Home Contact News Interactive Articles Comments Join Links Facebook

History in the making in the late 1960s

On the Road

Working on the construction of the M6 and the A38(M) Aston Expressway motorways

Julian Ward-Davies

March 2017

It was early 1968 and I had to all intents and purposes finished the course for my GCE 'O' Levels. I was 17 years old, feeling a bit restless and keen to move into the adult world of full-time employment.

A friend told me that Taylor Woodrow was looking for a lab technician at its site in Pleck Road in Walsall. The company was in the process of building a section of the new M6 motorway between Wednesbury Road and Great Barr. I went for an interview and was appointed immediately.

The site was near the Bescott railway sidings and a little further away there was a maggot factory. Depending on what the wind was doing, the smell from the factory could be a little overpowering sometimes.

Getting kitted out
As a salaried member of staff, rather than a wage-earning employee, I received the kit that everyone in my position was entitled to: a donkey jacket, some rubber gloves, a hard hat and a pair of Wellington boots. The company's office had, what was then, some state-of-the-art reprographic equipment and I was given a large-scale printout of the design of Taylor Woodrow's section of the motorway. I then set to work in the site laboratory. My job was to test the materials that went into the construction of the motorway.

The M6 flyover under construction near Stone Cross.
© Julian Ward-Davies

To build up the level of the road, soils of various types were used, principally a clay-like material called blue bind and sand. Most of the soil materials were sourced locally. Blue bind was quarried in Bentley and most of the sand came from a quarry at Barr Beacon.

Les, the lab labourer.
© Julian Ward-Davies

To bear stress in such things as pillars, retaining walls and cross-members, steel-reinforced concrete was used. Concrete of various grades was mixed at the Pleck Road site by a huge concrete batcher. Piles of sand and aggregate were placed next to the batcher, from which it would take huge scoops and then mix the material with water and cement. Concrete-carrying trucks known as doodle bugs would be parked under the batcher and the concrete would be dropped into it when mixing was complete.

Taylor Woodrow also had a fleet of 2 or 3 high-capacity concrete-mixer trucks with rotating drums. These were brought in on occasions when demand for concrete was exceptionally high, such as when some of the huge retaining walls were created. Even this collection of doodle bugs and mixers was inadequate sometimes and concrete-mixer vehicles from Ready Mix Concrete were often brought in to help out.

Concrete was mixed in 3 grades: A¾, B¾ and C¾. The "A", "B" and "C" referred to the cement proportion in the mix, with A at the highest and C the lowest. The "¾" referred to the maximum size of an aggregate's stone particles, ie ¾ of an inch. B¾ was by far the most commonly used mix.

The idea of a good mix is that smaller stone particles will get between the largest of them and a suspension of sand and cement will get between all of that, creating a high-density material.

The addition of water has two functions: it lubricates the mechanical mixing of the solid materials and it initiates the chemical reaction that enables the concrete to solidify, or 'go off'. Water content is critical: too little and the concrete would not mix adequately; too much has the effect of diluting the cement with the consequence of weakening the material.

A third class of constuction material, epoxy resin, was used in some cross-member joints.

All these materials had to be constantly tested by the laboratory staff, which consisted of three technicians and one labourer. To ensure that tests were conducted correctly, there was a team of technicians employed by the consulting engineers, who would either witness the tests or conduct their own tests in parallel with ours. Their main offices and lab were on Birmingham Road, Great Barr, but they also had a small office at the Pleck Road site. Their chief engineer lived in Main Street, Stonnall.

Every now and then, it was necessary for one of us to climb to the top of the batcher, open the cement hatch and drop a plumbline into it to determine how much cement had been consumed. On one such occasion, I took a camera with me and the result can be seen in this article along with several other photos that I took around the site on the same roll of film. Once the film had been used up, I took it out of the camera and forgot all about it, until...

A few months ago, I was rummaging around preparing to move house when I found an old undeveloped film. I took it to a lab and was very surprised to find that the film provided some fairly clear images and that it was from the time when I took some photos at the Taylor Woodrow site in Walsall.

