Sir James Drake

A motorway visionary and evangelist from the 1930s to his death, and in the role of Lancashire's County Surveyor and Bridgemaster, one of the most vocal and persistent campaigners for an improved road network. His hard work and tenacity paid off, leaving Lancashire with the most extensive and complete motorway network of any part of the UK, most of which was open to traffic by the end of the 1970s. His effect was felt across the country, however, and today he is often referred to as the father of the motorway network.


Sir James Drake

1907 - 1989

Born in Burnley on July 27th, 1907, Drake set out his stall very early on, graduating from Manchester University with a first class degree in civil engineering. He went to Stockport and then Bootle, applying his skills to all manner of construction projects, before moving to Blackpool Council in 1937. Rising to the the role of Chief Engineer and Surveyor in 1938, he gave the town markets, municipal buildings and sea defences.

Drake's mind was on other things. In 1937, while still a deputy at Blackpool Council, he was invited to take part in the German Roads Delegation, and was one of about 200 civil engineers and politicians who spent eight days as the guests of the German government, inspecting more than 500 miles of the Autobahn network.

On his return, he drew up plans for a new ring road for Blackpool, which he intended to be Britain's first motorway. It wasn't to be, but Drake would have plenty of scope to work on motorway plans when he became County Surveyor and Bridgemaster at Lancashire County Council in 1945. He immediately set to work analysing the state of the county's roads and in 1949 published A Road Plan for Lancashire, setting out comprehensive proposals to bring the road network up to scratch. His case was persuasive enough that he was able to oversee the construction of the Preston Bypass, Britain's first motorway, which opened to traffic in December 1958.

Over the following decade Drake was determined to see his road plans brought to fruition. As well as making a compelling case for them, he was by all accounts belligerent in his attempts to draw funds and support from the Ministry of Transport. His colleague Harry Yeadon recalls how, when Drake visited London, the word would quickly spread across the Ministry: "Drake's in the building!"

As an engineer, he was a perfectionist, calling out his staff after hours or over the weekend if he noticed something out of place on a site inspection. Politically, he was a pragmatist, holding conversations with landowners and residents that successfully avoided public inquiries into most of Lancashire's road schemes. He instructed his staff to have road schemes prepared, even if no funding was available, so in the event that there was a budget surplus at the end of the year, the Ministry's civil servants would turn to Lancashire to find a project that was ready to go.

By the time he retired in 1972, he had spent time with the North West Road Construction Unit and had, in all, overseen the design and construction of virtually every mile of motorway in the north west of England, leaving Lancashire with the most dense network of motorways anywhere in the UK. He received a knighthood for his services to his county in 1973.

On 5 December 2008, the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Preston Bypass, a plaque was unveiled to commemorate his work and achievements. Fittingly, it stands at Samlesbury, alongside the granite plinth that marks the opening of the Bypass itself.

Key achievements

  • Closely involved with the design and construction of the Preston Bypass, Britain's first motorway. Insisted that the Ministry was thinking too small - and was proven right when, within seven years, a third lane had to be added.
  • Ardent campaigner for motorway construction, principally within Lancashire, but also across Britain as a whole. He became a known and respected spokesperson for road construction throughout the 1960s.
  • Despite retiring in 1972, continued to be a staunch and vocal supporter of road construction right to the end.

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