Recently I came across an estimate from 1843 for repairing and ‘Macadamizing’ parts of the High Street and it made me think of the difference between the process of road surfacing today and in early Victorian times. Everyone who has been into Poole in the last few months must have noticed that there have been a few road works in progress. Drivers into the town centre found themselves waiting in queues or undertaking unexpected little tours around the town centre, directed by lines of red barriers and bollards. At first the pattern changed every week but once the resurfacing started, it was every half day or even every couple of hours. Bus stops were in and out of use like yo-yos and pedestrians learned to watch out for traffic on the wrong side of the road, smoking tarmac beneath their feet and rapidly approaching rollers.
At one stage, the resurfacing vehicles were parked at the end of our road in all their colourful splendour. The most intriguing one was a strange hybrid beast with two sets of tracks, an extended body and a long conveyor belt stretching out in front. Each morning, the kitchen cabinets would start to vibrate as this machine trundled past, like some pre-historic creature from a dead-end branch of the evolutionary tree. Some minutes later it would trundle back in reverse, but the precise purpose of this excursion, I never discovered. However, I would get to see the beast in action a couple of days later.
Back in 1843, the stone paving of the High Street was in a poor condition and the Borough Surveyor had requested a specification for resurfacing, using the relatively new technique of macadamizing. John Loudon McAdam was an experienced road engineer who had learnt his trade on the turnpike roads of Scotland and the West Country. Adapting the techniques of road builders like Thomas Telford, he believed that massive foundations were unnecessary as long as the road surface was strong and waterproof. An underlying 20cm layer of stones 7.5cm or less in diameter was covered by a 5cm thick layer of stones only 2cm in size, much narrower than the iron wheels of the carts and carriages that travelled over it. This top layer was spread very carefully and evenly with only a slight rise to the centre of the road. No binding material was applied and it was found that the passage of the traffic alone would create a strong weatherproof surface.
Twenty years or so after the first macadamized roads were laid down, Frederick Easton of Oakley wrote out his specification and estimate for the High Street job. The stretch to be resurfaced was from Weston’s Lane to the Quay and Easton proposed that the present paving should be broken up ‘and the stones cracked on the spot to a size not exceeding one Inch & a half in Diameter’. The road as far as the corn market was to slope at least six inches from the centre to the sides with new border stones for the gutters where necessary. The top layer of stones was to be carefully laid ‘at the rate of Eight yards in every perch and to have at least one yard of clean sand mixed with it’. From the corner of the corn market to the Quay, the road (being narrower) would slope not more than 3 inches from the centre to the sides. The corn market was ‘to be curved and formed to the pleasure of the Surveyor’ and there were some adjustments such as lowering the road near Morcom’s house about 6 inches and eliminating a dip near Fish Street (now Castle Street). The cost for the whole job, ‘to be performed in a workman like manner and to the satisfaction of the Surveyor’ was £140.
If the present road works have caused some inconvenience, imagine the situation of the High Street residents and shop-owners in the 1840s. The road in front of their premises was to be torn up, presumably by a team of men with pickaxes and then the area would become a stone breaking yard with men hammering away all day long to reduce the stones to the size of small pebbles. How long they and their customers would have to put up with the disruption, dust, mud and noise is anyone’s guess.
Today the process of breaking up the road surface is much more streamlined as I discovered the day I saw the beast at its work. Hitching itself up on its tracks it manoeuvred into place and then with an unseen claw, started carving away the surface of the road with amazing speed, sending the broken fragments of tarmac up its conveyor belt neck into a truck moving slowly in front. No pickaxes, shovels or wheelbarrows needed. As I understand, this creature is called a road planer or as I like to call it, planersaurus.
To resurface to road, the paver is brought into action. These square tarry machines move forward at a snail’s pace, emitting steam and leaving a trail of sticky black tarmac behind them. The amazing thing is how such cumbersome vehicles manage to avoid grids and manhole covers so skilfully. Then the rollers are deployed to compress and smooth the final surface. The truth is of course that the machines are operated by men as skilled at their different jobs as the workmen of the 1840s. Nevertheless it was somehow reassuring to see a few awkward sections that the vehicles could not reach being tended by men with wheelbarrows, long-handled shovels and hand rollers.