Sir William Harris

Civil servant in charge of the first motorways

William Gordon Harris, civil engineer: born Liverpool 10 June 1912; staff, London Midland & Scottish Railway 1932-35; staff, Sudan Irrigation Department 1935-37; staff, Civil Engineer in Chief's Department, Admiralty 1937, Assistant Civil Engineer in Chief 1950, Deputy Civil Engineer in Chief 1955, Civil Engineer in Chief 1959; Director- General, Navy Works 1960-63; Director-General of Works, Ministry of Public Building and Works 1963-65; CB 1963; Director-General of Highways, Ministry of Transport (later Department of the Environment) 1965-73; KBE 1969; partner, Peter Fraenkel & Partners 1973-78; Vice-President, Institution of Civil Engineers 1971-74, President 1974-75; chairman, B&CE Holiday Management Co and Benefit Trust Co 1978-87; President, Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers 1984; married 1938 Margaret Harvie (died 1991; three sons, one daughter), 1992 Rachel Bishop (née Goucher); died East Carlton, Northamptonshire 20 February 2005.

Sir Alan Cockshaw, when he was President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, remarked, "Give a civil engineer a problem and he will give you a solution." That was the habit of mind of his fellow president, 1974-75, William Harris who, in a full career in public service, with 14 years in the top professional rank of the Civil Service, demonstrated his versatility in its top administrative functions too. From 1965 he was Director-General of Highways at the Ministry of Transport during the building of the first British motorways. In 1984 his profession elected Harris President of the Smeatonian Society of Engineers.

William Harris was born in Liverpool in 1912. After graduating from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he read the Mechanical Sciences Tripos, he joined the London Midland and Scottish Railway in 1932 while Sir William Stanier was introducing his Princess Royal class of Pacific locomotives, weighing as much as the line's civil engineering could bear.

In 1935 Harris began two years with the Sudan Irrigation Department, returning to marry in 1938 his first wife, Margaret, with whom he was to celebrate their golden wedding and two generations of delight in their family of one daughter and three sons and then in the maintenance of the family pattern with 16 grandchildren. After Margaret died in 1991, he yet was blessed with 14 more years of dear company by his second wife, Rachel.

In 1937, Harris began 26 years in the Civil Engineer's Department of the Admiralty. Nineteen fifty proved decisive, with the award to him of a Commonwealth Fund of New York Scholarship. He thereupon spent two years with the US Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks and his reputation remained high in the United States. His contribution in securing international agreement upon disposal of dredged material was recognised in 1985 as Distinguished Civilian Service to the US Army Corps of Engineers.

By 1963 he had risen through the offices of Assistant and Deputy Civil Engineer-in-Chief to the top attainable profession rank at the Admiralty. In that period the Royal Navy saw the end of large ships with main gunnery armament, arrival of rocketry, amphibious assault ships, nuclear submarines (leading on to the deterrent role) and the vision of through-deck cruisers armed with vertical take-off aeroplanes. Behind all this lay the task of a corresponding revolution in dockyard facilities, especially at Faslane.

By 1963 Earl Mountbatten of Burma was advocating from the Admiralty the merger of the three service departments into a single Ministry of Defence. Harris, appointed CB, moved across to become the Director-General of Works in the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works with its government-wide remit; and then two years later to become the Director-General, Highways, in the Ministry of Transport.

This last move was very significant. In 1956 the Government had found the means to begin a programme of construction of a motorway network, upon which Winston Churchill had launched a study as bombs fell on Westminster in July 1941 and which was to become a project for half of the 20th century, on the scale of railways in the 19th century. For that achievement, scarce skills had to be organised with a stream of finance under single control, amidst all the other calls of post-war reconstruction - a new welfare state, intensifying competition in world markets and the demise of imperial preference.

Barbara Castle as Secretary of State for Transport in the mid-1960s toyed with creating a Highways Authority. But Harris produced and implemented the idea of a single structure manned, in the face of scant experience in road-building for a generation, by drawing into regional Road Construction Units (RCUs) engineers from both local and central government financed from the ministry's vote. It was this organisation that accelerated the work to achieve the long-planned first 1,000 miles of motorway by 1972.

When answerable for the Department of Transport from 1976 to 1982 I had good reason to be grateful for this legacy of concentrated understanding but also to feel misgivings when privatisation dispersed it in 1981.

Faced as they were by the contemporary development of computers and containerisation, there was apprehension in the ports too. Dover, however, sustained the busiest performance. Harris had been a member of its board since his Admiralty days in 1959 and would go on to become its deputy chairman from 1980 to 1982. While he had extended his involvement with highways as the UK's Chief Delegate in the Permanent Association of Roads Congresses in 1970-71, supplemented by chairing the Construction Industry Manpower Board in 1976-79, his involvement with the Permanent Association of Navigation Congresses ran from 1969 until 1985.

Fifteen years later still, the Motorway Archive Charity was established. Harris was immediately interested. The first volume of its publication The Motorway Achievement (2002) carries his preface; the second volume (2004) features his lecture of 1965 to the London School of Economics foreshadowing his RCUs. Both demonstrate the friendly authority of his devoted life of public service.

Peter Baldwin

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