The modern-day increase in toll motorways and roads that carry a user charge is far from a new idea. Until the introduction of the Road Tax during the 1920s the majority of major roads throughout both country and county were toll roads and as such carried a levy for those who used them.
One such road is the one that runs from Leek to Sandon, passing through Cellarhead and Meir. Payments were taken at toll houses along the route and usually consisted of a few pence for the majority of traffic. However, there were always a few who cared to take their chances by evading payment, and those who were caught faced harsh financial penalties.
One such individual was John Hill, a farmer, whose house lay on Uttoxeter Road halfway between Meir and Catchem’s Corner. Returning home from the Cellarhead direction on the first day of May 1798, Hill decided to take a shortcut allegedly to avoid paying the charge at the Meir toll house. This stood on Weston Road, approximately where the entrance to Harvey Road would later be built.
Hill, who was travelling in a cart pulled by three horses, on reaching the crossroads at Weston Coyney, turned left and headed along the lane to Caverswall. After passing through Cookhill Green, and at some point beyond Cookshill Mill at Oxhay Gate, Hill turned off the track to cut across private land. This belonged to Booth Grey who lived at Caverswall Castle. Continuing in a southerly direction Hill would have forded the River Blythe at some point before passing through Park Gate and entering what had been the medieval deer park belonging to the castle.
Sadly no trace of this medieval deer park appears to remain. The park would have been bounded by a double ditch and when in use would have been topped with an oak palisade. This remnant was clear enough the following year as a perambulation of the manorial boundary of Caverswall mentions a ‘great double ditch which it is supposed a park pale formerly stood.’ The name still lives on in the area known as Caverswall Park Farm. Hill continued through the park remerging on Uttoxeter Road through the southernmost Park Gate. Going through the gate Hill turned left and continued the short distance to his house.
Hill might have got away with this had it not been for William Emery, the toll-keeper at Rudyard Gate. He reported the incident to John Sneyd, a Justice of the Peace, on May 9th. Emery claimed that Hill had taken the shortcut ‘with the intent to avoid the payment of the toll at Meir Gate’ by crossing ‘private lands and not a public highway.’ Why a toll-keeper from far away in the north of the county was involved is unknown. The following week on May 16th Hill was summoned before Sneyd and on being told of what he was accused denied the charge and protested his innocence.
However, Margaret Shenton, the toll-keeper at Meir Gate, described as ‘a credible witness’, also testified against Hill. Sneyd was satisfied that Hill was guilty of the offence and duly fined him 40 shillings.
Hill continued to protest his innocence and on June 30th he signed his name underneath a document stating his intention that at the next quarter sessions court at Stafford on July 12th he was to appeal against his conviction for the alleged offence.
Whether or not Hill was successful in his appeal is not recorded. Nor was any reason given as to why Hill chose to take his costly shortcut. Possibly he had given his last few pence at the preceding tollgate and didn’t have any money. Possibly he was tired and simply wanted a shorter journey home. Neither was there any involvement from Booth Grey whose land Hill had crossed.
The fine of 40 shillings appears to have been the standard amount for attempting to evade payment of the turnpike roads. On July 1st 1817 John Cope was found guilty of ‘violently and forcibly passing through the turnpike gate at Draycott without paying the toll’ and fined the same amount. Whatever the outcome Hill probably thought twice before deciding to take any more shortcuts.