The Great British Motorway: a troubled history, and how they’re named

By Lewis on 3rd May 2019 - View Comments

Motorways. Everyone knows these long stretches of road that connect our major cities – there are 2,241 miles of them in Britain– but have you ever wondered how they came about?

Well, it took a while. Britain wanted a similar system to those already in place in the USA and Belgium, but beginning with the rejection of a Private Bill for a route between Croydon and Patcham in Sussex, there were many roadblocks for us to overcome. Whether it was the Roads Board (created just before WW1) or Lord Montagu’s bonkers idea for a railway-duct like structure with flats and offices, nothing got off the ground. After the war, it was a different story…

The Special Roads Act: things get moving!

In 1949, the Special Roads Act was passed. This allowed for the creation of roads that no cars had the right to drive on unless stated. Additionally, Special Roads were forbidden from being dug up for other maintenance projects, like water pipes and electricity cables.

Four separate motorways were ordered under the passing of the Act:

1. The Stevenage Bypass (now part of the A1)

2. The Newport (Monmouthshire) Bypass

3. Both sides of the Severn bridge (now the M48)

4. The Port Talbot Bypass (now part of the M4)

As the 1950’s arrived, more motorways were ordered. They included stretches from London to Yorkshire and the West Midlands to Bristol amongst others, but the major development of that period was…

The Preston Bypass: the First “Proper” Motorway

Originally added to the list alongside its Lancastrian cousin, work began on the Preston Bypass in 1956. It was officially opened on 5th December 1958, despite a disagreement between its creator  James Drake and the ministry about the amount of lanes. However, damage caused by extreme wet weather conditions did mean that the motorway had to be temporarily closed soon after its grand opening.

The Preston Bypass was extended into the 1960’s, adding an extra lane (and ironically matching with James Drake’s original plan!). Throughout the decade, it was gradually joined to the rest of the M6, with the section to the Lancaster Bypass to the north opening in 1964, and the south coming first in 1963.

Scotland and Wales got their own motorways as the 1960’s rolled on, and by the end of 1968 there were 72 individual stretches for drivers to use. And there were plans for even more – until 1970.

Westway: Changing Fortunes

That year, the A40 Westway was opened. At the time, it was the largest continuous concrete structure in Britain, and its proximity to people’s houses caused a lot of controversy. By 1973, plans for the Westway were scuppered.

Things didn’t get any better for the motorway industry as we got into the mid-70’s. Economic problems meant less money for building motorways and longer-term plans put on the back-burner.

This continued into the late 80’s to early 90’s. What was more, environmental groups were getting increasingly concerned about the impact of motorways on the planet – and their presence at almost every major road construction project of the 1990s led to schemes being more unpopular than ever.

Perhaps as a result, government motorway construction properly stalled. Despite this, the privately-funded M6 toll road was opened in 2003 – providing a pleasing echo to how everything began in the 1920’s.

What’s In A Name?

Throughout that first bit, you’ll have seen acronyms popping up all over the place – M1, A1, A40… Chances are, you’ve been down one or more of these yourself, but it’s not often you’ll have stopped to think about why motorways have the names that they do.

On the surface it might seem simple; you start with the M1, and then continue down the line for Motorways 2, 3, 4 etc. Right?


For a start, this assumes that the M1 is the first motorway, which we’ve already seen is false. The numbering system is, annoyingly, more complicated.

The numbering scheme of motorways has its origins in the one for the A-roads that were created before them.  Under this system, A-roads were numbered clockwise out of London, meaning the route to Edinburgh was the A1, to Dover A2, and so on. Indeed, many of today’s motorways still run parallel to their A-road counterparts (such as the M40, which runs close to the A40).

However, as motorways became ever more popular it was decided that they should be given their own numbering scheme to avoid confusing drivers.

Earlier motorways were numbered in relation to their Motor Road Projects. This included the M1 and M2, but was altered soon after due to worries about it leading to a completely random set of numbers. Various other ideas were thrown around – including the possibility of using the European system of ‘E’ numbers – but the main one to emerge was doing away with giving spurs, shorter offshoots of larger motorways, their own number.

It wasn’t until 1959 – quit a while after the Preston Bypass opened – that C.H Wykes, a key figure within the Road Traffic Division proposed the idea of a separate “M” system based on the existing one of A-roads. Current bypasses, such as Preston, would have (M) tacked onto the end of their name to show that they were also motorways.

It seemed logical enough, but of course there was opposition to the plans. People disagreed about exactly how the numbering should be implemented – but in September of 1959, almost a full year after the opening of the Preston Bypass and 33 DAYS before the opening of the M1, the majority finally agreed on a system!

The proposals were gradually fleshed out into 1960. Even after this point, there were still disagreements within the Ministry about the merits of the system – but the policy was officially adopted on 16th December 1961, probably to the relief of many!

As you’ve seen here, motorways have a confusing history in more ways than one. Hopefully this has demystified some of it for you!

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