The first day on the M1

Officials viewed the opening of the M1 in 1959 as the symbol of a brave new era for transport, while overexcited drivers treated it as a racetrack. Britain's first major motorway had become the country's most unlikely cultural icon, says Peter Merriman

Transport minister Ernest Marples on a road bridge near the London end of the newly opened M1 motorway, 2 November 1959. (Photo by George W. Hales/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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On 2 November 1959 the minister of transport, Ernest Marples, opened the first sections of England’s M1 motorway at a ceremony near the village of Slip End, south of Luton. In his opening speech, Marples emphasised the significance of this modern motorway to postwar, late Fifties Britain, for the road was “in keeping with the bold, exciting and scientific age in which we live”. The motorway was sure to “bring immense benefits” to the British economy and society. Yet just a few hours later at a commemorative luncheon at London’s Savoy Hotel, Marples expressed his shock and horror at the behaviour of the first drivers using the motorway:

“I was frightened when I saw the first drivers using the road. I have never seen anybody going so fast and ignoring the rules and regulations. Out of the first four cars I saw, three were not keeping to their traffic lanes – they were straddling them. Another car came along and broke down.”

While the M1 was not Britain’s first motorway – an honour bestowed on the 8¼-mile-long Preston bypass, now part of the M6 – the first 72 miles of what was variously called the London to Birmingham or London to Yorkshire motorway was Britain’s first major motorway. It was also the first southern English motorway, an experimental space that was located far closer to London – and the offices and homes of the majority of national journalists, politicians and cultural commentators – than the Preston bypass.

Here was a new kind of road, with dual carriageways, three lanes in each direction, a continuous ‘hard shoulder’, no speed limit, and flyover junctions. Marples’ fears reflected concerns long held by civil servants and journalists. Would the nation’s drivers and vehicles be able to cope with the conditions and speeds of the new motorway? Would they possess ‘lane discipline’, misuse the hard shoulder, or push their cars beyond their limits?

To address these concerns, civil servants, motoring organisations and the police provided guidance to help drivers and their vehicles cope with motorway conditions. A ‘Motorway Code’, issued in December 1958 and incorporated into a new-look Highway Code in 1959, provided guidance on lane discipline, overtaking, emergency procedures, mirror usage, and how to join and leave the motorway.

Guides were issued by petrol and tyre companies, motoring magazines, and organisations such as the AA and RAC, providing information on car maintenance, motorway driving and on how to find and access the new motorway. Motor manufacturers promoted their accessories, arguing that their high-performance tyres, brakes, clutches and steering systems were essential for any budding motorway driver.

Frightening speeds

A large number of motorists queued up at the terminal junctions of the motorway on Monday 2 November 1959. At the head of the queue at the northern terminal at Dunchurch was a Ford Consul carrying the Walsh family from Birmingham, while many others – including many motoring journalists – turned up in sports cars to test out the new road. The three cars that passed and shocked Ernest Marples were a Rover, Bentley and Jaguar “travelling very fast”, and many of the first journalistic reports of the motorway described the exhilaration of travelling at over 100mph along the pristine new carriageways.

Three thousand vehicles used the motorway in the first hour, but the busiest day by far was the first Sunday after opening when the flow rate peaked at 5,000 vehicles per hour. Sunday afternoon family drives had been popular since the 1920s, and Britain’s latest motorway provided an ideal destination as families set out in cars, on one of London Transport’s special motorway bus trips, or stood on bridges to watch the passing traffic.

This exciting new motorway was widely celebrated as an important national achievement, a symbol of British engineering expertise, but it was as much a product of migrant labour as British engineering effort. Official accounts of construction celebrated the national and ethnic diversity of the motorway labour force, which included workers from Hungary, Poland, Jamaica, India, Canada and South Africa, as well as large numbers from Ireland and Britain.

