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

Going Nuclear

One of the many novel engineering feats John Laing was involved in was the birth of commercial nuclear power in Britain. The company worked on the Windscale reactors and were part of the AEI consortium that built Berkeley Power Station, the first commercial power station. The John Laing Collection has a series of fascinating images showing how very low tech the initial construction phase was and the human side of work - from tea wagons to the local postman taking an interest. Nuclear Power Station, Berkeley, First day of arrivals to the site, 8th Jan 1957 © Historic England 2018 - The John Laing Collection No. 48773 Nuclear Power Station, Berkeley, Supplies being delivered to caravan in its temporary site, 8th Jan 1957 © Historic England 2018 - The John Laing Collection No. 48781 Nuclear Power Station, Berkeley, Local postman interested in heavy machines, 8th Jan 1957 © Historic England 2018 - The John Laing Collection No. 48778 Nuclear Power Station, Berkel

Joining Up - Reaching Out

Airfield construction at Thurleigh - Keeping contact with the control centre © Historic England 2018 Having completed the PhD introductions session I have been concentrating on completing my paper for the Construction History Society meeting in April ( Sixth Annual Conference of the Construction History Society ) - deadline is 14th January. In addition I have been looking to see what other organisations might be able to help me and so am now a "Friend of RIBA" and a student member of the International Council on Archives. John Laing very kindly put a piece in the latest Retirees Newsletter about the work that I am undertaking and I have had an immediate response with someone very kindly offering me their notebook from Berkeley to take a look at. This was better than I could have hoped for and with luck is the start of more material and anecdotes. January will start with a tutorial and attending a whole lecture series for which the reading list is huge (but usefull