The unexpected survivor

Published: 19 March 2019

Storms can be hugely destructive. But once in a while a storm can do something unexpectedly helpful - like, for example, revealing a fascinating historical object that had been hiding in plain sight.

High winds have blown over all sorts of things in the last week, but in Derbyshire, the wind managed to blow the cover of a hidden road sign. Literally. Situated on the southbound entry sliproad to the M1 at junction 30, the junction with the A616 at Barlborough, is a triangular road sign that used to have a blank grey metal plate latched onto it. The wind lifted the cover off and now its face can be seen: a solid red triangle with white lettering that just reads "M1 Fog".

On the back, someone at some time or other has written "foggy?".

"M1 Fog": it's not foggy, but that doesn't make it any less delightful. Click to enlarge

"M1 Fog": it's not foggy, but that doesn't make it any less delightful. Click to enlarge

If you're interested in old road signs you ought to be very, very excited.

So: what is it?

The short answer

In the 1960s, fog was a source of some considerable panic. The motorway network was brand new, with new sections opening on a regular basis, but drivers had little experience of high-speed travel and they kept getting themselves into trouble. Multiple car pile-ups on fog-bound motorways became a regular event each winter - and a regular feature in the news.

The panic surrounding fog, and quite specifically fog on the M1, is the reason we first got a National Speed Limit and the era of fully derestricted roads came to an end. It was also the catalyst for the development and installation of electronic warning signals on motorways - first the relatively primitive Motorwarn signals, and then later matrix signals that could display the word "fog". (We have a whole article on the development of electronic signs in the 1960s, and the pivotal role  played by fog, called Mixed Signals.)

While the first battery-powered flashing lights were in development, the Ministry of Transport also created fixed red warning signs that could be uncovered by police to warn drivers about foggy conditions, and had them installed on approaches to motorways. They were supposed to be temporary, and it was thought that none were left, but a gust of wind has revealed one, completely unexpectedly, at M1 junction 30.

Foggy? Click to enlarge

Foggy? Click to enlarge

This "Fog" sign is likely to date from the opening of this section of M1, which was in November 1967. It is unlikely to have been used by police once electronic signals were installed, which would have been in 1970-71, so it has probably been covered up and forgotten for about 48 years.

The long answer

This is not just a long-forgotten "fog" sign. It's almost certainly the oldest sign on the UK motorway network, and it is without a doubt the only surviving pre-Worboys, Anderson-era sign.

The present system of road signs was devised by the Worboys Committee, a panel of experts led by Sir Walter Worboys. They came into use in 1964. Prior to that, road signs in the UK looked very different. The work of the Worboys Committee came a bit too late for the opening of the first motorways, though, and since existing road signs were thought to be entirely unsuitable for high-speed roads, a stopgap was needed. Another committee led by Colin Anderson (the chairman of P&O Ferries, obviously) were asked to come up with some designs that could be used for a few years until the Worboys Committee had finished their report.

A "wonky" Anderson sign with its angled arrows. Click to enlarge
A "wonky" Anderson sign with its angled arrows. Click to enlarge

Anderson signs, as they became known, were installed on motorways from 1958 to 1964, and they are all now gone. They weren't hugely different to modern motorway signs; they were still mostly blue with white letters and they used the same forms of lettering. The two key differences were the "wonky" arrows, much beloved of road enthusiasts, that showed the straight-on option at a junction as an oddly diagonal line; and the warning signs, which were solid red triangles. The Show Me A Sign blog has a great post with lots of examples if you'd like to see more of them.

The new Worboys signs didn't include a warning triangle for "fog", and nor would one be needed once the new electronic signals came into use. So, from 1964, as a temporary measure, the existing red warning triangle for fog continued to be installed, even though it was an Anderson sign.

That is why, in 1967, when the M1 opened between junctions 28 and 32, it opened with red Anderson warning signs at each entry point that said "M1 Fog", with covers over the sign face so they could be hidden when they weren't needed. And this week, we learned that one of them is still standing.

Another look at a sign that is now 51 years old and has probably been unseen for the last 48. Click to enlarge

Another look at a sign that is now 51 years old and has probably been unseen for the last 48. Click to enlarge

What happens now?

One of two things.

One possibility is that a Highways England maintenance crew will see this unusual sign, recognise it only as a "secret sign" whose cover has blown off, and clip its cover plate back on.

The other is that it will be spotted, the heavily rusted state of its half-century-old poles will be examined, and it will be pulled down and sent for scrap.

We rather hope it's the first one. If you work with Highways England in this area, perhaps you could put in a good word for it, and maybe it can be saved - because it's a remarkable survivor and a genuine museum piece.

With thanks to Philip Fisher who brought our attention to this sign on SABRE and kindly allowed us to use his photographs.

Comments

Edward Joslin 19 March 2019

The sign is clearly seen here on Google Earth.

The M1 here has recently had Smart Motorway All Lane Running work completed, and the sign is also flanked on either side by modern matrix electronic signs. But to observe the junction itself, it appears no modernisation, widening or re-engineering work has been done since the day it opened in '67. Despite millions spent on the mainline carriageway, and the electronic signs, the fact that no highway authority has taken a second glance at this junction for 51 years is probably good enough reason as to why this sign was missed!

Gryph L 19 March 2019

I work for the design contractors in Area 7 just a stone's throw from the depot at J27. I wonder what chance a retrieval from their recycling facility if I ask nicely?

If you find the right person to ask, very likely! The trick is speaking to the right person at the right time...

Well, it's still in-situ as of today (March 19th) as I've just paid it a visit! Hopefully that should give me enough time to figure out a rescue mission!

conekicker 20 March 2019

To Gryph L: Hopefully got in in hand, watch this space...

Philip Fisher 20 March 2019

I am glad me spotting and photographing this has caused such excitement. What is the plan if it is rescued? Is there a museum it would go into? I am also wondering about the north facing slip and whether there might be something in the undergrowth there?

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Picture credits

  • Photographs of the M1 Fog sign appear courtesy of Philip Fisher.
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