You are:

+ Share | Print page

Chapter 1. A history of the "motorway concept" before construction began in the UK

Volume 1 Part 1
Brief résumé of Chapter 1:
A history of the "motorway concept" before construction began in the UK

Allen D. W. Smith OBE, FREng, FICE
formerly County Surveyor, Kent County Council
Robert C. D. Baldwin BA, MLitt, MRIN, FLS
Hon. Secretary Motorway Archive Trust

Chapter 1 This opening chapter of the first publication of material from the Motorway Archive has, unlike the rest of this volume, to rely almost entirely on documentary evidence. It endeavours to set the motorway system of Britain in its historical and legislative context and relates it to the long history of the road in the United Kingdom. It sets the scene for sequence of legal and social changes many of which arose out of the invention of the internal combustion engine in the 1880s.

The vehicle to be registered as No 1 in the United Kingdom arrived on 3rd July 1895. By 15th October that year half a dozen motor vehicles were gathered at the Agricultural Show Ground in Tunbridge Wells. From such small beginnings there were contrasting consequences: On the one hand, the early British pioneers of this form of motor transport saw the future with great foresight; on the other hand, they had to confront sustained opposition. In the first decade of the twentieth century roads were only dry and dusty macadam surfaces or wet and muddy ones increasingly stirred by motor traffic and heavy steam lorries. Water carts were used to damp down the dust that came from the roads. Wealthy and the poor alike were afflicted by the lack of an alternative, apart from the railway; and cyclists were sadly oppressed by punctures.

Messrs Smith and Baldwin provide a contrasting gallery of the personalities who fostered the concept of roads designed exclusively for the traffic which the internal combustion engine made feasible. They trace the origin of the concept to a Victorian civil engineer, B. H. Thwaite, in the nineteenth century and advocacy of it through the first quarter of the twentieth century to John Montagu MP (later the 2nd Earl Montagu of Beaulieu) and to W. Rees Jeffreys, adding reference also to H. G. Wells' faculty of prophetic vision to show the realism of their ideas; in particular, recognition of the primacy of safety, requiring grade separation at every point where such a road would cross any other route of any kind.

Thence advocacy acquired an institutional frame extending internationally and involving most notably the Institution of Highway Engineers, the County Surveyors' Society, the British Road Federation, the Royal Automobile Club, the Automobile Association and the Permanent International Association of Road Congresses. The effort led to the Trunk Roads Act, 1936, introducing central government to direct responsibility for the provision of arterial roads. In 1941-42 at Winston Churchill's behest the Cabinet commissioned through its Post War Reconstruction Committee plans which won all party agreement that in Post War planning and rebuilding motorways would play a big role. The Special Roads Act, 1949, provided the powers. Construction finally started in 1956, on the Preston By-pass, while Watkinson won the funding needed for a 1000 mile system.

The trunk road and motorway system is the first to be built in Britain at the sole expense of central government since the Romans started building roads here in 43 AD. It would take another 1500 years after the Romans left in 411 AD for government to recover the confidence to recreate and impose a new road system with a central roads fund and then to control its extension, standards and use.

It was imperial funding of the Roman Army and Navy and military control of enforced labour which provided for the construction of Britain's first nationwide roads system and the associated military emplacements, from military staging posts and forts to Hadrian's Wall, as well as new towns and ports like London, Richborough and Dover. Roman military engineers worked to obvious constructional standards, as subsequent archaeology has shown, bearing in mind first their own military convenience, but also trade, mineral movements and the needs of their garrison towns for food, pottery, etc... Roman roads, like the later turnpikes, canals and railways are well documented. Surviving Roman texts in the Antonine Itinerary, and the later route maps which formed the "tabula" which Conrad Peutinger copied in the sixteenth century, detail their operation almost as well as more modern archaeological discoveries.

The chapter gives many examples in the development of the road system which serve to show the inadequacy of most roads and bridges before the motorway era. The subject prior to the Special Roads Act, 1949, is thus divisible into two themes, one about the legislative progression towards the definition of motorway, the other about accommodating changes in traffic which made its provisions essential for safe and efficient handling of a major nationwide requirement for heavy and rapid road haulage. The chapter is structured accordingly.