Note: This is A personal recollection by R.H. (Robin) Soper - formerly Associate of Sir Owen Williams and Partners
At the beginning of 1956 I, along with several other young engineers, joined Sir Owen Williams and Partners, who were staffing up for the preliminary work on the M1 London to Yorkshire Motorway. At that time the Partnership was led by three partners, Sir Evan Owen Williams, Mr. Thomas S Vandy and Mr. Owen Tudor Williams, Sir Owen's son. It was very much a `hands-on' partnership and Sir Owen took a close personal interest in each piece of work entrusted to the firm.
The firm had been entrusted with the survey and design of the M1 from the north end of the proposed St. Albans By-pass to Doncaster, together with a spur (M45) to the proposed Dunchurch By-pass, a total route mileage of some 150 miles. It was in July 1955 that the go-ahead was given for the work leading to the actual construction of the southernmost 53 miles of this project (later extended to 55 miles to give a better connection to existing roads at the northern end).
At that time there were two offices concerned with the M1 work, a survey office at Welton Station in Northamptonshire and the head office in London where the early design work was undertaken. As time went on the Welton office was extended by the addition of more wooden buildings to accommodate staff for the roadworks design, and all the work needed to identify the extent and ownership of the land required for the new road, but the structural design was retained in London.
Survey work at that time was carried out with levels, theodolites , tapes and chains, and was without the aid of the sophisticated electronic instruments which were available in later years. Calculation was done with seven figure log tables, with the only `calculator' being a machine like a small cash register made by the firm of Facit. Survey was concentrated at the sites of the junctions and bridges, and was much hampered by the fact that the only large scale Ordnance Survey maps available were of the `County' series in which the mapping was `adjusted' at the county boundaries to suit the grid used within that county, leading to disturbing discontinuities at these points.
Vertical and horizontal curvature of the roads was defined by the use of `Railway Curves' of which each office had several large wooden boxes, and from the radius of the most suitable curve the radius was scaled up, giving at times some rather odd radii! The bible for calculating curves and transitions was a book written by Criswell, a former County Surveyor of Devon, and the tables and formulae in it were essential to the calculation of an acceptable alignment. At this time the theory that the motorist should be presented with an ever changing scene had not been developed and the alignment contained several long straights, the most notable being at Tingrith, in Bedfordshire, and alongside the main railway line in Northamptonshire through Long Buckby and Watford Gap.
The line on the ground was defined by Master Pegs at each fence or hedge line, with additional pegs added at tangent points as the geometry was refined. These pegs were the basis on which the Contractor was to set out the line for construction purposes, but during construction certain local amendments were found to be needed to enable the line to accurately pass under some of the overbridges. At this time the survey was not tied into the National Grid and relied on the local grids in each county as a basis.
The Welton Office was located alongside the A5, a canal, the West Coast Main Line railway and the route of the new motorway, a real focal point of the transport system of the East Midlands. Because of the location by the A5 it was always said that the Minister might drop in some time to check on the progress of the work, but such an event did not actually happen, probably because such a person would not expect those humble wooden offices to be the hub of such a major scheme! Sir Owen, however, did pay frequent visits, arriving in his favourite Morris Minor, or his son's more sporty transport! On inspecting the work in hand and coming to some decision on a problem, Sir Owen was wont to conclude the matter with what became his catchphrase - `that's the way to do it, my boy, no doubt about it'.
On the occasion of some visits the London staff would also be brought up to see the work in hand and Sir Owen would provide lunch for all in a local hostelry, and deliver a lecture on the underlying theory of some aspect of design.
At this stage work was concentrated on the design of the section of M1 from Slip End (To the west of Luton) to Crick (in Northamptonshire), where it was to be connected to the existing trunk road system, and the M45 which ran westwards to Dunchurch. The section south of Slip End (the St. Albans By-pass) was designed by Hertfordshire County Council under Colonel ffolliott, and the termination of the M45 bypassing Dunchurch was in the hands of Warwickshire County Council. Survey work had also been done to the North up to the Yorkshire boundary, which Colonel Lovell, the Yorkshire County Surveyor, forbade us to cross on pain of death! Much of the survey in the northernmost section was carried out during the Suez crisis, when as much time was spent seeking petrol as was spent surveying!
The contract was based on the "green" specification, a very simple document, compared with the later editions developed by the Ministry as the experience of building heavily trafficked roads was amassed. Many details of the design were also being developed on this pioneering scheme for which there was no precedent in the UK.
In parallel with the design work, staff under the direction of Mr Robert Denton Williams (a nephew of Sir Owen) were visiting local landowners to determine the ownership and boundaries of the areas which would be needed for the new road. These visits were to form the basis of a good trusting relationship between owners and the road building team. When plans were made available some 100 objections from owners arose, but the majority of these were easily dealt with by further visits by Ministry officials accompanied by Sir Owen, and minor concessions resolved the problems. Throughout the whole route only 5 houses and three small bungalows had to be demolished, a tribute to the careful planning which had gone into the route location. There was a public enquiry at the end of this period, when two objections remained and were dealt with in the space of about 1½ hours. The delays and expense prevented by this collaborative approach at the design stage compare very favourably with the cost and ill will engendered by today's Public Enquiries and less open approach to land purchase!