Zebra crossings — the only type of uncontrolled crossing used in Britain — have their roots in pre-war days, when the Transport Minister Leslie Hore-Belisha introduced the practice of marking crossing places with orange beacons on top of striped poles. Motorists were expected to stop for people wishing to cross the road when they came across the new signs, which quickly became known (officially as well as to the public) as Belisha Beacons.
This type of crossing didn't develop any further than a pair of orange globes until October 1951, when the Ministry reacted to complaints that the crossings weren't sufficiently visible by ordering that they should have thick white stripes painted across the road to leave motorists in no doubt. Because they now had a set of black and white stripes on the road to match the ones on the Belisha Beacon poles, they were named Zebra crossings, starting a long tradition of naming new types of crossing after animals. At the same time, scores of them were decommissioned to give them more impact where they were really needed.
The Ministry was duly praised for its efforts and, in the short term, accidents at the crossings fell dramatically. But as autumn became winter, the success proved to be short-lived, simply because motorists assumed that crossings would be highly visible and were unable to see the stripes in darkness. The effect was magnified by the long nights and wet weather that winter. Accidents were getting worse again.
An Under Secretary at the Ministry, J.R. Willis, complained to his colleagues that they had (literally, as it happens) been painted into a corner: their measures to improve crossing safety had worked in the day and not at night, and their only course was to spend even more money to make them safe after dark. At that time, the Belisha Beacon was just a coloured ball on a pole, and the Ministry considered floodlighting the crossings before it settled on the idea of making the beacons light up somehow.
It was in June 1952 (a whole month after funding had been sought from Treasury) that the Ministry started looking into a way to illuminate the crossings, as a matter of some urgency — not so much to prevent more accidents, but rather to avoid the bad publicity generated by another winter of accidents on darkened crossings. There was a hope that if a solution could be found, it might be installed on all 12,000 crossings nationwide by the end of October. Never has a government ministry acted so fast!
Minutes of meetings chaired by Willis that summer show that, in their desperation for the quickest possible solution, they were willing to forego the idea of flashing lights, because nothing was available cheaply and in sufficient numbers to make them flash, and for them to be lit all day as well as all night to avoid paying for time switches. Even so, at £35 to fit lights to a pair of Belisha Beacons, plus the cost of the 5,000 crossings with three or more beacons, it was set to cost the government £520,000. It was the only option to avoid the PR disaster that was looming around the corner.
Progress was not as fast as they might have liked, but in October 1952 a flashing mechanism was eventually sourced that could be produced in the tens of thousands. It was to be manufactured by a firm of clockmakers. The announcement that the Belisha Beacons were to be made to flash caused a sudden outcry: the Town Clerk of Croydon had to be reassured that no restrictions would be necessary on shop window lights, presumably due to the concern that any other flashing lights nearby would have to be removed. Various letters were written to editors, mostly about the visual impact of filling town centres with flashing lights, but some had greater concerns: one person complained bitterly that a flashing light would cause radio interference and a group together might cause interference over "a whole district". The thought that one Zebra crossing might put radio receivers on the blink across half the town centre might seem odd today, but it was a serious concern at the time.
By December 1952 progress was being made only slowly, though the various traffic equipment manufacturers of the day (including Revo, Forest City and others) had drawn up designs for the new beacons incorporating the clockmaker's flashing mechanism, and they were ready to be commissioned. Mass production started in January 1953, but the cost of fitting out a single beacon had risen to £80 and some local authorities were unwilling to spend their share of the money.
Chichester wrote to inform the Minister in no uncertain terms that they would be illuminating their beacons, but not making them flash, thank you very much. The Ministry could do nothing because flashing lights had been introduced too late to go in the traffic sign regulations. Westminster Council (embarassingly responsible for the Zebra crossings on the streets surrounding Parliament) threw out the idea of making its 103 beacons flash on the 19th December. Councillor Mervyn Griffiths Jones spoke for many when he said:
"At Grosvenor Square, there will be 28 of these beacons, all flashing at different times... [distracting motorists and] resulting in greater danger to pedestrians."
The Ministry didn't really know how best to deal with them anyway. Because the beacons on opposite sides of the road were run from different electricity supplies, there being a power line down both sides of the road for streetlighting, every beacon had its own flasher and was not connected to any other. At first, their advice was to have all the beacons on a road flashing at different times to make them more visible. When this caused grumbling, they changed their advice to having beacons on each crossing flashing in time, but where several crossings were visible at once, the crossings should flash out of step with each other to differentiate between them. Then for no good reason they decided that they might as well all flash in sync to improve the look of the thing, as motorists were having no trouble differentiating between different crossings. All of this meant painstakingly synchronising individual beacons' flashers with each other (and probably returning regularly to adjust the timings, as they would then gradually lose step with each other). Council engineers across Britain must have been earning a fortune on overtime.
Aside from minor teething problems — such as the special permission granted to Weymouth in 1954 because the flashing beacons on its seafront were declared a hazard to shipping — this is the Zebra crossing as we know it: little more than a panic solution and a face-saving exercise.
The one major development since 1953 has been illuminating the white stripes of the Belisha Beacon, which has been increasingly common since the late 1990s. It might come as a surprise, then, that a company called SRS made the first prototype of these in June 1962. They didn't impress the Ministry, but they were trialled outside the King Henry VIII school in Coventry and outside the Dog and Gun pub on the A64 in Leeds. There's no record of how long they lasted and the idea then vanished without trace until the 1990s.
Nick Booth adds:
"The idea that flashing Belisha beacons might cause radio interference is not as silly as it sounds today.
"There was no electronic switching then: it was all mechanical. Flashing advertising signs often caused severe radio interference because of poor design of the switches and electrical circuits. It was quite reasonable that people would be worried that flashing road signs would have similar effects."
Robert Protheroe-Jones writes:
"Early Belisha Beacons were not always made from glass. They were also made from spun steel sheet, enamelled bright orange. Whether these preceded the glass globes, or whther both enamelled steel and glass were used concurrently, I'm afraid I don't know. However, the type initially installed in South Wales seem to have been all made from enamelled steel."