People : The life and times of Ernest Marples
Ian Nicholls tells the story of the man who opened our motorways and had a soft spot for Minis with a twist.
Apart from Prime Ministers, most politicians are destined to oblivion in our collective memory, here today and gone tomorrow. One name that still resonates today, over half a century since he left office, is that of Ernest Marples, Minister of Transport from 1959 to 1964.
Marples is famous, or infamous, for three reasons. He was the Minister who oversaw Britain’s entry into the motorway age, sponsored Dr. Richard Beeching’s controversial pruning of Britain’s railway network and was the owner of a Mini Cooper S hatchback especially built for him by BMC at Longbridge.
By today’s standards, Marples was a wholly inappropriate choice as Minister of Transport, with his interests in road construction convincing his critics that a modern electrified rail network had little chance of being realised. But this background in construction also meant that he was the best choice in Westminster to push forward the modernisation of Britain’s road network, and the political consensus of the time was that this was the way forward.
Researching the life of this controversial figure is not easy. Most of the information available on the information super highway about the man who built many a concrete highway is openly hostile. There are those who object on principle to his brand of politics, and see Marples as an enemy of the people for championing road use over public transport.
Some commentators see Marples as part of a conspiracy with construction interests, the road lobby and the oil industry all combining to boost road use. I have tried to analyse all the information in order to present a fair picture of the man and set it in the context of the times.
From a humble background
Ernest Marples was born in December 1907 to an engineering charge-hand and Labour Party activist father and a mother who had worked in a hat factory. Marples seemed to be destined for higher things as he won a scholarship to Grammar school. By his teenage years he had followed his father into the labour movement, and was earning money on the side by selling sweets and cigarettes to Manchester football crowds. After leaving school, Marples worked as a miner, a postman, a chef and an accountant.
Thy were all occupations which suggested someone trying to better themselves. After qualifying as a Chartered Accountant, Marples moved to London where he made his fortune by buying Victorian houses, converting them into apartments, and letting them. With war looming, in July 1939, he joined the London Scottish Regiment as a Private, transferring to the Royal Artillery in 1941 as a Second Lieutenant; in the same year, he was promoted to the rank of Captain.
Becoming an MP
He was medically discharged in 1944. By now he had defected to the Conservative Party and stood for the Wallasey seat in the July 1945 General Election. Ernest Marples won the seat, previously held by an Independent, despite the Tory meltdown occurring elsewhere, which included his future benefactor, Harold Macmillan, losing his Stockton-on-Tees seat.
Clement Atlee’s Labour Party swept into power with a landslide victory, a mandate to create a land fit for heroes, a new Jerusalem. Paradoxically, Ernest Marples would later contribute to this vision of a modern, vibrant Britain. To understand Marples’ later ministerial actions, we must understand the mindset of 1945, not from today’s situation of congestion and pollution.
Germany’s autobahn network in 1934 – the UK wanted to emulate this in the 1940s
The automobile was seen as the future of personal mobility and the British road lobby was active in persuading the new Government of the need of a fast road network. In 1945, a delegation from the British Road Federation and the Society of Motor Manufacturers visited Germany to inspect the autobahn system. They predictably pressed the new British Government to invest in a motorway system and, in May 1946, the Minister of War Transport, Alfred Barnes, announced a motorway programme extending to some 800 miles.
• London to Cardiff
• London to Carlisle via Birmingham
• Bristol to Leeds
• Warrington to Hull
What did for these plans was Britain’s virtual bankruptcy and its entry into the motorway age was put on hold.
What set Ernest Marples apart from his fellow MPs was the fact that he was a self-made man from a humble background – something common in politics today, but rare in 1945. His knowledge of the construction industry soon impressed Harold Macmillan, who had returned to Parliament as the member for Bromley in a by-election later in 1945.
Marples’ business interests
By the late-1940s Ernest Marples was a Director of a company called Kirk & Kirk, which was a contractor in the construction of Brunswick Wharf Power Station. Marples met Civil Engineer Reginald Ridgway, who was working as a contractor for Kirk & Kirk. In 1948, the two men founded Marples Ridgway and Partners, a civil engineering company that started with one five-ton ex-army truck and one crane.
