A217 Milestone Uncovered – 2019

Ever since The Children’s Trust cut back the row of trees adjacent to the A217, a Milestone was uncovered. Pia Chamberlain was asked to research this and let us know its provenance and meaning. The following is her fascinating report.

The recent clearance of the undergrowth along the A217 near Tadworth Court has revealed an old milestone which seems to have attracted the attention of a number of passing motorists. How old is it? What information does it give? Why is it there? To find an answer to these questions one needs to go back in history some 250 years or so.

Up until the middle of the 18th century the condition of roads throughout the country had been truly appalling, but the situation was set to change for a number of reasons. As more and more London merchants and gentry were contemplating having a residence in the Surrey countryside, they expected travel to and from the capital to become easier and more comfortable. As sea bathing for health reasons was becoming more fashionable among the rich, the newly created seaside resorts such as Brighton needed to be more directly accessible if they were to survive. Lastly better roads were needed to facilitate the transport of increasing quantities of food produced to satisfy the London market.

As a consequence a number of Acts were passed by Parliament to provide for the creation of turnpike trusts, which, it was hoped, would bring about the necessary road improvements. In exchange for keeping the roads in good repair these trusts were allowed to erect toll-bars or tollgates and to levy a fixed fee from road users.

A turnpike from Southwark to Sutton was authorised by Act of Parliament in 1718. The extension from Sutton to Reigate was authorised in 1755. The Reigate Turnpike Trust was set up initially for a period of 21 years. The trustees appointed included members of the local gentry and notables. They met for the first time on 15th April 1755 and decided to obtain an estimate for the work required to make the road passable. The steep rise of Reigate Hill was the main problem they had to tackle and in the end they opted for a solution which had the road bending round the hill past the Upper Lodge of Gatton Park.

Tadworth tollgate in 1870

From July 1755 and for the following twelve months some considerable work to rebuild and widen the stretch from Tadworth Court to the Ruffett Wood tollgate in Lower Kingswood was undertaken. Two tollgates were erected on the Kingswood stretch, one at the level of Copt Hill Lane, the other, as already mentioned, at Ruffett Wood, in Lower Kingswood (the adjacent picture shows the Tadworth tollgate in 1870).

The tolls were fixed by Parliament and had to be clearly displayed. They were repeatedly increased and later based, for carts and wagons, on the width of their wheels. Tolls varied according to the seasons and there were numerous exceptions, which the tollgate keeper had to bear in mind when calculating the amount due.

There was understandably quite a lot of ill-feeling on the part of the travellers at suddenly being charged for using roads which had always been freely accessible in the past and attacks on tollgate keepers were not uncommon. Circumnavigation of the gates was another problem and an obstruction had to be put in place to foil such attempts. As for the keepers themselves, they were not always beyond reproach either and were often accused of being drunk on duty and greedy.

Drovers, who had to pay for their animals by the score, were particularly averse to using the turnpike roads and mostly kept to the tracks they had been following in the past.

The Reigate Turnpike Road was soon busy with traffic and the number of firms offering transport was growing rapidly. By 1801 a stage-coach was running on alternate days between London and Brighton via Banstead.

One of the chief advantages the new system brought with it was also a much improved postal service. From 1775 a daily delivery (except for Sundays) was operated between London and Reigate, first by couriers on horseback, later on by Mail Coach.

Despite the ever increasing traffic, the Reigate Turnpike Trust was never successful and was usually in debt. In 1807 a new road to Brighton via Croydon and Merstham was built. The new road, which avoided the steep gradient of Reigate Hill, soon proved more popular. However, competition for the Reigate Trust was soon to come in another form when, on 21st September 1841, a railway line running from London to Brighton, was opened. The Reigate Trust never recovered from this last, crippling, blow and finally ceased operation on 31 October 1881.

Mileposts were compulsory on all turnpikes, not only to inform travellers of direction and distance, but also to help coaches keep to schedule and to determine charges for changes of horses at coaching inns. Distances were also used to calculate postal charges before the uniform postal rate was introduced in 1840.

As for the age of our milestone, the Surrey Historic Environment Register (HER) puts its date at no earlier than 1775 when, as the entry states, ‘a road suitable for carriages was constructed on Reigate Hill’. Made of Portland stone, it is one of several milestones along the route controlled by the Reigate Turnpike Trust. They were all positioned on the west side of the road and a number of them have survived to this day.

The fact that the milestone refers to ‘Brighton’ is another indication of its probable age. Until the early part of the 18th century, Brighton was still a sleepy fishing village known as Brighthelmstone, but by the middle of the century, a Dr Richard Russell, from nearby Lewes, had started to encourage his patients to bathe in and drink seawater for the cure of enlarged lymphatic glands. He recommended especially that they try the water near Brighton. By 1753 his treatment had become so popular that he moved his surgery to Brighton. But even before Dr Russell became famous, people had started to visit Brighton for recreational purposes. By the time the Prince Regent visited the place for the first time in 1783, it had already become a popular seaside resort and was by then generally known by its new name of Brighton.

Clearly visible at the bottom of our stone is a mark consisting of a horizontal line with an arrow pointing up from below. Many people think that such marks are War Office related. They are in fact Ordnance Survey benchmarks and a way of marking height above sea level. OS surveyors made these marks to record height above Ordnance Datum Newlyn (ODN), i.e. the mean sea level determined at Newlyn, in Cornwall. If the exact height of one benchmark was known, the exact height of the next one could be calculated by measuring the difference in heights, through a process of spirit levelling. There are hundreds of thousands of these benchmarks dotted around the country. They are cut into houses, churches, bridges and numerous other structures. They have, however, become obsolete as nowadays OS surveyors use GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Systems) technology to carry out the same tasks which would have taken days in the past.

Pia Chamberlain