Act 1, Prologue: The Highway Board

Scene: Ilkeston in the 1850’s

In March 1854 the Ilkeston Pioneer (at that time, the town’s only newspaper, first printed in 1853) included a letter from one of its readers Tilchestune … it was usual for correspondents to use ‘pen-names’ rather than their own names.
As he walked around the town, Tilchestune was extremely happy with what he saw and was eager to share his thoughts …

In a letter (abbreviated below) headed Ilkeston and its improvements he wrote …

Who that knew anything of Ilkeston fifteen or twenty years ago, has not noticed with pleasure the great improvements that have been effected in the almost entire re-construction of the roads through Kensington (down Nottingham Road), South-street, Market-place, Pimlico, East-street, Burr-lane, and Bath-street? (Anyone not familiar with the geography of Ilkeston will see most of these places shown on the earlier sketch map)

Mount Sorrel gutters and crossings, and stone and brick causeways, with curbings, have been laid, which have given our streets an air of cleanliness and finish they never before exhibited.

Numerous encroachments and nuisances on the highway have been abated or removed — The unsightly ancient projection in the centre of the Market-place, has given place to two good shops, the space between being crowned with a light and graceful platform, from which we hope, ere long, to see the member for Ilkeston harangue his constituents; and the removal of the old brick wall and stiff poplars has given us as pleasant a promenade as any little market town can boast of.

The four-feet ditches of filth, which bounded nearly all one side of Bath-street, have given place to a foot-road, which, though not the best, we must take as the ‘pioneer’ for a better one ‘looming in the future’.

Who that recollects the pool against the Toll-bar, and Weaver-pool in South-street (both alike the occasion of so much excitement, personality, and lawyer-meddling) will not admit that the filling up of one (at the Toll Bar), and the erections now rising on the site of the other (the property of our old townsman, Mr. Sudbury), are improvements ?

Pimlico has lost the old Independent meeting-house, with which are dearly associated the names of (Joshua) Shaw and (James Adolphus) Savage, once its gifted ministers, but in its place now stands the best specimen of ecclesiastical architecture in the town belonging to dissenters.

If we cross over to the Market-place, and tread the ground where once a beloved (Richard) Moxon (curate of the Ilkeston parish 1823-1836) lived and laboured for the Church, what a change do we see ! The tumble-down cot, styled ‘the vicarage’, in which he resided, is supplanted by a comfortable hall-like parsonage; and the grounds on which donkeys used to browse, are now laid out in beautiful parterres, shrubbery, &c. While in this nook, we cannot but revert to the removal of the pump in Anchor-row.  Is this not an improvement ? 

.. we pass on, — The British and National schools erected speak well for the improvement of Ilkeston.

Among our little streets, East-street has done its share to improve the appearance of the place, and the respected occupant of Dalby House (Dr. George Blake Norman) deserve the best thanks of the walk-loving public, for the pleasant road he has made in the croft below his residence.

The spacious Cricket-ground is also one of our recent improvements, and forms a most enticing resort for health-seekers.

The Wesley and Bath-street chapels are no mean ornaments to our town.

From the Rutland Arms and Baths to the Wine Vaults, at the top of Bath-street, improvements have been made by the Railway Company, Mr. Chadwick, Mr. W. Riley, Mr. Thomas Riley, Mr. Burgin, Mr. Rose, Mr. Potter, Mr. W. Ball, Mr. Aldred, Mr. Evans. Mr. Lowe, Mr. Carrier, and others.

The ‘Common’, with its little ‘Ebenezer‘, and the proving-hands and taste of a Richards, a Beardsley, a Whitehead, and a Bailey, keeps pace with its parent, the town. Whether we go to the Park or the Manor-house; to Kensington with its ‘Field-house‘; or Cotmanhay, with its Church (Christ Church) and Parsonage; the Pottery, or the Wharf, everywhere are we met by signs of improvement in property and the general appearance of the place.