John Jarrett, one of the lab techs.
© Julian Ward-Davies

Getting paid was good
With a salary of £9/10s/0d a week, paid monthly of course, which rose to the princely sum of £10/10s/0d a week within a couple of months, I could now afford some of the trappings of adult life. Besides the running costs of my Vespa 125cc scooter, my main extravagance was to rent a room in Rowley Street, Walsall. As a somewhat naïve country boy from Stonnall, I began to experience the various local urban sub-cultures that existed in the town at the time: the beatniks, hippies, artists, poets, aspiring actors, musicians, wanderers, ne'er-do-wells, etc, etc. Then there were the girls... but all that is another story.

Getting behind the wheel
Having recently passed my car driving test at the first attempt, I was also very keen on getting behind the wheel. From my point of view, one of the lab's greatest assets was its long wheelbase Land Rover. It was decorated in the mainly-yellow Taylor Woodrow livery and had an orange flashing warning light together with a reflective number plate-style sign on its roof, with the legend NIGHT SECURITY PATROL. This was because the vehicle was used at night by the security officer to patrol the company's various M6 depots. We will have a little more to say about him later.

The lab as seen from the top of the batcher.
© Julian Ward-Davies

In the daytime, we used the Land Rover to carry our equipment out to any point on the road surface where compaction tests would be carried out and occasionally to collect testing materials from other Taylor Woodrow sites. For example, at the time in Birmingham, the company was responsible for the construction of the BBC's Pebble Mill Studio and the reconstruction of New Street Station. These developments were too small to have their own labs and as a consequence I had to drive to these sites several times to collect materials for testing. On another occasion, it was necessary for me to drive to a quarry near Cannock to collect a sample of sand.

A compaction test consisted of digging a hole of known volume in the soil under the motorway and weighing the extracted material after it had been dried overnight in an oven. From this, it was a simple bit of maths to determine the material's density and thus its ability to support the road surface and the traffic on it.

Usually, most tests were satisfactory, but when there was an occasional failure, the area affected would be sprayed with water, rolled with a very heavy machine and then retested.

The company's sites
The company's main site at Pleck Road was very nearly like a small city in its own right. On the one side there was the main office block for the engineers, admins and surveyors. Then there was the lab, the concrete batcher, several bays of aggregate, a small hospital, a cafeteria, parking spaces and various huts stuffed with equipment. On the other side, known as the plant, there was a huge area of vehicle repair workshops, wood and metal-working workshops, gas and diesel tanks and a massive parking bay for trucks, diggers, rollers and suchlike. In addition, there were several smaller depots with office blocks at Wednesbury, Darlaston Road and the sand quarry at Barr Beacon.

The batcher and its driver.
© Julian Ward-Davies

Of course, much of the company's assets were left out in the open at night and were vulnerable to theft. This is where the Night Security Patrol Officer was supposed to do his stuff. He was an Irish, ex-army type or former policeman, exact memory fails me. As noted, he used the lab Land Rover to patrol the depots and, hopefully, catch or at least deter thieves.

The Land Rover takes a battering
Over the succeeding couple of months, the Land Rover looked more and more battered. It started with a small dent in the door, then a rip in the rear door, then more dents and scrapes in the wings, until the thing was looking decidedly worse for wear. As the youngest of its drivers, some people were blaming me for all the damage, but most people knew who was responsible. After the vehicle was collected from the lab every evening by you-know-who, it could be seen in the car park of a nearby pub where, no doubt, its driver was enjoying a good few pints of Guinness before starting his shift.

Part of the main office block and parking area, as seen from the top of the batcher.
© Julian Ward-Davies

Taffy gets a soaking
The site had its fair share of characters. One such was Taffy, who claimed to be from Aberfan in Wales where there had been a major disaster a couple of years previously. He was responsible for keeping the site clean with the area around the batcher causing a particular problem with concrete and cement spillages. He hosed it down on a daily basis.

One day, after a bit of banter, Taffy sprayed me with the hose, but I was to get my revenge later. He used to go into the lab for a cup of tea and a bit of chat every day, so on one occasion I climbed on to the roof of the lab with a cup of cold water and called out his name. Taffy emerged from the lab door expecting to see me but instead I poured the cup of water on his head. For a Welsh bloke, he seemed to be an expert in the Anglo-Saxon language.

