The Secret History of the Motorway

Indifference to Acceptance: 1919 - 1938

In 1919, the Roads Board was disbanded, and the new Ministry of Transport took over. Not a lot happened with regards to motorways from that body, though, for quite some time...

However, soon was to come possibly the most ambitious inter-war motorway project, along with a crazy-sounding urban proposal.

What were they?

Firstly, the urban motorway. In 1922, Lord Montagu suggested that as it was almost impossible to widen roads in central London, that perhaps motorways could be carried above the city streets in the same way as railway viaducts. He suggested that they could be made of concrete, and that the supporting structures could contain flats or offices, which would then create a revenue stream. He proposed two routes: one from Marble Arch to Docklands, and a second from Surrey Docks to Clapham Junction. Not suprisingly, this never got anywhere much.

Having sucessfully avoided any suggestion of insanity, Lord Montagu went onto his most ambitious idea: the Northern and Western Motorway of 1923.

This proposal suggested a motorway from Uxbridge via Coventry, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, the Potteries and Manchester to Liverpool, with a spur leading to Oldham. It received support of the vast majority of local authorities on or near to the route, with the council of Newcastle-under-Lyme being perhaps the most vociferous. Again, it was to be a tolled route.

However, the proposal had its opponents, and surprisingly one of them was the President of the Commerical Motor Users Association, who wrote:

Any such motorway must within a few years become an abandoned and derelict property, thanks to improvements on the railways... should be spent on new bypasses and on improving existing roads, not thrown away on motorways which will certainly never be used by trade vehicles.

How wrong could he be? This was perhaps the telling blow to the proposals, which were never accepted by the Government, and ended up being lost amongst the General Election of 1924. In 1925-6, the plan for a London - Brighton Motorway returned, only to sink once more, followed by a 1929 proposal for a network of motorways, one of which was pretty much the southern two-thirds of the Northern and Western Motorway, with the addition of a spur to Birkenhead.

In 1931, the Royal Commission on Transport was utterly damning on the subject of motorways, especially toll motorways. With the financial climate of the 1930s, motorway construction seemed almost impossible.

Progress was being made, however, on improving the road network, with improvements to main roads being completed, and in 1927 the first new build inter-city highway of the twentieth century opened: the A4123 Birmingham - Wolverhampton New Road, followed in 1934 by the A580 Liverpool - East Lancashire Road, whilst the Queensway (Mersey) Tunnel and the Kincardine Bridge also date from this era.

It's a fairly depressing story, isn't it?

Indeed so, especially when the picture abroad was taken into account. Italy opened its first autostrade in 1925, whilst in Germany the Autobahn system was also under construction, and by the outbreak of World War II over 2,000 miles were open. In the USA too, roads reserved solely for motor traffic were open.

In Britain? Nothing.

Having said that, in 1936 the Institute of Highways Engineers proposed a motorway network of just under 3,000 miles. This was immediately rejected by then-Minister of Transport, Leslie Hore-Belisha.

Hang on a minute... Is he the bloke with the beacons?

Indeed so, the Belisha Beacon was named after him.

Still people wouldn't give in. In 1938, the then-Minister of Transport, Leslie Burgin visited Germany to see the Autobahns for himself. Upon his return to Britain, he recommended that approval should be given for an experimental motorway proposed by Lancashire County Council for a north-south motorway through the county from Carnforth in the north to Warrington in the south.

Sound familiar?

Hang on a minute, that's the M6!

Indeed it is, though unsurprisingly, the experiment never took place. Money troubles again. Meanwhile, Kent County Council proposed a route from Folkestone to Sidcup, with a spur to the Dartford Tunnel - without success.

In the same year, the County Surveyors' Society put forward a different proposal, this for a system for 1,000 miles of motorway. Whilst the proposal was not exactly welcomed with open arms, the door was left somewhat ajar to the possibility, and indeed another experimental motorway was proposed, but this time between London and Birmingham - with the Northern and Western Motorway being the starting point.

Then came World War II and everyone suddenly had other things to worry about.

The Tide Turns >>

The Secret History of the Motorway



Early Struggles

Indifference to Acceptance

The Tide Turns

The Special Roads Act

The Preston Bypass

The M1, M10 and M45

The Motorway Age

Plans, Big Plans

Low Priority

Last Hurrah

Much Ado About Nothing Much

What of the Future?




Maps and Plans


Further Reading


See Also:

50 years of Motorways