Obituaries: O. T. Williams

Antony Oliver
Wednesday 17 July 1996 23:02

O.T. Williams was one of Britain's motorway pioneers. Over his 50 years as a civil engineer he worked on the M1 in the 1950s, designed large sections of the M4, M5 and M6 in the 1960s and created "Spaghetti Junction" in the 1970s. The M5 and M6 Midland links required vast lengths of elevated motorway to take traffic across urban and industrial areas around Birmingham and included the now legendary "Spaghetti Junction" interchange at Gravelly Hill. Completed in 1972 and best seen from the air, the junction remains one of the most dramatic and busiest parts of the motorway network.

After the appointment of Sir Owen Williams & Partners (his father's engineering practice) as consultant for the London to Yorkshire Motorway in 1951, O.T. took increasing charge of that side of the firm's work. The first length of the M1 from Luton to Crick, some 88km, began construction in March 1958 and was completed in just 19 months. This was perhaps the start of modern transport infrastructure as known today.

O.T. was travelling extensively at this time, including a memorable trip on the Mauretania to the United States in 1955, to study developments in road construction. It is said that his subsequent development of ideas and influences picked up from around the world, particularly the States, gives a clue to O.T.'s level of involvement in designs often credited to his father.

While other designers were looking east to Europe, O.T. was more impressed by developments in highway design across the Atlantic. While the design of the simple portal span bridges on the M1, revolutionary for their time and not without their critics, are rightly credited to Sir Owen for their look and standardised design, O.T.'s input in the overall design of the highway was considerable.

Educated at Shrewsbury before going on to read Engineering at Cambridge, O.T. graduated in 1937 and joined his father, Sir Owen Williams, in the consulting engineering practice he had established in 1919.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, O.T. joined the Engineering Section of the Admiralty and spent much of his time overseas, working on projects including the development of airfield runways. After the war he resumed work with his father and became a partner in 1946.

In the immediate post-war years, O.T. worked on a wide range of projects being handled by the practice, including modifications to Sir Owen's Wembley Stadium and Empire Pool in preparation for the 1948 Olympics.

But his biggest project at the time was perhaps the maintenance hangers which formed BOAC's headquarters at London Airport. These buildings were the first major structures at the airport and formed the start of development at what is now known as Heathrow.

The huge reinforced concrete hanger with two spectacular cantilevered arch entrances is often referred to as a masterpiece of reinforced concrete design. Although credit for these buildings is given to his father, O.T.'s influence on the firm's work at this time was substantial. Working alongside the powerful and influential figure of Sir Owen meant O.T. tended to keep out of the spotlight to concentrate on his work at the practice.

It is for highway engineering carried out at the practice that OT will be best remembered. The development of the firm's involvement in this new field saw him begin his major work and start to stamp out his own mark in history.

In April 1960, O.T. and Sir Owen presented a paper to the Institution of Civil Engineers describing the designs and construction of the M1 for which they were both awarded the Institution's Telford Gold Medal, a rare father and son feat.

Later sections of the M1 between Crick and Doncaster, built from 1962 to 1967, bore far more of O.T.'s influence as Sir Owen stepped away from the practice. Softer structures with aluminium parapets were more critically accepted by architectural critics. O.T. was now clearly the highways arm of the firm, leaving the buildings and often, it has been said, the credit to Sir Owen.

As the firm's work on highways and motorways expanded, O.T. was able to lead the creation of a substantial part of the country's motorway network. This included the M4 Newport bypass with twin "Brynglas Tunnels" and massive viaduct crossings of the River Usk, and the A48(M) Port Talbot bypass.

In 1966, O.T. took over as managing partner and assumed responsibility for the day-to-day management of the firm. He was appointed a CBE in 1969, and retired in 1987 after 50 years with the firm. In the same year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

He continued to retain his interest in engineering. He was a regular correspondent with newspapers and in particular with the Institution of Civil Engineers' magazine New Civil Engineer. Right up to his death O.T. continued to work on bridge designs for competitions around the world, not always entering to compete, but just for the academic exercise. It alsogave him a great deal of pleasure to contribute to the book for children How roads are made, which appeared in 1989.

O.T. Williams was an immensely active, hard-working and caring man who loved to spend time with his family. He was a man of integrity who brought great distinction to his chosen profession.

Owen Tudor Williams, civil engineer: born London 4 October 1916; CBE 1969; married 1943 Rosemary Mander (four sons); died Little Gaddesden, Herts 14 July 1996.

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