Skip to main content

The London-Yorkshire Motorway

One of the main areas of interest for me is the work done by John Laing on the construction of the London-Yorkshire Motorway, more commonly known now as the M1. John Laing was responsible for the first 55 mile section of the motorway from south of Luton to Crick1. The construction of the motorway was described as "the most extended civil operation since the railways" and it may be no coincidence that it may be considered to have changed the way people thought about travel. The social and economic impact might not have reached the levels generated by the steam age but at the time  it was seen as ground-breaking, Howard Watkinson, Minister for Transport and Civil Aviation said that the motorway "would transform ideas of transport" 2.

London/Birmingham Motorway. The Minister for Transport with Sir Owen Williams at the official opening of the motorway on November 2nd 1959. © Historic England 2018 - The John Laing Collection #55732

There is a growing literature on the design of transport systems and a socio-geographic perspective, Merriman3 considers "motorways as ribbons of concrete, geometry that is part engineering, part painting, part sculpture but mostly an exercise in choreography of the landscape" while Pevsner4 had to include the M1 in his monumental Buildings of England series, allowing that motorways were modern architecture but maybe not of a type that he could easily accommodate.

The increased speeds achievable and the new road layouts would demand new signage and the police forces had to get to grips with a range of issues.  Some of these were brought about by the novelty of the motorway, essentially a tourist attraction when opened.  Superintendent Pritchard5, writing in 1960, noted that "the first weekend was fine and motorists and motor cyclists came in their thousands to see the new road and try it out. Driving standards were poor ; breakdowns were frequent; the bridges were crammed with spectators and the scene was largely one of careless abandon".

All rather different from most people's experience of the 2018 incarnation of driving on the M1.

1. Wall, C., Clarke, L., Mcguire, C. & Muñoz-Rojas, O. (2012).  Building the M1 motorway, London: University of Westmimster.
2. Our Special Correspondent. (1958). Work Progress on Motorway. The Times, 24th June.
3. Merriman, P. (2007). Driving spaces : a cultural-historical geography of England's M1 motorway, Oxford: Blackwell.p.14
4. Pevsner, N. (1961). Northamptonshire, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.
5. Pritchard, F. W. (1960) 'The Motorway'. Police Journal, (June-July 1960): 183-190.


Popular posts from this blog

SAHGB - First Public Outing for the John Laing Research

Yesterday I presented 'The Power and the Glory: A Study of John Laing & Son Ltd through its Photographic Archive" at the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain's Architectural History Workshop in London. There was a lot of positive feedback and a number of entirely new areas to take a look at, such as the work done by William Mitchell. Mitchell was  a sculptor from the 1950s who worked extensively in Laing's concrete products - thanks to Dr. Dawn Pereira (see some of Dawn's work on Mitchell here  The concrete legacy of William Mitchell ) for bringing this to my attention.  Mitchell has a number of works listed including pieces in Clifton Cathedral ( Cathedral Church of SS Peter and Paul, Clifton Park ). The series of presentations helped give a real sense of the amazing variety of subjects and approaches that fall loosely under the banner of architectural history and it was noticeable that photography played a part in quite a few.  To show th

The Mystery L

Clapham Wind Tunnel One area where being able to talk to the people who worked for John Laing is really helpful is unravelling the odd mystery.  I have noticed that in a number of photographs from the 1950s there is one or two individuals who had a large L on their jacket. I speculated on what this might be and thought that most likely it was to designate the leader of a team of workers.  I was able to put a short piece in John Laing's Retired Employees' News asking for any information on the mystery L and several people kindly wrote to explain the mystery - which was no real mystery at all.  The L simply stood for Laing but only new employees would be given a jacket with the logotype and so this took a long time to permeate through the organisation. A case of applying Occam's razor and not overthinking things for me.

The Construction History Society - 6th Annual Conference

James W P Campbell opening the Conference On 5th April I got to present my early research at the Sixth Annual Conference of the Construction History Society at Queens' College, Cambridge.  I was very pleased with the reaction and got a lot of questions and comments following the talk and have a number of angles to follow up.  In particular my characterisation of senior staff in suits and labourers in more humble outfits was challenged with one member of the audience suggesting that suits were almost ubiquitous wear for all classes - something to look into. Other areas of interest included potential use of progress photos as means of protecting the company from claims by subcontractors or clients when a job took longer or cost more and there was a general sense that research into the social aspects of construction history as demonstrated by some of the Laing photographs would be important.  The paper is published in the Proceedings so I am hopeful that the research will ga