The new partnership took over Kirk & Kirk’s contract at Brunswick Wharf and, in 1950, Marples severed his links with Kirk & Kirk. Marples Ridgway’s subsequent contracts included building power stations in England, a dam in Scotland, roads in Ethiopia and England and a port in Jamaica. The Bath and Portland Group took over Marples Ridgway in 1964.
This knowledge of the construction industry impressed the Grandees of the Conservative Party and, when it returned to government in 1951, Ernest Marples became a junior minister. If the 1945-51 Labour Government had been all about the creation of the welfare state and nationalisation, the succeeding Conservative Government was all about the construction of a land fit for heroes.
Britain needed new housing, and Marples was involved in its Brutalist re-shaping
New housing was urgently needed to replace that destroyed by the Luftwaffe and replace temporary pre-fabricated dwellings. Britain was to be reconstructed in concrete. From 1951 to 1954, Marples served as a Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, where he was in no small measure responsible for reaching his party’s target of building 300,000 houses a year. The Minister of Housing, Harold Macmillan, later attributed his ascent to the premiership as being greatly facilitated by Ernest Marples.
Marples makes an impression
He was then transferred to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, but went to the back benches in 1955 when Sir Anthony Eden became Prime Minister. The political fallout from the Suez Crisis resulted in Harold Macmillan becoming Prime Minister in January 1957. Ernest Marples was promoted to the post of Postmaster General.
In this role he oversaw the introduction of subscriber trunk dialling, the Atlantic cable and Premium Bonds. It was in these posts that Marples revealed a penchant for self-publicity, but he was also seen by his colleagues as a man of action. On 14 October 1959, Ernest Marples was appointed as Minister of Transport, the role for which he was to become notorious.
It is a sign of Marples perceived success in the role that he served a full five-year parliamentary term as Minister of Transport, under both Harold Macmillan and his successor, Alec Douglas-Home, only leaving the post following the Conservatives’ election defeat in October 1964. For at least two of his Labour successors the role proved to be a poisoned chalice, leading to an abrupt termination of their political careers.
Marples the Transport Minister
How the M1 looked like in 1959
As Minister of Transport, Marples oversaw the introduction of parking meters and the provisional driving licence in 1958 and two Transport Acts. The Road Traffic Act of 1960 introduced the MoT test, roadside single yellow lines and double yellow lines, traffic wardens, and the 250cc engine limit for learner motorcyclists. Marples also commissioned the Buchanan Report on Traffic in Towns, which resulted in pedestrianised shopping centres and concrete inner ring roads.
Shortly after taking office at Transport, Marples opened the first long stretch of motorway in the UK – the M1 from near Watford to near Rugby in November 1959. By 1964, the M6 linked the West Midlands and the North West, and the M4 and M5 had started their spidery progress in the Thames Valley and the West. The Minister had transferred his shares in Marples Ridgeway to his second wife Ruth, who he had married in 1956, but it is highly likely that he benefited from the contracts handed out by his own Ministry.
The British Railways controversy
It was over his handling of British Railways that Ernest Marples has received the most hostile coverage, that he was in collusion with the various conspiratorial interests mentioned earlier, to force the public onto the roads. There had been 2 million cars on Britain’s roads in 1939, a 100 per cent increase over the previous decade. In 1955, despite a decade of peace, there were still only 3,000,000 cars in Britain. However, by 1959, this had increased further to 5,000,000.
As Transport Minister, Ernest Marples had some difficult choices to make. For all the façade and pretence of remaining a world power, Britain was burning its way through its finances, and Marples was limited in his resources. And Britain was at a crossroads over future transport policy. Although Britons had been motoring since the turn of the century, it was not until the 1950s that the real explosion in car ownership began. The greater availability of credit enabled many ordinary people to dip their toes into the world of car ownership.
