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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.

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