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Fifty years and more of policy making and planning preceded the opening on 5 December 1958 of Preston Bypass, Britain’s first motorway, as Ty Byrd explains.

Nineteen thirty-six was a key date in the conception, visualisation and eventual realisation of Britain’s motorway network. This was the year when the Trunk Roads Act was passed, allowing Central Government for the first time to build and maintain roads on its own account. Prior to that, powers to build roads had rested with local government.

It was also the year that professional advocacy for a network of long distance roads, purpose-built for high speed traffic, began to emerge, prompted by Colonel REB Crompton, an ICE Fellow and founding father of the Institution of Highway Engineers (IHE).

The IHE (now the Institution of Highways and Transportation) published a proposal for motorways derived from an internal study of roads geometry. The proposal specifically discussed grade separation and super-elevation – and related safety gains. IHE’s map showed new roads extending 2,826 miles (4,548km) throughout Great Britain.

Other proposals followed, from the AA in 1937 (for systematic improvement along the routes of existing main roads), and the County Surveyors’ Society (CSS) the following year (for a national network of motorway routes). The CSS proposal came after a delegation of members had visited Germany to look at autobahns.

Motorists – the new name for automobilists – were growing in number and adding to the pressure for better routes to augment the principal roads of Britain, many of which had alignments dating from medieval times. Recovery from the Great Depression through the 1930s saw a rapid increase in car and motorcycle use, and in the deployment of vans, lorries, buses and char a bancs.

This was also a time of advances in highway design and construction skills. Highway engineers were developing an understanding of geometry, such as transition curves, and of the utility of concrete. However, when war was declared against Germany in September 1939, roads professionals transferred their skills to the war effort, for example the rapid construction of airfields and runways. But Britain’s roads were not forgotten.

The potential of a motorway system was examined by the War Cabinet’s Reconstruction Priorities Committee on the express orders of prime minister Winston Churchill in July 1941. The committee was advised from 1942 by Sir Frederick Cook, recently retired as chief highway engineer at the Ministry of Transport (MoT).

Cook’s advocacy of motorways was backed by committees of the ICE and other professional bodies, including the CSS and Institution of Municipal & Civil Engineers. It is worth noting here that Churchill had seen and admired "parkways" in the United States on lecture tours before the war. It is still a marvel that, even before the tide of the war had changed in favour of the Allies, he was thinking about transportation in post-war Britain.

Click here for a diagram of the history of motorways

Planning continued on how best to improve the country’s existing roads so that they could serve as an effective all-purpose trunk road network. It was done in the knowledge that such roads were hampered by the ancient legal rights of access for all users, however slow and cumbersome.

A specification for motorways was drawn up, and technical memoranda from the Ministry of War Transport (MoWT) issued from 1944. These spelled out the main design features that would characterise the routes, so they could be suitable for faster and heavier traffic. They would have transition and tangential curves, safe radii for use in grade separated junctions. Pedestrians and cyclists would be excluded and access limited to fast traffic, and space reserved – even if not paved – alongside the near carriageway.

In 1945 Mr HE Aldington (later to become the MoT’s chief highway engineer) told ICE that the new roads would be built with super-elevation and provision for the gradual feeding of one traffic stream into another, where they join, to reduce longitudinal traffic disturbances. Cook remained the driving force behind the motorways concept and earned himself, in years to come, the soubriquet "father of British motorways". His skill in motivating public and private expertise and collating information and guidance was as profound as his ability as an advocate.

His diagram, Shewing future pattern of principal national routes, was issued by the MoWT on 6 May 1946 in the last days of the coalition government. Viewed in 2008 it displays an amazing prescience. British fascination with German autobahns had not lessened over the course of the war, and victory over Germany meant that routes in the west of the country could be examined by British engineers and data collected.

During 1946 a number of delegations were sent under the auspices of the Allied Control & Reconstruction Commission. Nottinghamshire county surveyor RA Kidd, who had been on the CSS autobahns visit in 1938 and returned immediately post war as a delegation member, remarked: "There could be nothing more depressing than the sight of so many fine bridges blown to ruins." Nevertheless, his delegation – including representatives from the MoT, Road Research Laboratory (later TRL), and the Cement & Concrete Association, plus two county surveyors – fulfilled its main objective, which was to study German techniques for the construction of concrete roads.

