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McAdam's house in Penrith

On a very, very wet day in June 1998, I cycled from Glenridding village at the head of Ullswater to join the 'C2C' coast to coast cycleway a few miles to the north, at Matterdale End, and from thence along the way to Alston, high on the spine of the Pennines. The route into Penrith led by a bridleway under the M6, across what was probably the Carlisle road, and into Drovers Road. Here I stopped, with the rain dripping off every extremity, to read this legend on a blue plaque on the front railings of Cockell House: "John Macadam, General Surveyor of Roads, lived here c.1820".1 A nearby street bore the name 'Macadam Way'. The plaque recorded, I continued east through the rain, which I escaped only for an hour in the "Brief Encounter" restaurant at Langwathby station on the Carlisle to Settle railway. I gathered that scenes from that film were set on the station - though I learned later, through a question on "Brain of Britain", that it was Carnforth station, between Lancaster and Arnside, which was used in the film. Whether Langwathby was not used at all, or only played a supporting role, I am as the man who was asked if he knew the difference between ignorance and apathy, to which he replied "I neither know nor care".

There are two principal works on McAdam: Robert Harry Spiro Jr., "John Loudon McAdam: Colossus of Roads" (Ph.D. Thesis, Edinburgh 1950); and W. J. Reader, "MACADAM: The McAdam Family and the Turnpike Roads 1798-1861" (1979). Both contain detailed tables of the trusts which employed McAdam and his sons, but neither of them include the Alston trust and others in the vicinity of Penrith and Carlisle, though Reader does list the Whitehaven Trust in Cumberland, and the Appleby and Kendal, Heronsyke and Eamont Bridge, and Milnthorpe (or Millthorpe) trusts in Westmorland. It should also be mentioned that there was no national post of 'General Surveyor of Roads'.

The Cumbria Record Office in Kendal has no documentary evidence to support the claim of McAdam's residency in Penrith, but Anne Rowe, Assistant County Archivist, suggested that there was good support for it in McAdam's connection with the new road from Penrith over Hartside Top (1903 feet) to Alston and Hexham. The archives of this turnpike trust are in the Admiralty records in the Public Record Office at Kew, since the work was undertaken by the Commissioners of Greenwich Hospital (Derwentwater Estates).2

The Carlisle office of the Cumbria Record Office likewise had no information bearing directly on the house and the plaque, but expanded on McAdam's business in the area: "Macadam supervised the building of new roads in the 1820s from Alston to Penrith (over Hartside), Alston to Brampton and Alston to Hexham.3 The Act for making the roads was passed in 1823 so Macadam probably stayed in Penrith both while the surveying was undertaken for the Hartside Road and when the road was being built."

During a subsequent visit to the Cumbria Record Office in the castle at Carlisle, I was guided to a book by L. A. Williams, a good secondary source for information on McAdam's activities in the area.4 From Williams' work it appears that McAdam's extensive responsibilities in this part of England included the road from Penrith to Greta Bridge, near Barnard Castle - the present A66; the road from Penrith through Keswick to Cockermouth - also the A66; the road from Penrith to Carlisle - the A6; and the road from Penrith through Alston to Hexham - the A686. McAdam persuaded his principal employers in the region, the Commissioners of the Greenwich Hospital, to combine all the roads to their lead mines under a single turnpike trust in 1824. The resultant Alston Trust had responsibility for 130 miles of road, making it a large trust by English standards. In comparison the Ayrshire Trust, the largest in Scotland, had 431 miles of turnpike under management in 1820.5

Cockell House is not mentioned in Williams' book, but she writes that McAdam rented houses in both Whitehaven and Keswick, indicating the extent of his commitment in Cumberland and Westmorland. From 1802 to 1827 McAdam's home was in Bristol, but his mission to make the roads of Britain better took him all over the country.

David McClure

This article was first published in Ayrshire Notes No. 15 (1998).


  1. I learnt the name of the house from Mr J. P. Godwin, formerly archivist at the Cumbria Record Office, Carlisle, who told me that the plaque was erected by Penrith Urban District Council, which expired on 31st March 1974. I am indebted to Anne Rowe for putting me in touch with Jeremy Godwin.

  2. The Greenwich Hospital succeeded to the estates of the earl of Derwentwater, which he forfeited for espousing the Jacobite cause in the rebellion of 1715.

  3. Parson and White, Directory of Cumberland and Westmorland (1829) p.455. Information from D. M. Bowcock, Assistant County Archivist (Carlisle).

  4. L. A. Williams, Road Transport in Cumbria in the Nineteenth Century (1975).

  5. Parliamentary Papers 1821 (747) iv.343, Report of Select Committee 1820.

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