Bedford Gets the Green Light
Local author Alan Cox looks at the first traffic lights installed in the town
Bedford's first traffic lights were turned on at St Mary's cross-roads on Monday 8 April 1929. After the First World War motor vehicles, particularly lorries and buses, began to proliferate. More and more police time and manpower was being taken up in directing this increasing traffic. So, in 1926, traffic lights were set up in London, in Piccadilly, but they had to be operated by a constable from a hut in the middle of the road. It was in Wolverhampton, in November 1927, that the first automatic traffic light came into use. Remarkably, London did not get its first automatic lights until the same year as Bedford.
The story of Bedford's first traffic lights can be traced in the main minutes of the Borough Council [Bor BB2/22/28] and in those of the Borough's Watch Committee [Bor BB3/1/6]. Fortunately, both are well indexed and it is easy to locate the relevant details.
In the summer of 1928 the Chief Constable of the Borough police force, Francis Timbrell, and the Chairman of the Watch Committee, attended the annual conference of the Chief Constables' Association at which they saw a demonstration of electric traffic signals. As a result, the Watch Committee reported to the main council on 28 November 1928, pointing out that there were five street crossings in Bedford where a constable had to be on fixed point duty either all day or at certain times. It went on: 'The capital cost of acquiring and installing a set of apparatus for use at one crossing is very considerably less than the annual cost of a single constable, while the cost of annual upkeep is negligible, viz.: £15 to £20 per annum per point. The installation of such apparatus in Bedford at certain fixed points would relieve a number of constables for other duties and it must be borne in mind that it takes two constables to work a single point for a whole day.' The council duly agreed that 'electric signalling devices' should be purchased from Barber & Coleman of Manchester and installed by the Borough's own electricity department. The estimated cost of the equipment and its installation was £179 5s. for St Peter's and £141 for St. Mary's, the two cross-roads chosen to have the first lights.
The Bedford Record, reporting on the day after the lights came into use, shows what a novelty they were: 'For the present a policeman remains on point duty to enforce the signals of the automatic controls and to help the road-users until they get used to this new device. After a time, however, the automaton will be left in sole charge.' It was noted that at certain times the lights slowed down the traffic-flow, and it was considered newsworthy that 'one car-driver had to stop for 89 seconds with the crossing free from traffic all the time'.
Traffic Lights at Dame Alice Street & Broadway shortly after installation in 1928 [ref.BTnegOB9/15]
Inevitably, there were some teething troubles. Views of the lights at St Peter's were obstructed by parked buses and a tree at the corner of Dame Alice Street, which had to be removed. At St Mary's the lights were obscured by shop window blinds. In September 1930 the Chief Constable was asked to alter the timings of the signals at St Mary's to reflect the differing traffic flows east-west and north-south.
The new traffic lights were considered a success and on 30 May 1930 the Hackney Carriage Licensing Sub-Committee of the Watch Committee recommended that further traffic lights be installed at Silver Street. Over the years traffic lights have changed remarkably little and still play a major role in the management of the town's traffic.