Tag Archives: Ernest Marples

On the subject of Roads – Romans, Motorways and Sleaze

Yesterday I wrote about the Roman road infrastructure and how this related to the modern highway network based on six single digit primary roads.  On now to the motorways which follow more or less the same model.

Six principal single digit motorways.  M1 to the north, M2 to the south-east, M3 to the south, M4 to the south-west, M5  Exeter to Birmingham  and the M6  to the north-west.

The first real motorway was  the southern section of the M1 motorway which started in St Albans in Hertfordshire and finished just a few miles away from Rugby at the village of Crick was opened in 1959.

Then…

Now…

I have always thought this to be a curious choice of route.  Starting in London was sensible enough but it didn’t actually go anywhere and ended abruptly in a sleepy village in Northamptonshire.  Surely it would have made more sense to build a road between London and Birmingham.  The answer lies with the Romans because the M1 uses the Watford Gap which the Romans first used for the Watling Street (pictures above).  The Watford Gap is so convenient that it has been used for canals, railways and the M1.

This first section was seventy-two miles long and was built in just nineteen months by a labour force of five thousand men that is about one mile every eight days.

Guess what?  There was Tory cronyism even then.  The man responsible for the motorway building boom was the Minister for Transport Ernest Marples.

He both oversaw significant road construction and the closure of a considerable portion of the national railway network. His involvement in the road construction business Marples Ridgway, of which he had been managing director, was one of repeated concern regarding conflict of interest. Marples appointed Richard Beeching to head British Railways, who published a report which abandoned more than 4,000 miles of railway lines in the UK as the emphasis was switched to roads.

Substitute personal protective equipment for motorways and not a lot changes in Tory politics.

In later life, Marples was elevated to the peerage before fleeing to Monaco at very short notice to avoid prosecution for tax fraud.

The motorway age had arrived and suddenly it was possible to drive to London on a six-lane highway in a fraction of the previous time, helped enormously by the fact that there were no speed limits on the new road.

I mention speed limits because this encouraged car designers and racing car drivers were also using the M1 to conduct speed trials and in June 1964 a man called ‘Gentleman’ Jack Sears drove an AC Cobra Coupé at 185 MPH in a test drive on the northern carriageway of the motorway.

In fact there wasn’t very much about the original M1 that we would probably recognise at all, there was no central reservation, no crash barriers and no lighting.

The new motorway was designed to take a mere thirteen thousand vehicles a day which is in contrast to today’s figure of nearly one hundred thousand vehicles a day.  When it first opened this was the equivalent of a country road and it certainly wasn’t unheard of for families to pull up at the side for a picnic!