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The new road's undulations across the hills are as gentle as its curves

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: September 02, 2014

By John Workman

  • The page of illustrations on the construction of the Birmingham Wolverhampton New Road taken from The Motor magazine published in August 1924

  • The course of the 90 year old Birmingham New Road looking west towards Turners Hill in Oldbury

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OCCASIONALLY an interesting item of history drops through the letter box at Bugle House without any details of the sender, and recently we received an article written in The Motor Magazine and published on August 19, 1924 describing how one of the Black Country's major trunk roads, the Birmingham/Wolverhampton New Road was constructed. We would like to thank the anonymous donor who probably had the road's 90th anniversary very much in mind.

The illustrations, which take up a complete page of the article, are very interesting and show the use of a railway to aide in the construction. Also in the same magazine a reference was made to the British motor trade prospects for the summer of 1924 and read as follows: "Standing third among our national passenger car markets in 1923 and seventh among truck markets, the UK is already a well developed field for American manufacturers. Currently there are 108 British makes of passenger cars on the market and 77 others, of which 38 are French and 19 American. It is estimated that the tyre consumption per car is approximately six per year."

The new Birmingham to Wolverhampton Road was dubbed as the new highway which will make a rapid connecting link. The text is as follows: "The construction of a new road conjures up three pictures. The open countryside with its green fields checkered by hedges, a few scattered trees, and man's effort in the shape of red brick cottages on the fringe of the holes and hillocks which represent the labours of a previous generation. Secondly, the great engineer or constructor at work. The fields are now cut with a broad red scar, sometimes bending one way and sometimes the other, across the face of the countryside, the latter being hewn unmercifully to the will of the engineer, for here one can see the beginnings of a great embankment, and there, farther along, the steeply sloping sides of a cutting through the side of the hill, the strength of which is being sapped to supply the hollows down below. Through the apparently hopeless muddle one can see what will eventually be the road waving over the folds of the landscape.

And thirdly, in place of a blasted and wrecked channel the surface of which is composed of rocks and soil strewn so carelessly that a mule would find it difficult to pick a path, is a wide, gently turning, clean and tidy expanse of concrete. Its undulations across the hills are as gentle as its curves, for the embankments and cuttings have eased the gradient to the prescribed maximum. The wounded earth on either side of the track is being healed by newly sprouting grass, while the once ragged edges of the highways are now neatly bordered by fences beyond which the green fields, hedges and trees continue their placid existence.

Even now their existence will be short lived, for the stream of high speed motor traffic which hums along what a few months earlier had been open country, will bring compressed civilisation to its borders, and houses, shops, garages, halls and schools will soon blot out the wide views on each side of the trunk road.

Such then are the thoughts that pass through the brain of the motorist who can spend a few moments watching the laying out of a great new road such as that which is now assuming a practical shape between Birmingham and Wolverhampton.

There is work in progress at three locations. The first is found on the south-eastern side of Wolverhampton and can be viewed from the Wolverhampton-Tipton road. Here a steam digger is gouging out many tons of black earth an hour. It feeds a train of tipping trucks, which are shunted first to one side and then to the other of its mobile arm. The digger is mounted on rails and works from a centre from which this arm, with its almost human scoop, can gulp in the earth from the bank which lies to the right, left or straight ahead.

So uncanny is the delicacy of its control and its gigantic power that a group of spectators standing on the edge of the shaking earth find unending amusement in watching it at work. Farther down the cutting the black earth turns to rock and work is much slower. The long ugly scar carries roughly laid lines, along which miniature trains puff their rackety way, bringing full trucks to be tipped into the hollows or empty ones waiting to be fed by the big digger. Already some three-quarters of a mile has been cut through this barren and unlovely Black Country.

The middle point where the work is proceeding is located on the outskirts of Oldbury. Anyone will tell you where it is, for the locals take a great interest in the forging of this new road, which may alter the whole course of their existence. Whether they realise that the motorcar, the commercial motor and the motor cycle are alone responsible for these great changes is another matter. Here the work of the engineer is far more difficult. To the south is a series of hollows and hillocks, remnants of the spent efforts of an exhausted industry, while to the north there is a low range of hills along the sloping bank of which a cutting is being forced. Another and larger steam digger, more railway lines and trains snorting and groaning as the rock comes away from the solid, shoots dustily into the tipping wagons and is drawn away to fill the gaps farther south, completing the picture.

Again the impression of confusion, raggedness, untidiness, as the giant digger scoops out the earth. Men dwarfed by its size clear away the overflowing rubbish from the line. Beside the scoop their Lilliputian spades, laden with what looks like a few specks of earth, seem quite ridiculous.

The scene of the third series of operations can be seen away on the skyline, across the valley with its hillocks and chimneys, wrecked red brick buildings, railways and works. Here on the western outskirts of Birmingham the super-civilisation of the city changes with startling rapidity to the green fields of the country. Near Beeches Lane, Warley, work on the new road is still in its early stages. a dull red strip separates open expanses of green grass. A railway line is laid along this exposed portion of the field. It stretches away almost out of sight in the glistening sunlight. If you walk a few hundred yards north-west you will see the track winding gently down the slope of the countryside until it finally peters out, still in the green fields.

You can also see if you look across the hazy valley the low range of grey hills that the centre portion of the same road is now in course of spanning, and you may picture how in a few months' time you will cross that valley on a swift motorcar in five or six minutes, whereas it has just taken you the best part of half an hour to wind your way between those two points through the narrow streets, crowded areas and country lanes of the Black Country.

When the construction of the Birmingham Wolverhampton New Road took place in the early 1920s it was a massive undertaking, equal to in terms of technology available at the time the construction of the M5 and M6 through the Black Country later in the century. If you have any memories of when the motorway network was being built please let us know here at Bugle House.

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