Owen Williams
The M1 and beyond
From the end of WWII until his death, Williams was overwhelmingly occupied with the design and implementation of Britain's motorway system. In 1945 he was appointed engineer of the Newport (Monmouthshire) Bypass and the rapid expansion of his firm, now Sir Owen Williams & Partners, was an immediate necessity. Thomas S. Vandy became partner in 1945 and Williams' son, O.T. (Owen Tudor), who had joined the consultancy direct from Cambridge in 1937, was made partner not long after.
A comprehensive national motorway system had long been discussed by government and in 1951, Sir Owen Williams & Partners was commissioned as consulting engineer for the first phase of the project that became the M1 motorway.
In the midst of the firm's rapid growth and spiralling workload, Williams' first wife — mother of O.T. and his sister — died on 5th June 1947. On 24th October the same year, Williams married Doreen Elizabeth Baker and went on to father another son and daughter.
Williams and his son worked very closely on all aspects of design for the M1 project, although the M1 bridges are generally acknowledged to be largely the personal work of "the old man", as he was referred to by his staff. These designs were not well received in the press of the time, but most criticisms of his aesthetic fail to take into account how well Williams fulfilled the particulars of the brief — the economic construction of 131 bridges and 92 culverts in a period of some 19 months.
Although several of the bridges have had to be altered to allow road widening and other works, many are still in tact. This, despite their designer's view that the introduction of steel reinforcement into concrete automatically limits the life of the structure. A bridge that is truly built to last — such as Williams' Wansford Bridge decades earlier — must rely on that ancient form, the arch, that enables the use of concrete alone.
The contract Williams negotiated with the Ministry of Transport provides an excellent illustration of his astuteness in matters of business, for his firm retained copyright in all its designs for the M1. When, in later years, the roadway was to be widened, the Ministry found itself unable to alter the design without the permission of its consulting engineers. So it was that Sir Owen Williams & Partners was able to sell the M1 design copyright back to the client, years after its completion. Throughout his phenomenal career as an engineer and architect, Williams had continued to put his interest in the law to good use.
The Institution of Civil Engineers awarded Williams the Telford Gold Medal for a second time in 1961, this time for a paper on motorway design prepared jointly with his son.
In 1966, O.T. became managing partner of the company, taking over the day-to-day affairs of the business as his father's health was failing. Having survived cancer of the throat, Williams died of a stroke in May 1969 at the age of 79. Typically, he had been working hard in the weeks before his death, as an assessor for the government on a dispute involving a nuclear submarine dock. Friends suggest that the strain of this may have been too great for him, but it is hard to imagine that the man who was rumoured to keep a drawing board even in his bedroom would ever have agreed to retire.
After his father's death, O.T. completed the Midland Links Motorway, which includes the famous "spaghetti junction" outside Birmingham. Thus, of the first 1,000 miles of motorway built in Britain (the government's declared target), Sir Owen Williams & Partners was responsible for one fifth of the total — an extraordinary achievement for a single firm of engineers.
All items by Sir Owen Williams  •  Everything built ... 1890 - 1969
references  OWW, OW, DNB
williams photo  Owen Williams archive, part of Amey plc

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Sir Owen Williams
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