The foreword to the delegation’s report, written by Road Research Laboratory director Dr (later Sir) William Glanville, stated: "Whatever form road development in this country may take during the next few years, it is clear that British practice should profit as much as possible from the German example."

Ultimately it was Cook’s ideas that, along with freshly gathered data on German highways, provided the basis for the new roads proposed under the Special Roads Bill introduced by the Labour administration in 1948. The Bill was piloted to the Statute Book in May the following year, largely by Minister of Transport Alf Barnes, with substantial help from the then Parliamentary Secretary to the MoT Jim Callaghan, later to become Prime Minister. (It was Callaghan who introduced cats’ eyes to Britain’s roads, earning himself the undying gratitude of motorists.)

To toll or not to toll and the issue of providing service areas were closely debated in committee during the Bill’s passage through Parliament. The road construction programme of 1946, empowered by a further Trunk Roads Act, was to be financed wholly from the Exchequer. Here it became apparent that the two Trunk Roads Acts represented a double edged sword.

Centralisation of road administration brought distinct benefits, but it left road projects vulnerable to the vagaries of the economy and government decisions to direct limited resources to what it deemed were more pressing demands. The late 1940s/early 1950s was a time for reconstruction. There was a need to build new housing and provide new educational buildings to cater for the baby boom. There were also government commitments to create a National Health Service and provide comprehensive social security.

There was a renewed focus on exports, loss-making primary industries were being nationalised, and an Atomic Energy Authority created. There was also the Korean war. Against so many claims on the public purse, motorway building got shunted back. Britain began to change rapidly during this period but its transport system – in all modes unmaintained during the war and increasingly run down – did not.

This general deterioration was aggravated by accelerating investment in private cars and (after army surplus vehicles had all been used up) lorries. The CSS persisted with its advice – in particular expressed most forcefully by Lancashire county surveyor James (later Sir James) Drake – that motorways were needed for the health of the economy nationally and locally. So it was that, in February 1955, construction of the Preston Bypass to motorway standards was announced by the then Minister of Transport & Civil Aviation John Boyd-Carpenter.

Contemporary documents from the Ministry subtitled the bypass as "The Bamber Bridge – Boughton Special Road". Boyd-Carpenter’s successor Harold Watkinson inaugurated the project 16 months later, on 12 June 1956. It was no coincidence that Drake got in first. He was perhaps the most vociferous in pushing the case for motorways, and also made jolly sure that his county council had acted upon his Road plan for Lancashire of 1949 and safeguarded the route he deemed the most suitable.

Detailed plans were already well under way in the early 1950s, and Lancashire was declared agent authority. Drake’s assistant resident engineer was Harry Yeadon. Tarmac won the contract and appointed John Cox as its engineer in charge. He was then in his 30s but already very well experienced, having laid concrete airstrips for bomber squadrons in the war. He was charged with constructing an 8.25 mile (13km) dual carriageway containing one semi cloverleaf type interchange (with the A59 at Samlesbury), and roundabouts at each end linking with the A6.

The carriageways were each 7.3m wide, with a wide central reserve to facilitate the building of extra lanes in the future. The Preston Bypass was opened by prime minister Harold Macmillan on 5 December 1958, and the first motor vehicle to formally travel the motorway was Macmillan’s prime ministerial Rolls Royce.

By December 1958, as the Preston Bypass opened, work was well under way with the London to Birmingham M1 and other new stretches of motorway. Britain’s great motorway building era was to continue to the end of the century and a little beyond. Transport Minister Harold Watkinson’s plan of 1956 for the first 1,000 miles of motorway was to take until 1972 to fulfil, with the next 1,000 miles taking half as long again, with the 2,000 mile milestone reached in 1996. Boom and bust, oil shocks and high inflation all took their toll on the motorway programme, as did public unease about new roads construction in general.

But by the end of the motorway era, England, Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland all had their motorways, including major estuarial crossings of the Severn, Forth and Thames. The network was more or less as depicted by Britain’s coalition government in 1946.

  • Ty Byrd is the editor of Transportation Professional. In writing this article he drew from Volume 1: The Motorway Achievement – The British Motorway System: Visualisation, Policy & Administration, edited by Sir Peter Baldwin and Robert Baldwin. This is one of three volumes from the motorways archive trust.

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