55th Birthday of Britain’s first motorway which opened in Preston in 1958

Posted on - 5th December, 2013 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - History, Transport
M6 Motorway Opening Commemoration Plaque - Tony Worrall Foto

This granite plaque marking the occasion of the M6 By-pass was erected at the Samlesbury interchange and remains there to this day.

Today, 5th December 2013, is the 55th birthday of the first British motorway which was opened in Preston in 1958 by The Rt. Hon. Harold Macmillan, M.P., the current Prime Minister of the time. As well as being officially the M6 this eight and one quarter mile stretch was originally known as the M6 Preston By-pass. This was the beginning of a new era of motoring in Britain and hailed as the answer to the traffic congestion which Preston had been suffering from for quite some time


The by-pass was inaugurated by the Rt. Hon. Hugh Molson, M.P., joint parliamentary secretary of the Ministry of Transport and aviation on the 12th June 1956.  However, before the construction of the by-pass could commence, a great deal of preparatory work was required, such as damage limitation to the environment and assessment of the various terranean conditions. It was truly amazing then that in the full length of the by-pass only one farmhouse and three other dwellings were directly affected.

g) Commencement of construction Preston Bypass

At the Inauguration ceremony Mr. Fred Hackett drove his bulldozer and ceremoniously demolished a hedge to indicate the start of the construction

b) Preston Bypass Construction c. 1956

Early stage excavation on the new Preston By-pass. View looking south from the base of Red Scar towards the Samlesbury interchange. (Courtesy of David Eaves)

The construction of the motorway had not been without its difficulties though, and in due course solutions had to be found for ensuing problems. One of the main setbacks was the continuous rainfall in the autumn of 1956 when the land conditions of sandy clay sub-soil made it virtually impossible for the contractors to use the heavy earth moving machinery. Consequently all major earthworks were postponed until the following spring of 1957.
Following a spell of good weather the heavy rains came again and washed away a great amount of the excavated material which would have normally been used to create necessary embankments. The result was that it all had to be tipped away and new material was imported to complete the job.

f) Aerial view of Samlesbury Interchange near Preston

Aerial view of Samlesbury Interchange near Preston. This view is looking south during the period when the bridge piers were being sunk.

The main interchange at Samlesbury was to be the only one at that time between the two extremes of the by-pass. It was decided that a single bridge spanning the River Ribble was to carry both directions of traffic being the full 112 feet width of the by-pass. In the above image of the interchange, the east roundabout is seen to the left and the west to the right and at that time traffic joining the by-pass to travel south and exit the by-pass from the north used the east roundabout and the opposite applied at the west roundabout. Through traffic on the by-pass would proceed along the bridge which spans the river and the A59.

d) The new bridge carrying the Longridge line to Red Scar works

The new bridge carrying the Preston-Longridge line to Red Scar works

The full stretch of the by-pass had twenty-two bridges in all; one of those bridges was for carrying the Preston-Longridge railway to Red Scar. Originally the line crossed the land which now was occupied by the by-pass and at that time the line was used regularly and almost daily to transport goods and coal to the Courtaulds works and to Longridge, therefore it was necessary to build a bridge across the by-pass which would carry the heavy load of the trains to cross it. This task was to be undertaken by sub-contractors, Leonard Fairclough Ltd., of Adlington as accepted by the British Transport Commission. This bridge has now been replaced with a foot and cycle bridge as part of the Guild Wheel.

It had been decided from the beginning of the planning stage of the by-pass bridges that they would be of various designs and brighter colours would be used, this essentially to enhance the appearance and perhaps more importantly to prevent drivers from potential boredom normally experienced with constantly passing the same grey, similar looks of bridges across ordinary roads.

i) Preston By-Pass, December 5th 1958

Preston By-Pass, 5th December 1958. Former Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, together with a number of other officials and V.I.P’s make their way along the recently completed carriageway to place a commemorative plaque on Samlesbury Bridge as part of the opening ceremony. (Courtesy L.E.P.)

The Preston By-pass has undergone many upgrades and restorations over the years and is now just a part of the complete M6 motorway. However, Preston will always be able to boast that it was the first town to enjoy the benefits of motorway driving and love them or loathe them; we could not do without our motorways now in this age of exponentially increasing road users.

I would like to thank the Preston Digital Archive for kind permission to use their images.

Do you use the Preston section of the M6 motorway regularly, what are your impressions of it? Were you around when it was being constructed?   Let us know in the comments section below.

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