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England – North Eastern

Regional Co-ordinator: Joe Sims

England - North Eastern

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The early history of the motorways of the region


The last of the Turnpike Trusts disappeared in 1895 - the passing of the trusts was a slow process and many became insolvent with the increasing competition of the railways. The purpose of the road had declined as the railways developed and restrictive legislation prevented the development of mechanical transport. An act of 1894 stated that all mechanical transport would be preceded by a man with a red flag and limited the speed to 2 m.p.h. in the towns and 4 m.p.h. in the country. The Act was repealed in 1896 and the first British built petrol driven car appeared on the roads.

The road, known from early days as the Great North Road, gradually improved with the advent of the motor car and the lorry, although much of it as a single carriageway for the next fifty years.

The problems of congestion necessitated extensive development of the road network that then existed, with increased expenditure, and there was a public outcry against this increased burden on ratepayers.

A new body called the Road Board was constituted in 1909 with powers to increase taxation on cars and to assist local highway authorities in the construction of the new roads. Unfortunately in 1914 the War broke out to restrict developments to mainly those of a military nature. At the end of that War a Ministry of Transport was formed in 1919 to replace the Road Board but found its proposals limited too much by the financial position.

Following the Local Government Act of 1929 the County Councils became responsible for all the Rural District Roads and Urban Districts where the population was less than 20,000. The Trunk Roads Act of 1936 provided for the Minister of Transport to be the Highway Authority for the principal roads in Great Britain which constituted the National system of routes for through traffic. The A1 became a Trunk Road.

Some unemployment relief schemes were put in hand including the dualling of the A1 at Darrington and other work further north. The programme was again to suffer as the war clouds formed schemes were suspended and normal maintenance to meet military demands now had priority.

It is difficult to believe that this major industrial artery of Britain was tolerated for so long by the road user, and incredible that local and through traffic, together with traffic from the industrial centres of Yorkshire, could squeeze through one narrow junction in the centre of Doncaster. There were similar problems for the cities, towns and villages that were to be by-passed to the north.

A great deal of thought had been given to the problem of Britain's roads in the 1930's by the County surveyors, no more so than in the North East.

Early Planning

The first strategic plan for motorways in the North East is to be found in the Institution of Highway Engineers proposed system of motorways submitted to the Minister of Transport in 1936. The plans, which included proposals for cross country motorways from Liverpool to Hull and Carlisle to Newcastle together with a London to Newcastle Motorway via Sheffield and Leeds, failed to get the 'green light' to go ahead from the Minister of Transport at the time, the Rt. Hon Leslie Hore-Belisha.

A less ambitious plan for a motorway system was prepared by the County Surveyors Society in 1938 (right) linking the main industrial centres of the country. So far as the north east was concerned the former strategic links were retained. Again this plan failed to find favour with the Minister.

The next plan to emerge followed the ending of hostilities in 1945 and differed from the previous proposals in that the existing route from London to Newcastle (via Doncaster) was to be improved on its present alignment, as was the road from Darlington to Carlisle. The proposals for motorways from Manchester via Leeds to Hull and from Sheffield to Leeds were still retained together with links from Doncaster to Hull as part of a new motorway from Bristol to Hull, via Birmingham.

It was under Alan Baker (later CB) in the early 50's as Director of Highways Engineering that the first motorways were planned and brought to fruition. For the North East the work of upgrading Trunk Road A1 and preparing plans for the construction of the proposed new motorways was largely undertaken by the County Surveyors of West Riding, North Riding and Durham County Councils.

During the immediate post war years whilst there was considerable design activity in the highway and bridge design offices, there was little outside work other than repairs to war damaged roads and the normal maintenance to keep the highways "in a commodious state". By the mid 50's a few small improvement schemes were being undertaken by the counties direct labour workforces in accordance the criteria which had been produced by the Minister of Transport in the war years.

Memorandum 575 published in 1943 had set out recommendations in relation to highways in open country and those parts of urban areas where building development had not yet imposed serious restrictions upon road planning. The "Design and Layout of Roads in built-up areas" published in 1946 in addition to laying down technical standards further promoted the view that the best results could only be maintained by wholehearted co-operation from the earliest stages between the Planner, the Engineer and the Architect.

The following extract from Lovell's Annual Report for 1953/54 to the West Riding County Council reflects the early financial constraints imposed by the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation on improvement schemes and the limited work allowed to be undertaken to progress the motorways.




"The continued policy of restricting expenditure on Major Improvement Schemes to the minimum has resulted in very few schemes reaching the construction stage during the year .........". The position with regard to these special roads (motorways) remains substantially the same as at the beginning of the financial year and work in general has been restricted to detail work in connection with development proposals. However, on the instructions of the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, some work has been carried out on the re-design of the junction of the Ashby St. Ledgers - Sheffield - Leeds Motor Road with Rotherham Southern By-pass and also the junction and approaches of the Ashby St. Ledgers - Sheffield - Leeds and Lancashire - Hull Motorways. Draft improvement Lines have now been laid down on all Trunk Roads in the County Area and sent to the Divisional Road Engineer for approval. These draft lines have now been approved in respect of 48% of the total length of Trunk Roads and work on the preparation of the final drawings is proceeding."




The 1954/55 Report was more encouraging.




