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M1 motorway, earliest section, northern end
Crick, Northamptonshire
associated engineer
Sir Owen Williams
Sir Owen Williams & Partners
date  1st April 1958 - November 1959
UK era  Modern  |  category  Road  |  reference  SP576724
The first 53.5 miles of the M1, from Luton to Crick, opened in November 1959. It is not the first stretch of motorway in Britain — that honour goes to the Preston bypass, opened a year earlier — but it is both the first inter-urban motorway and the first three-lane dual carriageway in the country.
The M1 these days runs from Mill Hill in London all the way to Yorkshire. However, the first stretch to be constructed ran from Slip End (south of Luton, just north of present-day Junction 10), to Crick in Northamptonshire near Junction 18. This stretch was built as three-lane, dual carriageway throughout its length and contracted in four stages of roughly 12 miles each. Each construction stage included up to 35 overbridges and underbridges. All four contracts were won on tender by John Laing Construction Ltd.
The construction of the M1 heralded the results of the grand but troubled scheme for motorway construction devised by the post-war Labour government in 1946. Labour's plans ran short of cash but under pressure from a wide variety of agencies, a Conservative government took up a similar scheme in 1951.
In that year, Owen Williams & Partners (headed by Sir Owen Williams, his son Owen Tudor Williams and Thomas Vandy) began survey, routing and general design work. They set up an office at Welton Station (just north of Daventry, Northamptonshire), which was their base for this work and later for land acquisition and site supervision. Structural design was done in London. Welton was a symbolic choice since it's very near the West Coast railway line, the Grand Union canal and the A5 road — all major transport links from London to the Midlands at that time.
Detail design work began in 1955 and the go-ahead was given later that year. Construction began on 1st April 1958. It was during the design process that the motorway was expanded from two to three lanes wide.
The carriageways were constructed using a dry lean concrete base some 355mm thick over a 152mm earthern sub-base. Wet conditions caused concern with the earthworks but local material was used. Over the concrete went two layers of hot-rolled asphalt — an initial layer of 63mm and the road surface of 38mm. Grass verges 2.4m wide lay either side but half of these were soon altered in finish and width to increase their strength and durability.
Owen Williams' influence can be most clearly seen in the distinctive design of the concrete overbridges and underbridges, though he was involved in all the work to some degree. For the bridges, a number of standardised designs were used (see separate entry on this site). Different aesthetic criteria exist for bridges that are to be viewed at speed and, with a total of 131 bridges and 92 culverts in just 53.5 miles of road, Williams was prescient in designing his as a recognisable visual package.
At the southern end, the M1 joined up with the St Albans by-pass, constructed by Hertfordshire County Council. In later years, the motorway was extended southwards, to its present commencement at Mill Hill just north of the North Circular Road.
Owen Williams & Partners went on to design a second section of the M1 and other motorways, including the M6 into Birmingham, and Birmingham's famous Spaghetti Junction interchange. For the second M1 section, significant design changes were made in response to new requirements from the Department of Transport.
Main contractor: John Laing Construction Ltd
Project manager: John Mitchie of John Laing Construction Ltd
Resident engineer: James Price
Research: LG, ND, JJ
"The London-Birmingham Motorway M1/M45, Luton to Crick to Dunchurch - a personal recollection" by R.H. Soper
The Motorway Archive : www.iht.org
reference sources   OWWOW

M1 motorway, earliest section, northern end