Near the present Albert Gate, they would cross a bridge over the Westbourne River, whose course was changed after the formation of the Serpentine in 1730 and is now a sewer. Legend has it that two knights battled to the death at the crossing, giving it the name by which the road and surrounding area has long been known, Knightsbridge.
In the Middle Ages, Kensington came under the rule of the powerful de Vere family, while Knightsbridge gained notoriety for its disreputable inns, highwaymen and popularity with those wishing to settle their differences in a duel.
The seventeenth century saw Kensington become a fashionable retreat from the London crowds, much favoured by the aristocracy. Holland House was raised in grand style around 1606. In 1689 William III, looking for clear country air, employed Wren to build the magnificent Kensington Palace, creating a lasting association with royalty.
Kensington continued to grow steadily during the eighteenth century, proving particularly popular with affluent writers, actors and artists. From around 1,000 residents at the beginning of the century, it would number over 8,000 at its close. Knightsbridge too, while retaining its numerous hostelries, started to expand as the architect Henry Holland built terraced houses upon open fields. By the time Salway started his drawings in 1811, the area was on the very cusp of transformation from prosperous rural parish to busy metropolitan borough.
Salway’s water-coloured drawings depict the roads in both plan and elevation, corresponding to the view an observer would have standing in the middle of the road looking north. The level of detail is extraordinary: drains, mileposts, horse troughs, trees, even the shadows from individually numbered street lamps, are all faithfully recorded as Salway brings to light a wealth of fascinating historical, architectural and social details.
Like most of the route, the first stretch of road is dirt rather than paved. A fruit shop, nursery and pub stand in what is otherwise open countryside. Terraces of houses with small formal gardens appear towards the village of Kensington, where the church is surrounded by a bustle of building. The road gives a distant view of Holland House, at this date a centre of literary and political activity. Further on, various lodges and gatehouses form part of the grounds of Kensington Palace. Horse barracks border the ancient royal hunting grounds of Hyde Park. Among the growing cluster of houses at Knightsbridge, the Cannon brew-house can be seen, while on the south side, just before the toll gate at Hyde Park Corner, St George’s Hospital is marked where the Lanesborough Hotel now stands.