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Roads and Highways

Records of transport can reveal a wealth of fascinating material useful to the local or community historian, from documents relating to the landowners affected by proposed routes to records of the people who built, worked and travelled on the transport systems crossing the country.

Roads in Britain date back to prehistoric track ways and the stone roads of the Romans, although the only sources which cover these tend to be of an archaeological nature. Because of poor surfacing and constant use, roads were often difficult to use and led to slow journey times, a situation that continued in many cases until the 20th century. However, there are a variety of sources relating to roads and a study of local routes can prove rewarding for the local or community historian.

Maps are a very useful source for the development and history of local roads, with a variety of such maps held by Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent Archive Service. From the mid-19th century onwards, the Ordnance Survey maps of the various additions allow the local historian to trace the route and size of local roads, noting any changes between the editions. Tithe and enclosure maps also record roads, as do some estate maps where roads cross the areas concerned. County maps from the 18th century and later show the road network on the wider scale.

For more information on maps, please visit the Understanding the Landscape section of this online guide

Aerial photographs are also useful in the same way as maps in helping to trace routes, diversions and changes to the road with the added bonus that traffic use is incidentally recorded in each frame. Staffordshire Record Office holds a run of aerial photographs between 1947 and 2000.

Land records, from medieval deeds to 20th century estate papers, can often provide clues relating to the history of a road (for example, being used as a boundary between property) and civil parish collections sometimes contain parish surveyors’ records, which may be of some use to the researcher. Many of the estate and civil parish collections can be found at Staffordshire Record Office.

District and borough council collections contain records relating to the roads in their care and there are also references to roads in the records of the local Court of Quarter Sessions, which oversaw the administration of the county. These records include information on highway diversions, stopping-up orders and bridges.

Turnpike roads were private roads administered by trusts and authorized by private Acts of Parliament. Travellers would be charged a toll to use the roads at gates located at the points along the road. The earliest ‘Turnpike Trusts’ were set up in the 17th century and lasted until the end of the 19th century, when responsibility for main roads passed to the new county councils.

Records of the Turnpike Trusts in Staffordshire can be found amongst the Quarter Sessions papers at Staffordshire Record Office, reference number Q/RUt.

A free detailed guide to the Archive Service's holdings of records relating to roads and highways is available in PDF format from the Guides to Sources page on this website (Guide to Sources No. 8: Transport Records).

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