1939: The Great North Road in Colour Film

Posted on 05 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

In some senses, this film is not for the football historian: the A1 Great North road is a cyclist’s route, going through rugby country. The large conurbations and urban industrial centres that gave birth to professional football were in the west of England and Scotland – Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Preston, Blackburn and Bolton.

But this colour film, which dates from August 1939 and quite obviously the work of someone who wanted one last look at his beautiful country before it was ruined by war and the consequences of war, is not to be passed over because of that.

I grew up near the A1. By the 1970s and 1980s, it was a road on which the sun usually forgot to shine. Our cameraman had better luck with the weather. Speaking of luck, of course, you decide: was he lucky to have lived to see England in its pre-War state, or unlucky to have lived to see the coming of World War II? The camera dwells on barrage balloons, on war memorials bearing fresh flowers. Lucky at least, to have afforded a motor car and Kodacolor movie film at the end of the Great Depression..

11 Comments For This Post

  1. Matthew Kilburn Says:

    Interestingly the cameraman seems to have followed the new route, not then signposted as A1, using the Barnet By-Pass; the A1 was still routed through Barnet. Despite dualling, and in one case conversion to motorway, some of the landscape is still recognizable.

  2. dearieme Says:

    Even then, drivers were apparently keen to drive too close to the car in front.

  3. JamesHamilton Says:

    I think that’s an excellent “spot” Matthew – and I second you on the landscape. It’s largely the same, albeit, Kodacolor’s influence notwithstanding, unmistakeably spoiled.

  4. JamesHamilton Says:

    Yes, Dearieme, and this would have been only a few years after the introduction of the (rudimentary) driving test. The raw casualty figures on British roads in the 1920s and 1930s were far higher than they are now, and it’s easy to see why.

  5. Matthew Says:

    That might be the best quality colour film of (almost) pre-war Britain I’ve ever seen. I know most of those places – Biggleswade and Buckden if anything look less modern today.

  6. Matthew Says:

    Also, compared with cars, aren’t lorries quite timeless?

  7. JamesHamilton Says:

    This is a quite superb piece of film, but disconcerting in its quality: usually, with old film, there are a variety of aesthetic pointers to its age that provide the viewer with distance and a cushion. Because I think that the biggest thing photography has done is confirm the reality of death. And this Great North Road film, which for quality might have been shot at any time at all, just shows people going about daily business with what to me looks like horrifying unconsciousness. You want to shout a warning: well, I do. Perhaps some of those drivers, cyclists and pedestrians are still with us, but not all.

    Lorries, yes. But I’m told that the drivers don’t see it that way. The bigger ones needed two people in the cab at any given time, one for the accelerator, the other for a kind of screw-operated hand-brake.

    Biggleswade I knew well: complete and utter depressing dump at the time. Sandy was a much more cheerful place. But the southern A1 as a whole has not been a laughing success for the last 30 or so years.

  8. Matthew Says:

    Ah yes, I can imagine the driveability has changed – I’m still amazed my Dad managed to drive a reasonably large motorcaravan without power steering.

    Biggleswade – Ok a building seems to have got a few more levels. http://www.flickr.com/photos/mjtphotos/4413536472/sizes/o/

    By the way, is there an obvious reason why shops used to have awnings and (except in posher areas) don’t now? Is it someting to do with queuing, standing outside etc?

  9. Patrick Crozier Says:

    Great Depression. What Great Depression? This is Southern England we’re looking at.

    Interesting how they whitewashed the kerbs. I wonder when that went out of style.

  10. Carl Says:

    As far as I know, whitewashed kerbs were a Blackout measure – presumably this had been just been done on a large scale in anticipation of the outbreak of war.

  11. Bruce Richardson Says:

    Shop awnings were used to keep sunlight from the goods on display. The effects of UV were well known even in the 30′s.

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