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Concrete thinking from a Welsh grocer's son
publication date: Jun 22, 2016
author/source: Dave Moss
by Dave Moss
Wales has produced many notable engineers since the industrial revolution, but five separate professionally acclaimed experts in bridge and related structure design inside 300 years must surely count as remarkable.
Amongst these talented Welshmen Britain's motorists owe an eternal debt of gratitude to one particular civil engineer and architect, whose name they may not know, but whose work they will almost certainly have seen, sampled - and appreciated.
Owen Williams (right) was born in 1890, youngest son of Welsh grocer Evan Owen Williams and his wife Mary. Promising maths ability at the local Grammar School in Tottenham, where they were then living, led to an apprenticeship at London's Metropolitan Electric Tramways, while college classes brought Owen a first-class honours degree.
Structural engineering subsequently proved more alluring than trams, and early specialisation in reinforced concrete at several small companies saw him taking increasingly senior posts.
His first building design was the six-storey Gramophone Company factory in Middlesex, though his early career culminated in appointment as Resident engineer for a major Trussed Concrete Steel Company project at Swansea Docks.
A stint as chief engineer for the Admiralty shipyard at Poole preceded the 1919 establishment of his own specialist concrete design company, Williams Concrete Structures Ltd, which completed several major south Wales industrial buildings. Then he met Maxwell Ayrton, main architect for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition.
Ayrton, like Williams, saw architectural potential in concrete, leading to a long, fruitful relationship which saw Owen Williams's Exhibition buildings design earn him a Knighthood at just 34.
Afterwards Williams realigned his company into a consulting engineering firm, which worked in partnership with Ayrton in designing over twenty bridges and viaducts, mostly Ministry of Transport commissions - many of them on Scotland's A9 route.
During this time, Williams began bringing more integrated design thinking to concrete structures, converging the previously separate disciplines of engineering and architecture.
In the 1930's, his specialist skills and modernist thinking resulted in successful high profile designs including the London and Manchester Daily Express buildings, and Wembley's Empire Pool. However some ideas proved just too avant garde: a prestigious Dorchester Hotel design contract was withdrawn - after work started.
There was little hint in any of this of what was to come, but his talents and skills must have made a deep impression on the Ministry of Transport.
Soon after the second world war the newly renamed firm of Sir Owen Williams and Partners gained a major and prestigious commission to design the all-new Newport bypass in south Wales. Williams' son, named Owen Tudor but usually known as "O T," was made a partner in 1945 to help with the suddenly increased workload this presented.
Here certainty and speculation become intermingled. Newport bypass design work began just as government thinking was inching towards accepting the need for more cohesive and potentially higher speed long distance road links.
From this an embryo new road policy was emerging. Yet these were very early days, and despite folklore tales of recent times, hard evidence to confirm that this Newport bypass was planned as a first stage in a future south Wales motorway has proved elusive.
Its believed the route was decided and the first paper designs completed as early as 1946, but unsurprisingly in those financially straitened post-war times, roadbuilding was not a priority, and delays set in.
Sir Owen Williams' team moved on, gaining a Port Talbot bypass contract, for which the Ministry published orders in 1949... before also suffering long delays - for similar reasons, before it opened in July 1966. The story of these two ambitiously engineered south Wales bypasses is more fully explored elsewhere in this series.
When eventually built, both benefited greatly from experience gained by their designers on appointment in 1955 to what was surely the most high-profile and potentially fraught British roadbuilding job of the decade - consultant design engineers for the entire first stage of the all-new M1 motorway.
The contract called for completion of 53 miles of dual three-lane motorway in just 19 months between April 1958 and November 1959. The chosen route required 131 bridges, and it was here that Owen Williams entered motoring history. His basic but distinctive design of concrete over- and under-bridges was certainly not universally acclaimed, but left a lasting design signature on the M1 - for many, in original or modified form, remain in use today.
These bridges were conceived as a series of expedient standard designs - capable of easy variation in deck thickness, parapet height, span, overall height, width and offset angle from direction of travel.
The principle allowed efficient construction in situ using "mass concrete," since transport difficulties made precasting impossible, and pre-stressed concrete was in its infancy. Two-span overbridges became most familiar to M1 travellers, their solid, functional, near-stark design aesthetic attracting much critical press comment - though the style was approved by the Royal Fine Arts Commission.
Usually forgotten, however, was the astonishing achievement of cost-effectively delivering 131 motorway bridges on time - a remarkable average of seven each month the project was running.
Could those bridges have provided inspiration behind some of those spartan, functionally-styled structures and forms which subsequently permeated both 1960's architecture and its popular culture?
Sir Owen Williams and Partners went on to design several other motorways, including the second major section of the M1, under the direction of O.T. as managing partner from 1966, when Sir Owen retired in failing health. He died of a stroke in May 1969 at the age of 79, leaving his son to complete the Midland Links Motorway network - including the famous "Spaghetti junction".
Spread over three generations, the firm was a family business into the 21st century, most recently involving Williams' grandsons, Richard and Hugh.
Today, renamed "Owen Williams," it continues operations within Amey plc - ensuring the achievements of the Welsh grocer's son who was instrumental in moving Britain into the motorway age are irrevocably bridged into motoring history.
An excellent set of images is held by the Port Talbot Historical Society and can be viewed on their website