Back in the 1930s, car ownership was on the rise, scores of first-time motorists were hitting the roads, and road numbers were still a novelty.
With no formal training or testing required, car manufacturers sometimes took it upon themselves to educate new drivers. In that spirit, Vauxhall Motors ran a magazine, the Vauxhall Motorist, and in Autumn 1934 one of its writers was dispatched to the Ministry of Transport with a view to writing an article about road numbering, a phenomenon that was still only twelve years old and something of a mystery.
The resulting piece is shamelessly flattering to the Ministry, and a draft copy sent there for approval was passed around and described, in teacherly fashion, as a "good effort”.
It doesn’t always hit the mark - the writer gets a little too excitable about the idea of 'related' road numbers on certain journeys, when in reality this is mostly fluke. But it provides a truly fascinating insight into the vision and the intention behind the road numbering system we now take for granted.
The Vauxhall Motorist, January 1935
Ever been down to the Ministry of Transport? Don't expect you have - probably never had reason to - but I have - not so very long ago either.
First Impression - just exactly what I expected. Huge, sombre building, standing back in quiet gardens. Probably built in about seventeen-umpty-ump.
General atmosphere of sepulchral respectability reacted very violently on me. Addressed doorkeeper as "Sir". He looked very pleased but shock was in store for me. He was quite human and even smiled!
Asked to see Mr. Christopher. (Not his real name - they won't let me publish that.) Was shown into his office in much less time than it takes most ordinary business houses.
Second Impression - Ministry of Transport is composed of very ordinary, likeable human beings - just like you and me. Meet Mr. Christopher. Nice chap. Been with Ministry of Transport about ten years. Before that on road survey work. Is complete walking encyclopædia on Roads.
Just the man for my purpose. I wanted to find out all about this road numbering business. Whether there was any system in the way the numbers were allotted. Or whether Ministry of Transport marked them up just as the mood took them.
Confess I had thought the latter was true. Yet another shock for me. Nothing like that about Ministry of Transport. When they do a thing they think about it first instead of excusing themselves afterwards. Road numbering system works according to highly ingenious plan.
First let Mr. Christopher tell you of chaos that existed before Ministry took job in hand. Why, bless you, they weren't even sure of the distance from one town to the next.
Guides and handbooks of the last two hundred years or so provide a wealth of evidence for the theory that the world is elastic and is, in fact, actually expanding and shrinking all the time.
London to Arundel, for instance, was 55 miles according to Ogilby (Itinerarium Angliae) in 1675. By 1800 distance had grown to 63 miles (Mavor's "Traveller's Pocket Companion"). Fortunately, by 1932 (The Dunlop Guide) had again shrunk to 55.
Exeter has varied through the years from 165 3/4 to 173 miles, although recently, it seems to have settled down to a fairly steady 170.
Leeds was another difficult one for old time map-makers. Dugdale, in "England and Wales Delineated" (1840), made it 186 miles from London, while much later Howard's "Roads of England & Wales" in 1889 decided it was 195¾. Now seems to be fairly general agreement that 191 is right.
On the other hand, places like Dover have stayed put in admirable fashion, except that in very recent years new by-passes have reduced distance by two or three miles. Whether you travelled in 1675 or 1751 or 1822 or even in 1911, gazetteers are firmly agreed that you would have to cover 71 miles. Aforesaid by-passes have now reduced distance to 69 miles.
Government decided all this must stop. It was essential, if only for local government purposes, that position of, say, King's Lynn should be localised so that select committees and such like would know where to find it.
Under Section 17 (2) of the Ministry of Transport Act, 1919, complete road classification and numbering was undertaken.
Now all is simple as A, B, C - or, at least, as A, B for there are no C roads according to the Ministry of Transport.
This is how they went to work.
After lengthy discussions decided that numbers were better in every way than names for roads. Easier to write, easier to file, easier to remember.
Divided England and Wales into 6 zones bounded by main trunk roads, as follows.
London - Edinburgh, London - Dover, London - Portsmouth, London - Bath, London - Holyhead and London - Carlisle, numbered 1 to 6 in that order.
Zone 1 is, therefore, that part of the country which lies to the right of London - Edinburgh road, i.e., between Road 1 and Road 2. Zone 2 lies between Road 2 and Road 3 and so on.
Numbering at once begins to be simple. All roads in Zone 1 are prefixed with figure 1 - all in Zone 4 with figure 4, etc.
Other classifications agreed on were letter A for first-class roads and letter B for second-class.
So road 1 becomes A1 and all roads in Zone 1 are prefixed with A1... if first-class or B1... if second-class. (e.g. A159, B1384.) Similarly with other zones.
Scotland is divided into three more zones by these roads: A7, Edinburgh - Carlisle; A8, Edinburgh - Glasgow - Gourock; A9, Edinburgh - Perth - John O'Groats.
Only one snag to bear in mind. Sometimes you find a road that seems to have got out of its zone. That is because it originates in another zone.
For instance, you find a road in Zone 1 near Grimsby numbered A46, which indicates that road originates in Zone 4.
I asked Mr. Christopher what the idea was behind all this system.
"It works out like this", he told me. "If you use place names to guide you on a long journey, you will have to compile a list of towns as long as your arm.
"With the numbering system you are able to provide yourself with complete directions for the longest journey by jotting down a few numbers and even fewer names.
"Take for instance, the journey from London to Birmingham - simple enough, if you know it - but if you don't, you'll have to jot down something like this.
"Proceed to Barnet, turn left to St. Albans. Straight on through St. Albans, Redbourn, Markyate, Dunstable - and so on, almost ad infinitum.
"Now look at it from the numbering point of view. Here's all you need to know.
"A5 to Daventry - A45 to Birmingham."
Had to agree that you couldn't ask for anything simpler than that. But that isn't all. Did you notice that, although you had to leave A5 at Daventry, you turned on to an easily associated number - A45?
And that's no accident. Wherever numbers have any significance at all, they are allotted just to make things even easier.
The fact that you fork left at Daventry means that you enter Zone 4, so the road has to have the prefix 4.
A45 is the nearest thing to A5 that can be managed in the circumstances - so A45 it is.
The beauty of all this is that every new sign-post in the country - and the great majority of old ones - are clearly marked with the number of the road, whatever other information or misinformation they contain.
Third Impression - Ministry of Transport in general and Mr. Christopher in particular jolly nice crowd of chaps, even though they do have to perpetrate other people's sins on poor inoffensive motorists.
Mr. Christopher said thank you for thanking me and come and see me again when you like.
Thank you, once again, Mr. Christopher, I should like to, very much.
Memo - didn't see one single piece of red tape - actual or metaphorical - in whole visit. Shall certainly go again some day.