The front entrance to the lab with Les and one of the lab techs.
© Julian Ward-Davies

One of the lab's major responsibilties was to test all the concrete that went into the road's construction. To facilitate this, it had a concrete crushing machine in one of its sections. A sample of every concrete pour was taken and then made into 6" cubes using moulds. These were then given serial numbers and kept in vats of water.

After 14 days, half of them were crushed and the remainder after 28 days. Most of the concrete easily exceeded the required specification and a representative of the consulting engineers was always present to ensure tests were carried out correctly and that the results were recorded accurately.

Time was now passing quickly and autumn and the start of the 'A' Level courses were rapidly approaching. I had to decide whether to stay in the job or move back into education. The job was due to end within months anyway because the project was nearing completion: tarmac was already appearing on some parts of the road.

Moving to the Aston Expressway
Then one day an engineer contacted me and told me that the company had won the contract to build part of the Aston Expressway in Birmingham and would I like to be the site's lab technician? My pay would nearly double to £18 a week, which was a small fortune for a fellow who was not yet 18 years old. Believing that there would be another lab vehicle and a labourer to help out, I decided to give Taylor Woodrow another year of my life.

I moved to the new site in November 1968. The main depot and lab were situated in Vicarage Road, Aston. The company had responsibility for the construction of about half of the expressway between Gravelly Hill and roughly Aston Cross. This included a roundabout called the gyratory above the road and part of what would eventually become known as Spaghetti Junction.

The roadworks had a profound and disruptive effect on the local population. Much of Old Aston had been demolished to make room for the Expressway, the new traffic islands and the various slipways from the M6 and other connecting roads. Many families were moved out to new housing developments at Castle Vale and elsewhere.

One of the doodle bugs and its driver.
© Julian Ward-Davies

My responsibilities were more-or-less as they had been in Walsall, principally the testing of compacted soil and load-bearing concrete.

Vicarage Road was a stone's throw from Aston Cross where an Ansell's brewery and an HP Sauce factory were located in those days. Depending on which way the wind was blowing, one could often smell vinegar or hops, or sometimes a combination of the two.

Things turning out not as expected
The depot was nowhere near as huge as the Walsall site and the company atmosphere was different. A smaller contract meant that less money was being thrown at things and penny-pinching was the order of the day. I knew something was wrong when I was asked to paint out the lab offices in the company colour scheme as soon as I arrived.

Furthermore, there was to be no lab vehicle, not even a small van. A BSA Bantam trials bike was provided to move around on the rough terrain, but it was useless for carrying equipment. This meant waiting for the site delivery van to become available or, worse still, having to push things around in a wheelbarrow.

Me and Taffy at the side entrance to the lab.
© Julian Ward-Davies

The company did provide a succession of two lab labourers, but as stroppy teenagers, they were pretty useless and disappeared very rapidly. They were never replaced and that meant that I had to do all the work, including conducting the tests as well as keeping all the equipment and lab clean and tidy.

Out of interest, I learned how to operate the main office telephone switchboard. As soon as the site manager found out about this, I was used as a stand-in for the telephone girl while she had her lunch breaks. On several occasions I was asked to calculate the labourers' pay on huge wage ledgers, presumably because I was one of only a few people who could be relied upon to add, subtract, multiply and divide properly. By the way, the average labourer was getting about £14 a week in those days.

Within 6 or 7 months I decided to quit the job. At the time, working in Walsall and Birmingham was just a means to an end, a way of gaining some experience but that otherwise meant very little to me. Thinking back though, to be involved in the creation of Britain's motorway backbone was actually really quite something and I think that everyone who contributed in some way is entitled to feel the same.

Click or tap here to like this article



© Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons PGC 2017

Design, programming and image editing are the work of the author.

If you have any information, suggestions and/or photographs relating to the subject matter, no matter how trivial, please contact the author by one of the methods shown below.

Please revisit for additions, amendments and revisions.

Home Contact News Interactive Articles Comments Join Links Facebook