Although nobody realised it at the time, Britain was undergoing a transport revolution that would transform the nation from public transport users to motorists, all by the time of the October 1973 energy crisis. This transformation of our lifestyle was every bit as great as the effect of the mobile ‘phone on personal communication and the way the internet has changed our shopping habits.
In criticising Ernest Marples, one has to explore the alternative strategies to those he utilised, and whether they were ever viable in the context of the time.
Marples had inherited the British Transport Commission’s (BTC) £1.66 billion railway modernisation plan. This was to electrify 29 per cent of the rail network by 1980, yet British Railways had lost a staggering £90 million in 1958. The question for Marples was whether the rail network had a realistic future in the face of competition from the road?
Would modernising the railways boost traffic? Was a railway network really necessary in the post-war world when newer technology such as the internal combustion engine offered a viable alternative? And if the Government did press ahead with the BTC’s plan, how would that go down with voters, who by and large, aspired towards car ownership? What plans for major trunk roads would have to be mothballed to pay for it?
What about the motorway network?
There was an alternative, to follow the Continental model and allow private companies to build the fast road network and charge a toll to the motorist to use it. This could have resulted in a rapid expansion of the motorway network at little cost to the taxpayer, but was it politically acceptable? The political consensus appears to have been a resounding ‘no’, and Britain’s fast road network became like the National Health Service, free at the point of use.
What the pro-rail lobby seem to forget is that the road lobby comprised of organisations that employed hundreds of thousands of people who were involved in exporting at a time when Britain desperately needing foreign earnings. In 1960, Britain exported £617 million in motor industry products, compared with £272 million in 1950.
Britain as a whole had a vested interest in encouraging the growth and expansion of the motor industry and, as the manufacturers constantly pointed out, they needed a vibrant home market from which to seek out export markets. And there were few politicians who disagreed with that. Ernest Marples’ tenure as Minister of Transport was a time when the British car transformed from functional but boring mechanical stodge to genuinely world-class and desirable models.
This was the era when one could drive a Jaguar E-type on the M1 at a three figure speeds and not feel guilty about it. Cars like the Mini and BMC 1100 seemed to make using the train redundant, offering convenience, privacy and personal space.
The British motor industry gets a boost
Dr. Richard Beeching worked with Ernest Marples in government
The value the Government placed on the British motor industry was highlighted by the tax breaks given to firms who bought cars for their employees as part of their pay package. Ford of Great Britain designed the Cortina specifically to meet this market, and it rapidly became a bestseller.
In 1960, the Government created a committee to investigate the future of the rail network. Fronted by Sir Ivan Stedeford, the Managing Director of Tube Investments, it also included Frank Kearton of Courtaulds, Henry Benson of Cooper Brothers, and Dr. Richard Beeching of ICI. The report was finished by October 1960 but never published due to divisions with the committee.
Ernest Marples, having decided that the future was road, then cut back on the railway modernisation programme and, in December 1960, he announced that the British Transport Commission was to be abolished and its constituent parts replaced by separate boards and thus the British Railways Board came in to being.
Marples and Beeching make their impact
Further to this, in March 1961 Dr. Richard Beeching became the new Chairman of the British Railways Board. This caused controversy at the time as Dr. Beeching was to receive twice the salary of the outgoing BTC Chairman, General Sir Brian Robertson. Beeching brought in a more business-like mentality to the running of the railways, and more accurate accounting methods were introduced.
This culminated in his ‘Reshaping of British Railways’ report of March 1963, which advocated wholesale rail closures. Perhaps the main issue over the Beeching cuts, was whether the railways were a national asset or a drain on the countries assets. Perhaps some rail closures were needed, but some observers estimate that 1200 miles of track was unnecessarily pruned from the national network. Did the rail closure programme force more people onto the roads, or was the process of migration happening anyway?
By 1963, the tide was turning against the Conservative Government after well over a decade in power. It was seen as tired, remote and detached from ordinary people. The Government was ruthlessly mocked by a new breed of young satirists, with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan coming in for particular attention.