In this rapid enumeration of improvements, we ought not to forget the new phasis given to that locality known as ‘Albion-place‘ by the erection of the large lace factory, warehouse, and other premises of Messrs. Ball.  The stimulus given to the improvements of Ilkeston, and the extension of its trade, by the erection of industrial hives of this kind, and those of Messrs. Carrier, Messrs. Fletcher, and Messrs. Bailey, Son, and Co., cannot be over-valued or prized by anyone having the real weal of Ilkeston at heart.

dated Feb. 28, 1854

(We shall visit most of these places and meet many of the people as we journey on through town).


In the 1850’s Ilkeston was administered by Vestry and a Highway Board.

The Vestry had acquired its powers mainly through custom — it became a group of the more powerful village officials, made up of important owners of property and land, and called the ‘Vestry’ because it originally met in the vestry or sacristy of the church. These people had no choice — they had to serve in their office; it was compulsory. And in return they had power within the community over its income and expenditure. The officers were the Churchwardens, highway surveyors, the parish constable, overseer of the poor, and the parish clerk, sextons and scavengers.

As we approach the Victorian era in Ilkeston, these important officials had names we might be familiar with (or become familiar with) … Attenborough, Ball, Barker, Beardsley, Boot, Carrier, Cheetham, Critchley, Cocker, Day, Gamble, Gregory, Harrison, Henshaw, Hobson, Kirkby, Leaper, Lowe, Mason, Meakin, Meer, Potter, Richardson, Shaw, Sills, Simpson, Skeavington, Small, Stringer, Sudbury, Taylor, Trueman, Whitehead, Whitworth, Wilcockson, Wilson.

It was the role of the village ‘surveyors of highways’ also known as the Overseer of the Highway, to make sure that the Ilkeston roads were kept in good order … that is all the roads except the turnpike road, a sort of main road which came from the direction of Nottingham and went on towards Derby (or vice-versa if you care to think of it that way) … we shall come to this Turnpike Road eventually and see how it was different.

The other ‘minor’ roads around the village were looked after by the surveyor who, since 1773, was paid a salary by the rate-payers … but not very much .. his role was not relatively important !!

By the 1830’s it seemed the custom that the Vestry chose one surveyor. Of course he was not expected to do all repairs and maintenance himself … statute stipulated that he could order parishioners to work for him but from 1835 (by the General Highway Act) this right was abolished and the surveyor now hired labour in the usual way.

In 1837 the vestry went back to an older method of chosing the surveyor … that is, making a list of 12 possible candidates, sending it to the local J.P. and letting him chose.

At the same time a committee was appointed to inspect the roads.

The overseer of the highways had to collect the highway rate himself, and excellent way of keeping the rates down, but not of encouraging the construction of good roads.This department suffered, like all the others, from being based on too small a unit…. the parish. 18th and 19th century Ilkestonians thought if the Ilkeston roads sufficed for Ilkestonians, that was good enough. Anyhow, let those who went gadding about the country pay for the roads or else do what the average villager was perfectly content to do … “stop at ‘om”. (Waterhouse)

Roads were improved by paving .. that is, by laying a stratum of gravel or small broken stones on the soil. The thickness of this layer was determined by the nature of the ground, or by the availability of materials in the nearby area. It might vary from a three or four inches to a foot or more. A road made of broken stones, though firm, was not the most comfortable to travel along, nor best for the feet of horses.

Then in 1844 the compulsory highway overseers ended and a Highway Board was set up…. the Board for Repair of the Highways in the Parish of Ilkeston.  According to Trueman and Martson, (p238)\ this Highway Board was “first formed about 1849, and corresponded to the old surveyors of the Highway elected by the parishioners”.
This date however is contested by Edgar Waterhouse who suggests that its formation was in the year 1844. In an article appearing in the Ilkeston Pioneer entitled ‘Local Government Two Centuries Ago’ [Dec 21st 1934] he lists the names of all the overseers of the Highways he had managed to find from the highways accounts, dating from 1742. The last names in that list are John Barker and Samuel Potter, overseers in 1843.
Waterhouse then writes In 1844 the compulsory overseers ended, when at the Easter Vestry “it was proposed by Mr. Longstaff and seconded by Mr. Moses Mason that, in lieu of the present surveyor of the highways a board be appointed and called the Board for the Repair of the Highways in the Parish of Ilkeston”  It appears that this motion was carried unanimously and 14 persons were then chosen to form that Board, whereupon John Barker handed over his highway rate book to the new Board.

