Celebrated and criticised, engineered and abandoned, roads have profoundly shaped our landscape, economy and personal mobility.
Since the Romans introduced the first programme of planned road-building in 43AD, roads have enabled the transport of goods and people, facilitated industrialisation and inspired adventure. This is a story of engineering innovation, competing transport technologies and their impact on our everyday lives.
Road-building in Britain through history
At the end of the 17th century, British roads were in a terrible state. Routes were rough, sometimes little more than tracks, and travel was easily affected by the weather. The government turned to private organisations, known as turnpike trusts, to build, maintain and operate toll roads in Britain.
Although an unpopular system (few people wanted to pay the toll!) turnpike roads flourished in the 18th century as new roads were needed to support the rapid increase in industrial production—and while today roads are maintained by local councils, the network closely resembles the original turnpike roads.
Some turnpike trusts, eager to increase their profits, spent very little on roads, but others prided themselves on employing the service of engineers.
Thomas Telford, John McAdam and the navvies
In the early 19th century the Scottish engineers Thomas Telford and John McAdam made great advances in road construction, which cut travel time by days. Adopting techniques used by the Romans, Telford’s roads were raised at the centre so that water could easily drain away and were built out of layers of broken stones which became smaller with each coat.
Between 1801 and the 1820s, 920 miles of road were built to Telford’s innovative design, gaining him the nickname 'The Colossus of Roads'. Telford’s design was refined by John McAdam, who replaced stone foundations with a subsoil base and left each layer of stone to be compressed by traffic before adding the next.
Road construction and maintenance was carried out by workers directly employed by turnpike trusts, including local craftsmen and Irish navigators, known colloquially as ‘navvies’, who built much of Britain’s infrastructure. Before 1835, road upkeep was supplemented by statute labour—a law which ordered every household to donate up to six days of free labour a year to help maintain local highways. While men like Telford and McAdam have received historical attention, there is much to find out about the individuals whose hard physical work built Britain's roads.
Despite these engineering advances and improvement to some of the most important routes between cities, minor roads still received very little attention during this period. Roads also faced competition for travellers’ custom from another new technology—the coming of the railway in the 1830s spelled disaster for most turnpike trusts, eventually leading to their collapse.
Two wheels good: Cyclists and the campaign for better roads
Britain experienced a cycling boom in the 1890s, as further advances in engineering meant bicycles and tricycles became increasingly affordable. Soon there was a demand for better quality roads between towns and villages, routes which had been abandoned as the rise of the railways had diminished the coaching trade.
Organisations like the Cyclists' Touring Club (established in 1878) successfully lobbied politicians for better investment in road infrastructure. The campaigning power of cyclists decreased as the motor industry became an important part of Britain’s economy. However, without those passionate pedallers there would not have been so many roads for early motorists to enjoy.
Things changed again in the early 20th century as roads became the responsibility of local and then national government. Several new policies and procedures were introduced to improve driver safety and fund road improvements, including vehicle licencing and registration, national speed limits, compulsory driving tests and a system of A and B road numbers.
The rise of car ownership in the 1950s and increasing congestion in towns and cities led to a major investment in motorway construction and the improvement of local roads.
This was not the first time the government had contemplated separate high-speed roads. In 1906 a Parliamentary Bill proposed a motorway road between London and Brighton, but financial difficulties after the First and Second World Wars delayed plans to update Britain’s road network. In contrast, Italy, Germany and the USA built motorway routes in the interwar period, much to the envy of British planners.
Britain’s first experimental motorway, the Preston by-pass, finally opened in 1958 and launched an era of large-scale road construction. These vast, multi-million-pound civil engineering projects demanded new construction techniques and equipment to build the roads, bridges and tunnels needed to traverse the country’s contours.
The ambitious motorway programme attracted labourers from across Britain, Ireland, Europe and the Commonwealth. Thousands of men were employed on the M1, the first city-to-city motorway, with many living in temporary accommodation and camps along the route between London and Yorkshire. Despite poor weather, including one of the wettest summers on record, the M1 was finished just ahead of its 19-month schedule in October 1959.
Opened to much fanfare and celebration, the motorway became a tourist destination, attracting coaches of spectators, enthusiastic drivers and even architectural critics keen to review this new symbol of post-war Britain.
On this magnificent road the speed which can easily be reached is so great that the senses may be numbed and judgement warped. The margin of error gets smaller as speed gets faster. New motoring techniques must be learnt.
Ernest Marples, Transport Minister (M1 opening, November 1959)
Motorways, design and culture
With early motorways lacking any speed limit, there was much concern about how drivers would react to this new experience of freedom. While politicians, like the Minister of Transport Ernest Marples, worried that motorists would lose control of their senses, in reality the cars themselves could not cope with being driven such long distances or at fast speeds. Over 13,500 calls were made to the AA during the M1’s first year, with reports of overheated engines and melted pistons.
