Retro: Patrolling the M1 in the 1960s

The Ford Zephyr Mk II police car driven by Les Barker when an M1 police patrol officer in the 1960s
The Ford Zephyr Mk II police car driven by Les Barker when an M1 police patrol officer in the 1960s
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No speed limits, no street lights and no crash barriers.

That was what greeted Les Barker when he began patrolling the M1 shortly after it opened in 1959.

Sgt Les Barker with a cine camera used to film fatal accident scenes

Sgt Les Barker with a cine camera used to film fatal accident scenes

The former police sergeant, now 82, of Pendle Avenue, Kettering, has recalled the early days of his motorway policing career.

Mr Barker says it was a ‘proud moment’ when he was transferred to Bedfordshire Police’s recently-formed M1 traffic patrol team in February 1960, but no amount of training could prepare him for what he was about to experience.

He said: “We now had a wide straight road of considerable length with no speed restrictions or safety features which very quickly became an attraction for the boy racers of the day.

“They would drive their motorcycles and cars at breakneck speeds, often racing with each other.

M1_Motorway_04 11_1959''Date: 2 November 1959 (day the M1 opened).''Location: M1, signed for Bletchley and A50 (likely to be junctions 13 or 14).''Description: AA Ford Escort motorway patrol van in the inside lane. Taken from the passenger seat of an AA Land Rover motorway patrol vehicle.'M1 picture for birthday story

M1_Motorway_04 11_1959''Date: 2 November 1959 (day the M1 opened).''Location: M1, signed for Bletchley and A50 (likely to be junctions 13 or 14).''Description: AA Ford Escort motorway patrol van in the inside lane. Taken from the passenger seat of an AA Land Rover motorway patrol vehicle.'M1 picture for birthday story

“As a new motorway patrol officer I quickly realised that none of us had any experience of how to deal with the situation.

“We knew that there was a major incident just waiting to happen and it was only a matter of time before we were to be called upon to deal with it.”

And it was on only Mr Barker’s second day as a patrolman that such an incident occurred.

He said: “It was about 8pm on a cold winter’s night when on standby at our police post at Toddington that we got the call to a serious accident involving two heavy goods vehicles about five miles further north.

“On arrival we found that the two vehicles had completely blocked lanes 1 and 2, with debris scattered over lane 3.

“I was driving and positioned my car at an angle behind the crash scene.”
Mr Barker was driving a converted Mark II Ford Zephyr. It had a 2.5l engine, a three-speed column change gearbox and a dynamo generator powering the battery.

Its top speed was officially 88mph, but because of all the heavy equipment which had to be carried ‘you would be lucky to reach 70mph’.

There were no markings on the sides of the car to indicate the police were protecting the crash scene, just a small blue flashing lamp on the roof.

The generator-powered battery created its own set of problems, Mr Barker recalled.

“It was necessary to keep the engine running to power the battery, but the generator would only provide sufficient charge when the engine was running at fast speed.

“I knew that if the car was stationary with power being provided from the car’s battery for the radio, headlights and blue light that the battery would quickly lose power and eventually fail.

“On arrival at the crash scene it was my task to go immediately to the crash to assist the injured while my colleague’s job was to place out the warning signs and cone off the area.

“It was obvious to me that one of the drivers was dead and the other seriously injured.

“I returned to our patrol car to summon help, hoping that we were in an area with radio reception and that there was still sufficient charge in the car’s battery to power the radio.

“Luckily on this occasion there was, and an ambulance and recovery vehicles were summoned.

“However, while waiting for their arrival the headlights on my car started to dim.

“I was forced to switch them off to save the battery, leaving only the blue light and the radio on.”
The M1 had no street lighting at first but it did have a basic fog/incident warning system which consisted of a wooden pole near every hard shoulder, on which was fitted two fog lights of the sort found on cars, with power supplied by a 12-volt battery at the foot of the post.

They were activated by a police officer aiming a radar gun at a receiver as they drove past.

However, this system was unreliable, to say the least, and was not operating on the night of the accident.

Mr Barker said: “On this occasion my colleague may have either missed the target with the gun as we drove to the scene or the receiver itself or lights were faulty. Most likely the batteries had been stolen.”

That accident proved to be the first of many on the M1 that Mr Barker attended over the years.

He said: “By far the worst job any police officer will have to face in his career is the need to inform a family of the death of a loved one in a road accident.

“Having to do this myself on numerous occasions, I know that this is something you can never harden to.”
Mr Barker said he slowly began to accept the situation he was working in and actually started to enjoy the challenges he was presented with.

He later became a traffic sergeant in the accident investigation unit and attended many fatal accidents on roads all over Bedfordshire, in each case carrying out in-depth investigations for the courts or inquests.

He said: “Since my retirement after 30 years’ service I am told that we no longer have accidents, only collisions!

“As an old-time copper brought up with accidents, in my book that’s how they will remain.”

Mr Barker plans to write the whole story of his three decades as a police officer ‘before I too head for that great motorway in the sky!’.

Patrol car provisions

The equipment Mr Barker carried in his Zephyr consisted of 12 cones, four rigid metal police accident/slow signs, six battery lamps with red domes, a first aid kit, four blankets, a broom, a shovel, a tow chain, a fire extinguisher, two orange non-reflective waistcoats, and a puncture repair kit.