This is the story of Henry, the Chailey Steam road roller.
Actually, there is no evidence that his name was called Henry. I just know it was.
No pictures exist of Henry, but here is a picture of one of his cousins, the Kidderminster Road Roller, whose name I don’t know.
Henry was owned by Chailey Rural District Council, a council responsible for most highways in the area to the north of Lewes that is now part of Lewes District Council from 1894 to 1974.
Henry’s story is told in the minutes of that council’s highways committee, which your writer has been through, looking for lost footpaths and bridleways.
Before 1894 most roads had been the responsibility of parishes, little places like Hamsey and Barcombe. The parishes could rarely afford more than a man to go out with a spade and a broom once in a while, so the roads were in a poor state. The assumption of highway powers by slightly bigger councils was an attempt to improve matters.
The process of tarmacking roads was only invented late in the 19th century and it was expensive. Good quality highways were therefore usually covered in loose stones, with the largest ones at the bottom and small ones on top. Lesser roads might have flints distributed over the surface, whilst some roads were just bare earth.
So keeping the surface smooth and compacted was an important and difficult job. One of the first things that the council did was to try to buy a steam road roller. These machines had been around since about 1870 but they were still considered modern (and expensive) They bought a second-hand one from Ramsgate Council. As a larger urban council Ramsgate had had one for some time.
Whether Ramsgate saw Chailey Council coming, or the council were just inexperienced in steam roller operation we do not know, but Henry (for it was he) caused all sorts of problems, constantly breaking down and needing spare parts. However after a few years the minutes say less about his problems.
Henry needed a driver, and drivers were hard to come by because not everyone understood this new technology and those that did were much in demand from more affluent farmers who had begun to invest in steam farming machines. Later, in the 1914-18 war the Council had to make frantic efforts to stop their driver from being conscripted into the forces.
And Henry needed a trailer. The purpose of this seems to have been for the driver to sleep in. Henry was not very fast and so it would perhaps not be possible for the driver to get back from far flung parts of the parish, like Ringmer, at night. A trailer could also carry equipment.
Henry also needed a shed, but there were few big enough to take him. Eventually a home was found for him in a large shed at the Chailey workhouse, which was situated just west of what is now Chailey secondary school. So that is where Henry lived. It is not known whether he felt humiliated by his surroundings or what the inmates made of him.
Henry would have been one of the largest pieces of equipment the council owned and his progress around what were still quiet highways would have been quite a spectacle for local inhabitants.
For all rural district councils it was a constant struggle to keep the roads in a good state. In winter they could turn to mud and in summer to dust bowls. Heavy traffic could wreck a surface and the military, with their convoys of heavy vehicles, were a particular problem, especially in wartime.
The cost was also great. Eastbourne Rural District Council was confronted with a bridge which needed repair, but the cost of the work was greater than their annual roads budget.
One way out was to get a road declared as a main road. If a road was “main” then it was the responsibility of East Sussex County Council. Not surprisingly there were disputes about what was and was not a main road. It was accepted that what is now the A27 was a main road, but when Chailey council tried to say that the road from Ringmer to Glynde was a main one the county were not having it.
Councils varied considerably in their competence. They were dependent for their councillors on those who had spare time (usually the rich) who were from a small area. They could have trouble attracting qualified staff. Being the highway surveyor on your own for a small rural area was probably not a particularly enticing prospect either.
Newhaven Rural District Council, which comprised almost entirely of the villages in the Ouse Valley, was one that struggled. I imagine a meet-up of the steam rollers of Newhaven, Chailey and Lewes Borough, with the Newhaven roller looking particularly bedraggled and the Lewes engine refusing to speak to the other two because they did not burn organic coal.
Picture- steam roller meeting
In the early 1930s the government culled the less efficient councils and gave their territory to more efficient ones. Chailey took over Newhaven rural Council (leaving the Borough of Lewes surrounded) and Hailsham rural council took over Eastbourne Rural. In the mid 1930s the county council took over responsibility for all roads This may have led to an increase in the use of tarmac. By the end of the 1930’s most rural roads had the sort of tarmac surface we know today. This was almost the end for road rolling, since rollers were now only needed when the road was being built, or for occasional repair.
But for 40 or so years, the road roller was a vital part of country life.