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Dr Brenda Buchanan, on 8 October 2002
John Loudon McAdam improved the methods of road construction in use at the beginning of the 19th century and efficiently organised the work on behalf of numerous Turnpike Trusts.
The roads around Bath were made the responsibility of turnpike trusts from 1720, but the trustees were gentlemen who had no knowledge of road construction; they paid labourers to break stones and fill in potholes under the supervision of a `surveyor', in fact a foreman. The results were unsatisfactory.
With the increase of carriage journeys bringing the gentility to Bath there was much complaint about the state of the roads. In 1817 McAdam, who was a trustee of Bristol turnpike trust, was invited to report on the Bath turnpikes and, after a few years, appointed Surveyor. The trustees first appointed one of their own members but he was unsatisfactory and McAdam was appointed in 1826.
At this time McAdam was in his 60s and surveying was the last of a series of jobs he had during his long life.
He came from Ayr, Lanarkshire, Scotland, and after school was sent to an uncle in New York, USA, where he was a merchant who also sold the cargoes of vessels captured as prizes in wars on behalf of the officers and sailors. They were paid in goods rather than cash.
He returned to Ayr and was involved with his father and brothers in various manufacturing enterprises; particularly he managed a tar plant at a local steel works. These works went bankrupt and McAdam and his family moved first to Exeter then to Bristol by 1816. He constructed 150 miles of road for the Bristol Turnpike Trust and then offered his services as a Surveyor (not a civil engineer like Telford) to other trusts.
His method of construction of a road was simple but gave a smooth ride to coaches. It did not involve the laying of any foundations, for which he was subsequently criticised. For the class of road with which he was concerned he was probably right to choose economy over technical correctness; Telford in constructing the London to Holyhead `trunk road' to carry much heavier vehicles, required foundations to take the loads involved.
McAdam instructed the road menders to sit down and break stone with a small hammer to pieces the size of an egg. The bottom layer of stone was larger and was formed to provide a camber. The egg-size stones were placed on top, and the traffic compressed them, which improved the water-tightness and drainage. The road was `macadmised'.
Later, a tar coating was added to produce the `tarmacadam' (tarmac) surface still in use.
Each road was fitted with tollgates at intervals and both vehicles and animals were charged for passing through them. There was much ingenuity displayed by farmers and drovers in finding ways to avoid the gates. The tollhouses are of characteristic architecture, having high windows and being close to the roadside so that toll keepers could see approaching vehicles and guard the gate.
McAdam was appointed Surveyor-General of Roads and given £10,000 in 1827. He employed many members of his family to supervise individual projects but spent much time travelling the country overseeing the planning of new roads and the construction work.
One of his important improvements for Bath was the construction of a new road near Box to avoid the steep Kingsdown hill. Further information on the Great Bath Road (from London) by Dr Buchanan can be found in `Bath History' volume IV (1992).
McAdam built roads for a very large number of trusts all over England and Scotland, eventually dying at the age of 80 in 1836.