It was this diverse, working-class labour force that attracted BBC Radio producer Charles Parker and two of the most prominent figures in the postwar British folk song revival, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, to the motorway construction site in 1958 and 1959. MacColl, Seeger and Parker interviewed motorway labourers about their lives, work and family life, and the resulting one-hour radio programme, Song of a Road, incorporated original folk songs, sounds effects and extracts of interviews in a ballad that celebrated the masculinity and heroism of these mobile labouring men. As well as a wide-ranging workforce, the M1 was also seen to bring a certain foreignness into the English countryside. Writing in The Daily Telegraph just three weeks after the M1 opened, motoring correspondent WA McKenzie suggested that the motorway “has come to this insular nation as an innovation as foreign as a ski-jump course or bull-fight ring”, while in a review for The Observer, British grand prix racing-driver Tony Brooks wrote that:

“To drive up the M1 is to feel as if the England of one’s childhood, the England of the British Travel and Holidays Association advertisements, is no more. This broad six-lane through-way, divorced from the countryside, divorced from towns and villages, kills the image of a tight little island full of hamlets and lanes and pubs. More than anything – more than Espresso bars, jeans, rock ‘n’ roll, the smell of French cigarettes on the underground, white lipstick – it is of the twentieth century. For all that, it is very welcome”.

Brooks celebrated the metropolitan and international modernity of this new motorway, which appeared in sharp contrast with the rurality and Englishness of the surrounding countryside. This was particularly evident in the earliest motorway service areas at Newport Pagnell and Watford Gap which were completed in mid-1960 and quickly became fashionable destinations for motorists and a popular hang-out for young people. As Susanne Greaves, a regular visitor to Newport Pagnell service area, reflected somewhat nostalgically in The Times in 1985:

“For young people, the new road was a concrete escape to a new kind of excitement. Along it, on a Saturday night, would swarm the Morris Minors, XK Jaguars and Norton motor bikes, eating up the miles at incredible speeds in search of the bright lights. Their destination? Mr Forte’s snack-bar on the M1… this cosy man-made island called out to Britain’s youth, the generation of teenagers who did not know there was anything special about being young but forsook the coffee bars of Soho to spend Saturday night ‘doing a ton’ on this long straight road”.

Britain’s motorists revelled in the modernity of the motorway and its service areas throughout the 1960s, and generations of drivers have become used to travelling along ‘the M1 corridor’. Over the past 50 years the motorway has exerted an important, if seemingly banal, influence on public life and the public’s imagination of Britain, as well as having a more significant impact on Britain’s physical landscape and environment.

As the M1 corridor has emerged as an important route between the north and south of the country, perhaps it was inevitable that places on this route (Watford Gap and Watford) would emerge as symbolic locations for a north/south divide. Small villages and towns such as Trowell, Toddington and Newport Pagnell have gained national renown due to the use of their names for service areas, while the M1 and other motorways have become the spaces from which many travellers experience the British landscape.

The M1 may now appear as a fairly ordinary, essential and unloved feature of our motoring infrastructure and national landscape, but it is worth remembering that this rather faded, grey structure was once celebrated for its modernity, as the future of British motoring and travel.

Dr Peter Merriman is senior lecturer in human geography at Aberystwyth University. His book Driving Spaces: A Cultural-Historical Geography of England’s M1 Motorway is published by Wiley-Blackwell.

The M1 in the popular imagination

Britain’s motorway was seen as an exciting new space, full of possibility

When the M1 opened in 1959 it caught the public’s imagination. The motorway became a popular reference point in a broad range of cultural forms and commodities throughout 1960 and 1961, from plays and films, to toys, popular songs, postcards, jewellery and children’s books. In 1960 the London-based group The Ted Taylor Four released their new 7-inch single M1 on Oriole Records. This high-tempo instrumental track resonated with the sound of Ted Taylor’s clavioline (an early electric keyboard), and it was titled M1 in an attempt to capture some of the publicity surrounding Britain’s newest motorway.

Two toy companies, British firm Tri-Ang and American firm Louis Marx and Co, featured artistic impressions of Sir Owen Williams and Partners’ distinctive M1 bridges on the covers to their new racetrack sets, while children’s authors Robert Martin and Bruce Carter chose the M1 as the setting for their 1961 books The Mystery of the Motorway and The Motorway Chase (shown left).

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The M1 was an important addition to the cultural landscape, somewhere for a plot to unfold, and a place of excitement, modernity, danger and adventure for the teenage characters in both books, which enabled young boys and girls to read about the exciting new spaces of this modern motorway. Many motorway users and service area visitors purchased postcards as personal souvenirs or to post to relatives, and a vast array of motorway ephemera was consumed by the public in different settings in different ways – including this M1 silver enamel charm (above), a souvenir to join other trinkets on a charm bracelet.