From the vista to the foliage, every detail of the first motorways was carefully planned to create the safest and least distracting driving experience.
Commissioned by the Ministry of Transport, graphic designers Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert were tasked with developing a new coherent signage system which could be read from a distance and at speed.
In collaboration with the Road Research Laboratory, Kinneir and Calvert presented a radical new approach to wayfinding with a new font (‘Motorway’), lettering (using upper and lower case), colours (white text on a blue background), shapes and symbols.
Kinneir and Calvert went on to redesign signs across the whole road network, replacing the cacophony of signs which varied in style and size between regions.
Motorways have also left their mark on our cultural landscape. The Watford Gap service station opened in 1959, the first of many novel and exciting spaces to visit during a long motorway ride (and even buy a souvenir postcard). New dining experiences attracted teenagers and families on day trips as well as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and other celebrities.
As their novelty waned, in the 1990s service stations became an important site for a new cultural phenomenon, acid house. Revellers would gather at service stations awaiting a call with directions to that evening’s illegal rave. Electronic duo and rave act Orbital, named themselves as a nod to the M25, which opened the countryside for tens of thousands of partygoers.
Road safety innovations
New safety precautions for drivers and pedestrians were introduced as Britain’s roads became busier.
The first street crossing lights were installed outside the Houses of Parliament in December 1868 designed to protect members of parliament crossing the street. Inspired by railway signals, the lights, which gave red or green ‘stop’ or ‘go’ signs to traffic in each direction, required a policeman to operate them.
While few drivers followed the instructions, the project to install these traffic lights all over London was abandoned when a gas explosion shattered the lights and injured the policemen operating them.
Thanks to widespread electrification, the first automatic traffic lights were installed in Wolverhampton in November 1927. Cat’s Eyes, reflective devices fitted into road surfaces, were invented by Percy Shaw in 1933. The idea came to Shaw while driving in darkness and his car headlamps caught the eyes of cat.
Recognising the value of scientific knowledge to road construction, the government established the Road Research Laboratory in 1933.
The laboratory undertook a wide range of studies into traffic flow, vehicle safety and road surfaces. Investigations led to the introduction of Belisha beacons to mark a pedestrian crossing (1934), zebra crossings (1949) and mini roundabouts (1975). Many of these interventions continue to be a feature of today’s roads.
Roads and the environment
While promising relief for motorists, new motorways and roads came with serious environmental issues. Since the 1950s campaigners have criticised the destruction of Britain’s landscape, the greenhouse gases released by manufacturing concrete (commonly used in road construction), and risks of vehicle emissions and noise pollution to public health. Debates over motor pollution became acute with the development of urban motorways like the Gravelly Hill interchange (better known as Spaghetti Junction).
The campaign group ‘Homes before Roads’ formed in 1970 to oppose plans to build a motorway box in central London which would have destroyed hundreds of properties and displaced thousands of people. Despite initially supporting the plan, the Labour Party scrapped the scheme after gaining control of the Greater London Council, choosing to invest in public transport instead.
In 1992, the government’s decision to extend the M3 through Twyford Down led to the first direct action protests against a major road. While the extension went ahead, the demonstrations sparked other protests across the country.
Soon after, the pace of road construction slowed as it was recognised that there was no engineering solution to alleviate congestion as building additional roads only encouraged more traffic.
Poor air quality remains a major health issue in Britain. Rather than creating more space for traffic, governments have directed their attention into controlling car use through emission zones and encouraging the use of public transport.
The impact of motorways in Britain
Motorways had a major impact on modern Britain. It became easier to distribute goods across the country, new holiday destinations were discovered as villages, towns and cities became better connected, and ‘drive time’ radio was born as commuters took to their cars for longer journeys.
Unlike in the 19th century, when new railways threatened the viability of turnpike roads, the commitment in the 20th century to build thousands of miles of motorways put a nail in the coffin for many local railway routes.
In comparison to the concrete sheen of new motorways, many politicians saw the railways as old-fashioned and uneconomical. A review by the chairman of British Railway, Dr Richard Beeching, led to the closure of 3,815 miles of passenger railway between 1962 and 1973. While the motorway opened the country to many, especially those with private cars, swathes of the population became more isolated as funding for alternative transportation was reduced.
Britain’s roads have existed for thousands of years and adapted to serve the needs of their times and to the rise of new—sometimes competing—technologies. Today is no different as we look to adjust our transport habits to meet the threats of climate change.
Find out more
- Wayne Asher, Rings Around London: Orbital Motorways and The Battle for Homes Before Roads, 2018
- Nicholas Oddy, ‘This Hill is Dangerous’, Technology & Culture, Vol 56/2, (2015), pp. 335-369
- Joe Moran, On Roads: A Hidden History, 2009
- Ultan Cowley, The Men Who Built Britain: A History of the Irish Navvy, 2001