In the mid 1850’s the Pioneer was constantly and scathingly critical of the Highway Board and its Surveyor.  The Board was simply a ‘talking shop’ made up of ‘sorry ingredients’ and the Surveyor should ‘try to earn the liberal salary that was paid to him’.
The roads through the Common and into Cotmanhay were singled out in particular by the newspaper as in need of care and attention, although the Pioneer did note, perhaps with reluctance, some improvement in the foot road to ‘Moore’s Bridge’ (the Derby Road route). There were reports of the contents of  privies and ash-pits being thrown out onto the Cotmanhay Road at the Common, in Bath Street and in South Street.
Middle Road at the Common had heaps of dirt on each side for weeks on end.

In 1854 Mrs. Hitchcock met with a ‘frightful accident’ in Chapel Street when the pony pulling her carriage shied at a quantity of lime and rubbish left in the narrow street. A wheel caught the corner of  the Slade Chapel, the cart was upset and a shaft broken….but no serious hurt to Mrs. H. and her children.
The Pioneer however felt compelled to repeat its complaint to townsmen about leaving obstructions in the street.

To drive home the point about the state of the roads and the town in general, the newspaper printed an account of a working man as he took his family for a walk and a horse-carriage ride around the town on two summer evenings.
As a result of the condition of the town’s roads, the man listed a number of complaints and minor disasters as he and his family took their journey …..a cut face and a sprained ankle for his son on the causeway in East Street, pigsty and manure smells, black poisonous smoke from the chimney of the Water-works, a stinking ditch that induced severe vomiting and fainting in his wife, a stone-throwing urchin, a drunken brawl, and on the way down Nottingham Road, a group of Kensington women and boatmen arguing and swearing.
However once outside of the town and into Trowell he encountered a different world of country cottages, rose gardens, a picturesque village school, trees and pure fresh air.
And then coming back into Ilkeston via Awsworth Road the family’s troubles reappeared as a large stone in the middle of the road  broke a spring in the carriage. The family struggled on only for the horse — borrowed from a neighbour — to step onto the tram-road at the bottom of Bath Street and ‘break his knees’.
With his son now being carried home by a friend and his wife seeking refuge in a nearby cottage, the man tried to coax the lame horse up Bath Street, still pulling the cart, when it was struck by a runaway horse coming down the hill. A broken shaft was the result.
The family did manage to reach the shelter of their own home when there was a knock on the door. It was Mr Pink, the highway collector, asking for his rate!

In July 1856 the Pioneer was still at it …..  Board of Highways was a talking shop, with its do-nothing propensity. Its members compliment each other in long speeches, indulge in specious promises, besmear each other with flattering unction and then hope to gain the approval of the ratepayers when it is time to appoint again. We frankly avow we have no great expectation from the Board, made up as it is of such sorry ingredients, but we do hope that their spirited and energetic Surveyor will try to earn the salary which has been so freely voted, and that the remaining members of the Board may indulge their idle and mischievous propensities, without damage to the public good, or accidents to her Majesty’s liege subjects!” 

Eventually, in 1857, Matthew Hobson, chairman of the Board of Highways, announced that anyone who wilfully obstructed any carriage or footway with scaffolding, bricks, mortar, stones or the like, would be prosecuted.

In 1864 this system of local governance was reformed when the Local Board was introduced to replace the Highway Board.

But not before the ‘lighting issue’ of the 1850’s.