Macmillan was sent up as an out of touch Edwardian, he was a Great War veteran, when the USA had a much younger President that had served in the US Navy in the Pacific war, who was perceived to be dynamic. A series of scandals had dogged the Government, the Profumo Affair was the most famous, along with various espionage fiascos, when it seemed that most of the security services were working for Moscow. It was also said that, at this time, Ernest Marples was procuring the services of prostitutes, though the story never reached the press.
Marples must go
In the autumn of 1963 a viral campaign began. Car stickers began appearing with the slogan, ‘Marples Must Go’, and the slogan was daubed on an overbridge on the M1 at Luton. Ernest Marples’ sudden unpopularity had nothing to do with his sponsorship of Dr. Beeching’s railway cuts. It was not orchestrated by people about to find their communities isolated from the national rail network, but by motorists who objected to the introduction of Traffic Wardens, drink-driving clampdowns and yellow lines. In the light of this, perhaps introducing motorway tolls was never going to be a realistic option. Marples was finding, like so many Ministers in the decades to come, that upsetting motorists was not a wise policy.
In the autumn of 1963 Harold Macmillan resigned as Prime Minister to be replaced by Alec Douglas-Home, although Marples remained in situ. At the same time the Labour Party at last got its act together and elected Harold Wilson as its new leader. 1964 was to be an election year.
In January 1964, Ernest Marples visited the Racing Car Show at Olympia.
Meeting John Cooper
While there he met with John Cooper. Cooper persuaded Marples to buy a Mini Cooper 1071S. The story goes that Marples would only agree to buy a Mini if it had a hatchback in order to accommodate his golf clubs and the wine he wanted to bring back from France. Some photographs show Marples with an Austin A40, an early hatchback pioneer.
John Cooper organised a meeting between Marples, George Harriman, the Chairman of BMC and Alec Issigonis, the firm’s Technical Director. Issigonis was concerned about torsional rigidity on a Mini hatchback conversion. It was decided that the conversion would be designed by John Sheppard and constructed by Dick Gallimore’s experimental workshop at Longbridge.
John Sheppard later said: ‘We put in a channel all round the hatch aperture. Instead of having one aperture for the rear window and one for the boot, we ran them into one and turned it into a boxed channel. I would say it was probably even stronger than an ordinary Mini, because of this complete ring structure it wasn’t a difficult exercise at all.’
The famous hatchback Mini
According to Doug Adams of the Experimental Workshop, two Minis were subject to a hatchback conversion. The one destined for Ernest Marples had a steel tailgate, the other had a glass fibre example. The 1071S destined for Ernest Marples was manufactured in January 1964. It was registered in March 1964 as 963 LOP to the Austin Motor Company Ltd.
In April 1964 it was sent to the Experimental Workshop at Longbridge to be modified. Ownership was then transferred to BMC Ltd. Quite when Ernest Marples took possession of the car is not known, as he did not officially take ownership of the car until August 1968, when the Mini had evolved into the MkII version and the Cooper 1275S had long supplanted the 1071S.
By this time Marples’ own front-rank political career was over and BMC was now part of the British Leyland Motor Corporation. The pictures of Marples and 963 LOP are undated. Perhaps it was deemed inappropriate for a Minister of Transport to have a car, one especially tailored for his needs, with all the controversy about rail closures. Later Transport Minister Fred Mulley officially did not have a car, though his wife drove an Austin Maxi. But with all the rumours of Marples’ shady business dealings, perhaps there was more than meets the eye to his use of a car supplied by Britain’s biggest motor manufacturer?
Marples leaves the Ministry of Transport
The Conservatives served a full five-year term before succumbing to what many people thought was an inevitable defeat in October 1964 by a reinvigorated Labour Party, which promised a planned economy harnessing the best that new technology could offer. Well, it looked good on paper. Except Labour only won a majority of four seats, but it was enough, and Ernest Marples at last left the Ministry of Transport to be replaced by Tom Fraser.
