The Minister's cake

Published on 24 January 2019

In 1968, Richard Marsh, Minister of Transport, travelled up to Yorkshire to open a long length of the brand new M1. There was just one problem. Where was the cake?

A cake was certainly going to be needed. 1968 saw the completion of three contracts for the M1 in Yorkshire - Meadowhall to Tankersley, built by a firm called Monks Construction; Tankersley to Darton, built by Dowsett Engineering; and Darton to Wakefield built by Costain. The official record shows the three sections variously opening to traffic between June and October of that year, but one single ceremony was planned to officially open all 20 miles, from junction 34 to 40, and a grand opening needs a cake.

Dowsett Engineering had built a construction compound at Dodworth, adjacent to junction 37 and about halfway along the new length of motorway. There, the Ministry of Transport erected a big marquee with tables, chairs, a podium for the inevitable speeches and a buffet of sandwiches, sausage rolls and all the usual finger foods. The centrepiece, naturally, was a cake - a big cake, a real beauty of a thing covered in gleaming white icing and topped with an array of little yellow bulldozers and earthmovers.

On the morning of the ceremony, an array of dignitaries assembled at Dodworth - not just the Minister and his entourage, but also the three Lord Mayors of Sheffield, Wakefield and Leeds, various councillors and aldermen from West Riding County Council, and the directors and executives of the three engineering firms whose tireless workforce had built the motorway.

The party no doubt saw the buffet and were looking forward to a very decent lunch, but before they could load their plates with cheese straws and vol-au-vents they had to declare the M1 open. So they were led outside and on to the tarmac, where Richard Marsh posed for photographs and took a large pair of scissors to a ceremonial ribbon. And after a few words for the papers and a smile for the cameras, everybody climbed into some very fine cars for a tour of the road.

On the northbound carriageway an official motorcade was formed, with the Minister at the head. On the southbound side, but also travelling north, were a less photogenic assembly of cars carrying newspaper reporters and TV cameras. The tour took quite some time - not just because there was a lot of empty motorway to examine, but also because the motorcade stopped off for a while at the bridge over the River Calder, just north of junction 39, where four joiners had died while the bridge was under construction.

Back at Dodworth, a handsome marquee stood empty, save for a very fine buffet, a very large cake, and a very well-built Barnsley bobby standing guard. The rest of the compound wasn't empty, though - outside the marquee were some of the section foremen and other employees of the various engineering companies who had come to see their motorway opened, but who hadn't been invited to join the motorcade, and who wouldn't be eating the lunch either.

The first to say what everyone was thinking was a man called Davenport. "It's not right", he said, "all this grub for the top men and nowt for them that's built the job". There were sounds of agreement. The sentiment was repeated from one person to another. The malcontent rippled through the group of workmen.

The sort of person who spends three years wading through rain and sleet and knee-deep mud to build a motorway is someone who is not afraid to take some decisive action and get a job done, and it wasn't long before someone came up with a plan to correct this burning injustice. A rummage through the site offices produced a small box and a book of cloakroom tickets.

Another of the foremen, Darlington, strode up to the top table with an air of supreme confidence, followed by a crowd of his peers.

"Right then", he said to the constable, "it's time to do the draw". He then said some suitable words to the crowd, who applauded, and everyone produced a cloakroom ticket from about their person. With much ceremony, a ticket was drawn from the box and, in the crowd, a hand shot up. There was much cheering. The policeman graciously stood back as the winner came to the front. Hands were shaken and the cake was solemnly handed over.

The crowd then dispersed with remarkable speed. The cake was not seen again.

A short while later, the official motorcade returned to Dodworth, and the Minister and his esteemed guests returned to the marquee for lunch. Clean white china was loaded with delicious buffet fare. Drinks were poured and polite conversation was made. And at the end of lunch, when everybody had exchanged their views on how very fine the new motorway was, the cameras assembled once more as the Minister approached the top table. It was time to cut the cake.

In the middle of the top table was a large, cake-shaped space on the white linen. Richard Marsh looked at it, and then looked around the marquee at an expectant crowd.

"Where is the cake?" he asked.

Everybody looked around. Nobody knew.

Eventually, a well-built Barnsley bobby stepped forward.

"It's been won", he said.

What happened next, in the absence of a cake, is unfortunately not recorded. It seems that nobody with any knowledge of the fate of that very big cake, with its gleaming white icing and its little yellow bulldozers and earthmovers, stayed in the marquee to find out.

This is a true story, and appears here with thanks to David Chalmers, formerly a quantity surveyor for Dowsett Engineering.

Mr. Chalmers is, incidentally, not a suspect in the Case of the Missing Cake. At the time of the impromptu raffle he was half way up the deserted M1 in his Chevrolet Impala, having been waved on to the motorway at Dodworth by another confused policeman who assumed that anyone in a car as fancy as that must have been part of the motorcade.


C. Jones 28 January 2019

That's the best story in years, someone must know what happened to the cake :)

Anonymous 29 January 2019

Boring Talks, now in text form !

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