Traffic was growing rapidly in both volume and speed, and Maybury considered it essential that signs should be standardised to ensure they were fit for purpose.
A fresh face
Sir Henry's report, published and circulated to the Minister and others in November 1920, was the result of an expert committee of County and Borough Engineers he assembled. It took into account feedback and suggestions from a range of other interested parties, including automobile clubs and trade associations. It was then approved at a meeting of the County Surveyors' Society.
At first sight, the Ministry's new standard was the same as the 1904 specification: it retained the pattern of mounting a shaped finial at the top of the sign post to indicate the type of sign, and a plate underneath with the message on it. The shapes themselves were the same too — a white ring for speed limits, a red disc for prohibitions, and a red triangle for "cautions" — or warnings, as they would now be known.
The key development was on the plates that would be mounted under those shapes, with rules about how high they should be mounted, how the text should be written and — innovatively — a new system for relaying warnings.
"...the special danger to be guarded against shall be indicated by means of a clear and legible symbol, based upon the international symbols as far as applicable, together with a clear and simple title in letters 2 inches high, upon a vertical plate 12 inches wide and 21 inches long to be attached to the post below the danger sign...
The new system required not just an explanation of the danger ahead — none having been considered necessary before — but also a picture or symbol to represent it, inspired by symbols already being tried out in other European countries.
What was truly revolutionary was Maybury's insistence that the symbol would from now on "be regarded as the principal means of indicating the nature of the danger". He was before his time. Nearly half a century later, the Worboys report met controversy for suggesting that symbols were the best way to relay key warnings to drivers, as though they were the first to think of it.
A total of six pictograms were drawn up to represent the six types of danger the pioneering motorist of the 1920s might face: "school", "level crossing", "cross roads", "corner", "double corner" and "steep hill". The only slightly confusing matter was the choice of symbol to represent a school, which was the torch of education.
The 1920 report also set out, for the first time, a standard design for direction signs of a type we'd now call fingerposts. Maybury's standard design was very prescriptive and, for its time, remarkably stark and lacking in ornamentation.
|Height of arms from ground||Minimum 8 feet, maximum 9 feet|
|Length of arm, including route number||Minimum 3ft 6in|
|Depth of arm||Minimum 7 inches|
|Separation between arms||Minimum 3 inches|
|Lettering, raised black block letters on a white ground||For single line 3 inch letters, for double line 2½ inch letters|
|Post||Painted, plain white|
|Route numbers||4in raised block figures in panel at end of arms|
|Precedence of routes||Lower pair of arms indicate the more important road|
There were further rules about an indication of ownership being placed on the top of the post, mileages being given in numerals only with no fractions lower than a quarter, placement and visibility, and how to measure distances.
There was, finally, a new rule that could not have existed before, referring to the Ministry's brand new route numbers: first class routes would have their number in black on white, preceded by the letter A; second class routes would have their number in white on black, preceded by the letter B. The concept of letter prefixes was so new and unusual that some designs accompanying the report showed just the number alone with no A or B.
You are here
Maybury's report did one last thing that was entirely new, creating a type of sign that had not existed before and is still with us today. For centuries fingerposts had stood at important junctions gesturing towards distant towns and villages, but on arriving at the next place along the road it could often be difficult to know where you were.
"It would be a great convenience to the travelling public if notices were erected on the main approaches to towns and villages, giving the name of the town or village. These name plates are recommended for adoption, where necessary. The plate can also conveniently carry the route number of the road upon which it is erected and the name of the County Council or County Borough Council."
No particular design for these name plates was suggested, but illustrations accompanying the report included a drawing of one with a hexagonal sign face, and in the years that followed it would be adopted as the standard type for signs like this in many parts of the country.
The fight for fingerposts
In late 1920, the Ministry of Transport had existed for less than two years and was still exploring the limits of its new powers. Henry Maybury had come to the Ministry from the Army, so he found himself Director General of a prestigious new organisation with no previous experience of government business; Eric Campbell Geddes had a military background of a different sort, having been drafted into public service by David Lloyd George during the First World War to invigorate the production and transport of munitions.
Together, the two men sometimes applied more brute force than was strictly necessary in their new and relatively genteel surroundings. So it was that Maybury proposed new legislation that would make the approved signs compulsory, and — even more ruthlessly — that "all other signs not complying with the approved designs should be removed".
While the designs might soon have been replaced, it would be a mistake to think the report had no impact. In fact, it shaped the system of road signs for well over forty years, and warning signs with a hollow triangle and symbol beneath would persist until 1964, when they were replaced with the designs we use today.
It also — perhaps even more importantly — established the concept that standardised, uniform road signs nationwide could make a contribution to road safety. By the time the next set of designs were drawn up, legal powers were published to accompany them. Today, contrary to the wishes of William Joynson-Hicks, official road sign designs are mandatory and highway authorities are required to use them by law.
Road enthusiasts and historians today find it difficult to track down road signs that pre-date the introduction of the modern Worboys system in 1964 — even examples from the early 1960s are hard to come by. It almost goes without saying that signs produced to Maybury's specifications, published in 1920 and superceded little more than a decade later, are almost non-existent, and it's rather sad to think that the signs described in this article, that established for the first time a uniform system to provide information to motorists, are now ancient history.
A few do exist though — and ironically, the most numerous are actually the ones that the report specified in the least detail: Maybury's "name plates", shown in the report with a hexagonal sign face, can still be seen in a handful of rural locations in England. There are at least two in Norfolk, and one more is incongruously located on a sliproad just off the A1 in Nottinghamshire.
For as long as those signs exist, the work of the Ministry of Transport to develop a modern highway network, carried out in its very earliest days, lives on.
- Memorandum on Road Signs and Direction Posts, Sir Henry Maybury, 30/11/1920, available from the National Archives at MT 49/122.
- Sir Henry Maybury: biography.
- Eric Campbell Geddes: biography.
- William Joynson-Hicks: biography; motoring interests: The Commercial Motor, "Motor Vehicle Interests in Parliament", 20/02/1919.
- Diagrams of 1920s report sign specifications and photographs of prototype signs extracted from MT 49/122 at the National Archives.
- Photograph of Sir Henry Maybury by Bassano Ltd. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
- "Dangerous Corner" sign at Carisbrooke Castle taken by Ray Harrington and used with permission.
- Photograph of William Joynson-Hicks, 1st Viscount Brentford by Bassano Ltd. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
- Photograph of name plate sign at Cromwell by Richard Croft and used under this Creative Commons licence.