Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853


    IT is a long while since the toll-gates, which once barricaded the approaches to the city of London proper, finally disappeared front the public ways. The localities, where they once barred the road to the traveller who used any other means of locomotion than those with which he was naturally provided, are now not easily identified. It is probable, however, that the toll-gates stood very near the spots where were the gates of the ancient city when London was a walled capital. If so, their sites would be indicated, though with no very great precision, by the situation on the map of Aldgate, Aldersgate, Bishopsgate, etc., etc., in former times the gates of the old surrounding fortification. But city walls and gates, and toll-bars too, have all been swept away by the rushing stream of commerce; yet though the material obstacles have vanished long ago, the pecuniary one remains. Vested interests, stronger than stone walls, endure in full vigour when these have crumbled to decay; and from this cause it is that, though the toll-man has been long ago turned out of house and home, he is not yet turned out of office, but continues to levy his exactions after he has been deprived of all semblance of authority, and of all show of right to the tax to which he lays claim.
    The houseless and unsheltered functionary, who at the present day represents the corporation of London in their capacity of highway tax-gatherers, is a very forlorn-looking individual, who has to do battle for his levies, occasionally at a disadvantage, with any man who chooses to play the recusant; and, to say the truth, his adversaries are by no means few. He is a man evidently born to contend with opposition, and to get the better of it. He has in his time rubbed shoulders with so many discomforts, that it is a question whether he would feel at home without them. He is a weather-worn subject, somewhat wiry-faced and hard-featured, and with a figure thin enough almost to find shelter to leeward of a gas-lamp, and active enough to run down a fast-trotting horse in less time than it would take to saddle him. His occupation is no sinecure; he has to be thoroughly awake every day and all day long. Homer may nod, but not he; unless he choose to pay for it by the loss of income. His whole career in office is a continuous and praiseworthy example of "the pursuit of halfpence under difficulties." In this pursuit he is constantly baffled, but then he is as constantly successful. If half of his unwilling vassals elude him, the other half pay him the hard cash; so that if he gets a grievance one minute, he gathers compensation the next. He is liable to be cheated every hour, and undergoes that penalty many times a day; but he has not time to grumble, and, more than that, does not think of grumbling, but looks the sharper after the next comer.
    His occupation has taught him some practical philosophy. He knows the value of good temper and the folly of resentments. He is a civil fellow in the main, and will answer your questions readily enough; but you must not expect him to look you in the face: his eyes are ever on the highway, and if he shoots off like a rocket in the middle of a response, it is because he has a reason for it - at least in perspective. Sometimes, when the day has been unproductive, he will avenge the delinquency of one defaulter by the persecution of another - hunting him down with great pertinacity, and following him from street to street, leaving the way clear meanwhile to all who may come. This is an imprudence, however, of which he is seldom guilty, because it is one which brings its immediate penalty.
    The reader who would like to catch a glimpse of this active subject must look for him in some one of the thoroughfares of commerce, just at the point which marks the limits of the corporation domains. If he have a map of London in which the city proper is marked by a different colour, he will see at a glance all the inlets and outlets which have to be guarded and taxed by the toll-man. Thus there is one at Holborn-hill, whose occupation can be no sinecure, seeing that he has to do the duty of three imaginary five-barred gates, placed, one at Shoe-lane, one at Farringdon-street, and one at Snow-hill. There is another pluralist, who stands at the west-end of Fleet- street, keeping one eye constantly on Temple-bar and another on Chancery-lane. They are all authorised and enjoined to collect twopence from the drivers of all vehicles, not belonging to freemen of London, bringing goods into the city. The principal city toll-man is, or was, a speculating Jew, who rents the whole of the tolls from the corporation. He supplies his assistants with tickets, which, like turnpike tickets elsewhere, are delivered to the drivers who pay the toll. Whether he pays his inferiors by stated salaries, or sells them the tickets at a discount, we are not in a condition to certify but judging from the indefatigable efforts of some of them in the prosecution of their profession-seeing how recklessly they dash into the torrent of rushing vehicles, heedless of horses' hoofs and rattling wheels, after a driver who turns a deaf ear to their challenge - we are inclined to suspect that they have in some way or other a personal interest in the capture of every identical twopence. Be this as it may, the toll-man evidently reaps no great emolument from his profession, which is far more wearisome and laborious than it is profitable. Upon his first appointment, he is generally seen gaping about him in a state of anxious bewilderment, half uncertain upon whom to levy his unwelcome tax. By the time that he has got the freemen's carts by heart, and learned to distinguish his lawful victims, he has usually made the discovery that his vocation is intolerably exacting, and not to be endured. We never knew one of them stand the ordeal many years. A man who would get through such a function well is generally deserving of something better; and anything is better than a perpetual tramp out-of-doors in all weathers after flying twopences, in which he has but the merest fractional interest, if he have any at all. So it comes to pass that he looks out for repose in some other calling; and, mounted on the step of an omnibus as a conductor, or stuck into a cabin reared in the mud of the Thames as pay-taker for a penny steamer, he congratulates himself that he no longer runs himself out of breath after the corporation coppers. 
    It is not easy to come at the origin of these city tolls. There is, however, a charter granted to the mayor and citizens of London by Henry IV., which throws some light upon the subject. This charter was bestowed in return for the loyal assistance they rendered to the king in the matter of the conspiracy and rebellion in which his throne and life were attempted, in the first year of his reign, by the Abbot of Westminster, the Dukes of Albemarle, Surrey, and Exeter, the Earls of Gloucester and Salisbury, the Bishop of Carlisle, and Sir Thomas Blount. The conspiracy was discovered by accident, and the rebellion in which it prematurely exploded was quelled by the promptitude of the mayor of London, who supplied Henry with six thousand citizens completely armed. These were soon increased, by volunteers from the neighbourhood, to the number of twenty thousand. The rebel army was overthrown, and their leaders soon after taken and executed The charter, which bears date the 25th May, 1399, confers, among other privileges, upon "the said citizens, their heirs and successors, the custody as well of the gates of Newgate and Ludgate as all other the gates and posterns of the same city." The charter, however, does not make mention of the sums to be levied as tolls at the said gates and posterns; and it would be absurd to suppose that there is any prescriptive right so ancient as the charter for subjecting each vehicle to the charge of twopence - a sum which in those days would have purchased a joint of meat.
    That those tolls have been often the pretence for fraudulent exactions we may gather from the following record, preserved in the city memorials : - In the year 1743, one Anthony Wright brought an action against the lessee of one of the gates, who by his plea insisted on a prescriptive right to receive twopence for the passage of each cart laden with goods and merchandise amounting to the weight of one ton and upwards. It appeared, however, by the evidence, that the usage had been to take a penny only for a cart with two horses, however heavily laden; and a verdict was given for the plaintiff against the lessee.
    We conceive the time is not far distant when the good sense of the corporation of London will lead to the final abolition of the city tolls, which, besides being a nuisance, must operate in some degree against the interests of commerce, which it is to their especial advantage to promote.