"The position with regard to Motorways generally remains the same as at the beginning of the financial year with the exception of the Doncaster Western By-pass. Preliminary plans and relevant information required for the purpose of making an Order under the Special Roads Act, 1949 were forwarded to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation during the year. It is hoped to proceed with the preparation of the detail plans for the new road as soon as the Order has been confirmed."




There is little doubt that the old rivalries between Lancashire and Yorkshire surfaced again in the race to build the first motorway in Britain. This honour was to fall to James Drake (later knighted), County Surveyor and Bridgemaster of Lancashire County Council when the Minister confirmed the scheme for the Preston By-pass in 1955 and work started in 1956 with completion in 1958.

However the Yorkshire engineers were entirely sympathetic when their Lancashire colleagues became involved with problems of frost damage shortly after the road was opened and thankful that the lessons learned on drainage and temporary surfacings would avoid similar problems with their first motorway project.

A boost came to Yorkshire's endeavours when in 1956 Harold Watkinson, then Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation in a written answer in the House of Commons gave notice of five schemes to which over-riding priority was to be given in the next few years. The first project was the improvement of the Great North Road from London to the North East was to involve the great Counties of that region.

It was in July 1957 that the County Engineer and Surveyor, Col S Maynard Lovell OBE, TD announced that the County Council had accepted the Minister's invitation to prepare improvement schemes which would result in 50 miles of the Trunk Road A1 in the West Riding being raised to motorway or modern dual carriageway standards.

The Highways Act of 1959, which came later, contained little new legislation but consolidated the bulk of law relating to highways and streets into one comprehensive Act. This proved more convenient for local government officers concerned with the administration of highway legislation. It was estimated that some thirty-nine steps were necessary from concept to implementation of a new scheme.

By this time Sawtell in the North Riding was already undertaking work on the A1 by direct labour at Sinderby, Londonderry and Catterick Village. He and Cotton in County Durham had also undertaken investigations and consultations for a by-pass of Barton and the Darlington By-pass Motorway, which crossed the county boundary, and Orders made.

Following the Ministers announcement of work on the Great North Road programmes were drawn up and recruitment of staff commenced.

In the course of time further offshoots were to appear as emphasis changed from carrying out large scale works by direct labour to using contractors, and pure construction roles became one of supervision with a contracts section to advise on the finer points of implication of the Conditions of Contract, save in the highway maintenance field.

The Ministry of Transport had by now produced a memorandum summarising practice to be adopted in the design of motorways in rural areas of England and Wales. This embodied many of the principles developed by enlightened practising engineers of the day in both the public and private sectors. Technical details included treatment of central reserves, placing carriageways at different levels, hard shoulders on the nearside of carriageways with light coloured surface contrasting with the carriageways in texture.

Among the wider aspects, the significance of land severance was stressed and the need to minimise the interference with individual holdings or fields, also the need to provide access to accord with national agricultural interests or indeed, the re-grouping of holdings to avoid expensive accommodation works. An Advisory Committee on the Landscape Treatment of Trunk Roads was set up by the Minister to advise on the fitting of new highways into the surrounding countryside.

Special attention was drawn to amenity problems which may arouse strong local feeling, such as the destruction of mature trees, the effect on avenues or lines of trees of dualling or widening and the intrusion of road works on local amenity including common land and National Trust and other public properties.

In the pioneering of the new motorways the design and construction of bridges was to offer a special challenge and excitement all of its own. The basic requirements governing the design of all bridges, then as now, are safety, durability, appearance and economy.

In the mid 1950's the guide to bridge design and construction was the Ministry of Transport's Memorandum No 577. This specified an equivalent loading curve based on a standard loading train developed by the Department in 1932. In 1961 Memorandum 771 confirmed the adoption of BS 153 loadings and introduced HB loading.

It was not until 1978 that BS 5400, the most advanced bridge code of its time was produced by the British Standards Institution based on the limit state philosophy and the Department allowed it to be used on selected schemes before agreeing to its full adoption.

The Royal Fine Arts Commission exerted its influence over the aesthetic design of many bridges submitted for its acceptance. The general principals governing the commission's approval were that "expression of function is the basis of good design" and of equal importance there should be "development of character and individuality in design.

In the North East few if any bridges submitted to the Royal Fine Arts Commission were turned back. The general public also acknowledged in the early days of motorways that the further north they travelled the greater the variety and the attractiveness of the bridges became!

The problems of mining subsidence predominated in both design and construction in the mining areas of the region.

So it was with a background of the criteria outlined for roads and bridges that the first motorway was built in the north east and the improvement of Trunk Road A1 began.

With emphasis on safety, central reserve guard rails were later introduced and emergency telephone and emergency warning systems installed, using the technology of the time.

In the West Riding, Lovell encouraged his fledgling bridge engineers to adopt a liberal and adventurous approach in seeking individualistic and aesthetically satisfying solutions to specific bridging problems.

A major difference this County and the Counties of North Riding and Durham was the considerable number of schemes undertaken by direct labour. In the West Riding all of the schemes under consideration were undertaken by contract. However the West Riding, as with other counties of the North East, did have an anathema to the appointment of consulting engineers and most of the motorway and trunk road schemes were undertaken by local authority staff even in the days of Road Construction Units to be discussed later. Tinsley viaduct and the Calder Bridge being the exceptions there were others.