Burrowbridge Toll Gate
The original bridge had three arches, each arch being wide enough for the boats that navigated the river up to Langport and beyond. In 1826 the present single-span granite arch was built (the rest built in blue lias limestone), allowing both larger boats and more frequent travel, as the river here is still tidal.
The right to charge tolls was auctioned each year. This first took place at what is now the Castle Hotel in Taunton, a building originally built as a grand private residence. On 29th December 1838 the Burrowbride Commissioners held their auction at the hotel, now called Sweets Hotel, to ‘farm’ the tolls arising from use of the bridge. The previous year the tolls had amounted to £30 and the next year would be let “to the best Bidder, his procuring sufficient Sureties for payment of his Rent monthly; and such Tolls will be put at the Sum they are now producing. N. B. The Taker must pay down one month's rent.”
From the beginning, the idea of paying to cross the bridge did not go down well with the locals, which often led to disputes, as reported in the Frome Times in 1866: “Mr. Robert Hurd, a farmer living near Bridgwater, was summoned on Thursday, by Thomas Pollard, toll-keeper at the Burrowbridge-gate, for refusing to pay toll for a horse which he rode on May 21. It appeared that defendant, who is member of the West Somerset Yeomanry, had been present at the assembly of his regiment, at Taunton, on Saturday, May 19. He rode home the same evening, and was returning to Taunton on the morning of Monday, May 21, dressed in the regimental stable dress, but had no arms with him. The collector demanded the usual toll for the horse, but the defendant refused to pay it, claiming exemption as a volunteer in uniform proceeding to duty. The lessee took action under the regulations which enact that volunteers claiming exemption must be armed and accoutred according to the regimental orders the time of claiming exemption. He also held that defendant was riding for his own pleasure, as he had been home on leave of absence, and quoted the case of Humphrey v. Bethell, in which the Lord Chief Justice gave a decision in January last, in support of his case. The bench held a brief consultation, and said they were of opinion that, under the circumstances, defendant was liable to the toll. They therefore imposed a penalty of 6d., as complainant did not wish to press the case, but wanted a conviction in order to settle the point and to decide a large number of other cases, his action in which depended upon the decision of the bench. On hearing the decision, several other members of the regiment who were in court, paid their tolls, which they had previously refused to do.”
The annual bidding session eventually moved to the Langport Arms and the tolls were ‘farmed’ for one or three years. The tolls produced £70 in 1864, £59 in 1867, and £65 in 1878. The bids were regulated by what was known as a ‘Sandglass Auction’. At the start of bidding a three minute sandglass was turned over. It was turned over again after each bid. If the sand had run through without a new bid, the glass was turned over again three times before the last bid was accepted as final. The final bidder then had the right to take the tolls, he or she hoping that they would amount to more than the amount paid to the commissioners.
As early as 1895, there was talk of the County Council buying the bridge from the Commissioners and doing away with the toll, but this came to nothing. In 1903, the rights were bought by a private company, which led to further protest including this letter to the Taunton Courier: “I am writing protest against the Burrowbridge toll-gate being kept closed. For many years this gate been open (toll being collected, of course). Now some London syndicate has purchased the toll monopoly for the next period, and the gate-keeper insists the gate being closed all day and locked at night. The village of Burrowbridge lies on both sides the Parrett, and many of the inhabitants cross and re-cross the bridge many times daily. Everything on wheels has to come to a standstill when this bridge is approached and wait the leisure of the tax collector. The inhabitants of the district desire to know, Sir, whether this gate can now legally be closed after being left open so many years. Would it not be possible to have the nuisance abolished, lock, stock, and barrel? In my mind it appears an anachronism, and an infringement of liberty that a public highway should be barred by a private Company, however rich they may be. Too late for another bridge to be built over the river - a free bridge? Hoping you will kindly print this letter, and that many people with more authority than I have will take the matter up, I am, Sir, Yours, &c , JAS. B. ALLISON.”
In 1929, the Somerset branch of the National Farmers Union added their weight to the campaign to do away with the Burrowbridge toll, when their executive urged for the abolition of all toll gates, as they were hampering the agricultural industry. They pointed out that the County Council could have bought the bridge cheaply many years ago, but now the toll receipts were much higher the cost would be much greater.
The value continued to rise, and in 1937 the bid was a record: “RECORD BID FOR BURROWBRIDGE TOLL RIGHTS. The record figure of £1,560 was paid by Mr. Frank Dyer, retired builder, of Curry Rivel, at Langport " Sandglass Auction " on Tuesday for the right to collect tolls at Burrowbridge during the ensuing year. Motorists all over the country are familiar with the toll gate on the Taunton—Glastonbury main road, where small fees are charged for the privilege of crossing a bridge over the River Parret. Mr. Dyer's bid was £2lO more than the sum paid for the current year by Miss Elsie Boobyer and her brother, Mr. Donald Boobyer,of Burrowbridge, and above the previous record. Several former toll takers entered into the bidding, and the ancient sandglass was inverted three times before the final bid was accepted.”
By 1938, Burrowbridge was one of only three toll gates on UK public roads
In 1943 there was only one bidder for the toll rights: “lt was the first auction since the war, and one of the shortest. There was one bid. The glass ran out three times without any further offer, and the first and only bidder became the purchaser. The rights of toll for one year were sold for £170, the lowest figure since 1927, to 28 year old Mr. Ernest Frank Priddle, Stathe Road, Burrowbridge, a farm worker who has been out of work for nine weeks owing to ill-health. His brother-in-law, Mr. C. Hembrow, of Burrowbridge. was the bidder on his behalf, who had attended the auction fur seven or eight years, and had bid up to £1,200 on his own behalf in in the past.”
In 1944, it was reported that “BURROWBRIDGE TOLL BRIDGE RIGHTS BOUGHT FOR 15-YEARS-OLD GIRL. There were 14 bids at the adjourned Auction at Langport yesterday for the right to collect tolls for 12 months from traffic crossing a bridge over the River Parrett at Boroughbridge. Under an Act of Parliament passed in the reign of George IV by which the bridge was built, the auction took place by sandglass. The purchaser was Cuthbert Hembrow, 33-years-old withy worker, of Silver Street, Boroughbridge, at £2lO. ‘I bought it for my sister Queenie. 15,’ he told a reporter. ‘She has been collecting the tolls recently for my brother-in-law, who bought the rights a year ago.” Queenie was one of the small number attending the auction held in the old posting house, the Langport Arms Hotel. Mr. P. Hancock, clerk to the Bridge Commissioners conducted the sale. A century-old sand glass was turned after each bid. Bidding started at £l2O. The only bidder beside Mr. Hembrow was Mr. Lewis Boobyer, a former toll Collector. In the years preceding the, the bidding ran into four figures and once reached £1,830 for the year’s rights, and last year fetched £l5O.”
In April 1945, after 40 years discussion, the toll over the bridge was finally removed: “Somerset Toll Bridge Freed. The toll bridge which spans the River Parrett at Burrowbridge, near Bridgwater, was freed for ever at noon on Sunday. It became the property of the Somerset County Council. and a ceremony in celebration was held at the bridge on Tuesday afternoon. For the past 12 months the toll collector has been Queenie Hembrow, aged 16. Her father was the last motorist to pay the 3d. toll on Sunday, as the clock struck twelve.The amount actually paid in tolls has been estimated at about 75,000.”