The politics of the motor car and its impact on 20th Century Cambridge

Covering the importance of old books to new research

I picked up this book in the RSPCA’s bookshop on Mill Road, Cambridge:

The above book was by former civil servant William Plowden, and was first published in 1971 (this version 1973). It follows in a tradition of public policy books republished by Pelican at an affordable price for the mass market.

Above – a selection of Pelican books on our institutions of the state and how they function, dating back to the middle of the 20th Century. Should we have a refresh of the series and have them widely available beyond mainstream bookshops?

The interface between this book and the first two Cambridge plans

The first in depth plan was for the old Cambridge County, and was by William Davidge in 1934.

Above – centres of development by Davidge, 1934.

There are sometimes a few second hand copies available on AbeBooks here, but it isn’t the easiest publication to find. Note the label of “County of Cambridge” at the top of the map – which covers much of Cambridge, South Cambridgeshire and a bit of East Cambridgeshire in its boundaries.

One of the maps gives us a look at how planners wrestled with a whole host of issues in that difficult decades where, much like today there was a massive leadership vacuum at the top of politics. (Can you recall the names of any of the senior ministers of that era and their achievements?)

The map below is significant as Davidge highlights a number of pinch points – not least where roads cross railways in and around Cambridge. It often took decades for improvements to be built. For example the railway to Cambridge was opened in 1845 and it quickly continued north to Ely and King’s Lynn. But the bridge over Mill Road was not opened until 1889. And both the bridge at Hills Road and the bridges at Long Road needed significant improvements in later years.

Furthermore, we are still waiting for the long-called-for bridge at Foxton.

Above – the small red line around Foxton at the foot of the image links to a paragraph in Davidge’s report calling for a bridge to replace the level crossing. Fast forward 85 years and the level crossing is still there

The problem of dust

One of the other issues that both Davidge and Plowden cover is the problem of dust. Plowden covers the politics of motor car drivers kicking up dust with their machines and the complaint that came from villagers whose roads were far less likely to be covered in Tarmac – or asphalt. The person who came up with the solution was surveyor Edgar Hooley, who formed the Tar MacAdam Syndicate Ltd as a result. Hence the name “Tarmac”.

Having got the invention, the next problem was how to finance the construction and improvement of roads. By this time groups such as the Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club (AA & RAC respectively) had already formed and were lobbying ministers heavily. At the same time, road building was a classic public works scheme for the state to use to mitigate unemployment of the interwar years. Leaving aside the factors causing that unemployment in the first place, one of the roads that was built in Cambridge as a result of a public works scheme was Fen Causeway.

In 1926 the causeway was open to much fanfare, and was covered by the Cambridge Chronicle – original copies of which can be found in the Cambridgeshire Collection. These screenshots are from their microfiche archive so as to help preserve the newspapers.

Interestingly, the Cambridge Chronicle picked up on proposals from 1895 where such a causeway might include a bathing station for women, at a time when Cambridge did not have any swimming pools – an indoor swimming pool at Parkside was not built until the 1960s. Swimmer and author Jean Perraton explored the history of Cambridge swimming here.

Above – “The Costly Causeway” in the Cambridge Chronicle, from 15 December 1926 in the Cambridgeshire Collection. The Chronicle was a staunchly Conservative-supporting newspaper.

The motor car and elections

I only stumbled across this issue because the radical liberal poet Rupert Brooke wrote about it. This from his edited letters compiled by Sir Geoffrey Keynes – the younger son of Florence Ada Keynes, Mayor of Cambridge 1932-33.

Above – Rupert Brooke as a campaigner for the Liberal Party in the general elections of 1910 – complaining about how Conservative opponents had access to more cars than he did, and thus was able to drive more supporters to the polling stations and thus win that seat. But they did not win either general elections. Not that it tempered his feelings towards the Tories!

“I HATE the upper classes”

Rupert Brooke, 1910.

Which makes it all the more striking that The Archers of Grantchester invited former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to unveil a statue of Rupert Brooke at their house. Brooke wrote a poem titled The Old Vicarage – one in which the people of Cambridge and other surrounding towns and villages didn’t come out too well from!

Speed limits and road signs

One of the striking things Plowden covers is the mindset of motoring culture and how it develops. As the burden of taxation rose, so it appears did the mindset (from some at least) that this gave motorists the right to drive however they liked at whatever speed because they had paid for the roads to be constructed and improved.

Given how popular motoring was becoming, it’s incredible to think that there was a massive gap in motoring legislation between the Motor Car Act 1903 and the Road Traffic Act 1930. The consistent theme that comes up is the continued flouting of speed limits – to the extent that the RTA 1930 abolished them on the grounds they were being ignored anyway. But then this led to a massive rise in road accidents, deaths and injuries, forcing the hand of the Minister for Transport, Leslie Hore-Belisha.

Standardised road signs

Hore-Belisha brought in a number of new changes, including the standardisation of road signs and parking restrictions. This gave local newspaper cartoonists such as Sid Moon much with which to play with.

Sid Moon in the Cambridge Daily News 1935, from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Ronald Searle, who took over from Sid Moon in 1936 as the satirical cartoonist for the Cambridge Daily News before being tragically called up in 1939 (and thus sent to Singapore just before its fall in 1942 to Imperial Japan), continued with the satirical theme of policies unpopular with motorists.

Above – street lights, road signs, speed limits, and even the new Guildhall incurred the wroth of the local motoring population.

As an aside, Ronald Searle who grew up in Cambridge, was the cartoonist for the Cambridge Daily News every Saturday for four years. During the heatwave of 2018 I scanned every one of his cartoons for the Cambridgeshire Collection, who now have them electronically archived for you to look at. A few years before that, another volunteer wrote an index to all of the cartoons explaining what each one referred to. Details on how to access this are at the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Holford and Wright’s Cambridge Development Plan of 1950

If you haven’t read the report, you can read part 1 here. The inevitable questions being how to accommodate the massive rise in motor transport use – one that showed no sign of abating.

One of the proposals was an Eastern Spine Road with a new car park to serve it.

Kenneth Robinson in his controversial take on Cambridge in 1964 looks at some of this new (and old) architecture and is generally…scathing. The Park Street Car Park got built, but the eastern spine road was abandoned. As was this controversial piece of infrastructure.

Above – the red line running through the centre – the planned eastern ring road and flyover across Stourbridge Common and Ditton Fields.

Note the eastern access to the railway station at the foot of the image above – another thing we are still waiting for despite first proposals pre-dating the First World War. Note too the proposed roundabout at the western end of Mill Road Bridge, and a new main road leading from Mill Road to East Road and the then proposed Elizabeth Way Bridge, built in the early 1970s. There was a lot for both motorists and preservation campaigners to sink their teeth into!

And none of this covers the construction of the M11 motorway or the A45/A14 dual carriageways. Both Davidge, and Holford & Wright did not explicitly anticipate the sorts of roads and traffic volumes that we see today. What’s more striking is that the voices of the environmentalists seem to have reached a level where they can make themselves heard at a public policy level and force ministers to think again about pro-motoring policies in urban areas at least. For both the climate emergency and the response to the CoVID 19 pandemic has forced a massive long term rethink about transport policies.


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