People who had voted Labour in the hope of stopping the railway closure programme were soon disappointed. The country was broke again and officials in the Ministry of Transport managed to convince the new Government to carry on with business as usual. The rail closure programme continued, with some of the most infamous closure decisions being authorised by Labour ministers.
Harold Wilson seemed less than satisfied with his Ministers of Transport – there were four different occupants of the post in six years, in comparison with Ernest Marples’ five-year tenure. The hapless Tom Fraser lasted from October 1964 to December 1965. It was he who introduced the 70mph speed limit in November 1965 in response to rising road fatalities.
Quitting politics for good
By the end of the year Fraser was on the backbenches and in 1967 he quit politics altogether to become Chairman of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. He was replaced by Barbara Castle, who didn’t have a driving licence, and she was followed by Richard Marsh, who was once seen as a potential leader of the Labour Party. Marsh admitted to driving a Ford Cortina. However, Marsh blotted his copybook with Harold Wilson, by helping defeat ‘In Place of Strife’, Barbara Castle’s proposed reform of the Trade Unions, and Marsh was fired from the Cabinet in October 1969 to be replaced by Fred Mulley.
With his front-rank political career effectively over, Richard Marsh, the Minister who had approved many rail closures, left Parliament in 1971 to become Chairman of British Rail. The Minister who had opposed Trade Union reform also became a supporter of Margaret Thatcher, although he sat on the cross benches when he received his peerage.
In the light of later events, I think we can safely dismiss any idea of a conspiracy between Ernest Marples, the road lobby and the oil and construction industries. For if such a conspiracy existed, it also involved Tom Fraser, Barbara Castle and Richard Marsh, as they authorised more rail closures than Marples did.
Also this conspiracy theory argues that by closing rail lines, Marples and Beeching were bullying and bludgeoning a gullible population onto the roads, when the evidence was that they were doing so of their own free will. The car was more flexible for personal use. One could use it to commute to work and at weekends go shopping and visit friends and relatives.
Ernest Marples’ detractors are helped in their case by the virtual collapse of British car production between 1972 and 1980, when it was exposed to Common Market imports. Central Government had pinned its hopes on the British motor industry helping to pay for a better tomorrow and it backfired.
In 1979, it was calculated that foreign imports would have the entire UK car market by 1987. As well as indirect subsidies, the taxpayer was now directly subsidising British Leyland. When Ernest Marples left his post in 1964, Britain produced 1,868,000 cars, it was little better in the record year of 1972, at 1,921,000 cars.
It appeared Britain had backed the wrong horse, the car, and run down its railways for no tangible economic benefit. But UK motor industry output has recovered somewhat in the last three decades, even if this is little publicised and most of it is foreign owned. The bad news that was British Leyland, Chrysler UK and the loss of car making at Luton, Dagenham, Ryton and Longbridge has tended to overshadow the success stories in the British motor industry.
Were his business practices dubious?
Fuel queues were the order of the day in 1973…
Another weapon used to beat Marples was his dubious business practices, which caught up with him in his later years. It does not take much of a leap of imagination to visualise him conspiring to destroy Britain’s railway network as a consequence.
The problem with conspiracy theories is that people believe what they want to believe, make the facts fit their argument and, in this case, the most critical are those who detest Marples brand of politics and/or are engaged in the age-old British love affair with trains. Most of these people are probably not car enthusiasts.
For the Tories, defeat in 1964 resulted in a change of leadership. Alec Douglas-Home was succeeded by Edward Heath, who had no place for Ernest Marples in his front bench team. Marples was consigned to the back benches. As related earlier, he officially became owner of 963 LOP, the hatchback Mini, in August 1968.
In June 1970 the Conservatives, led by Edward Heath, returned to power, but there was still no place in government for Ernest Marples.
It was the energy crisis of October 1973 that first threw doubt onto the wisdom of closing so much of Britain’s rail network. The western world went into panic mode as alternative sources of energy were investigated. However, after the newspaper headlines predicting imminent oil shortages and an economic crisis faded into memory, a reality check came into play.
There had been a previous energy crisis in November 1956 after the Suez debacle, and there would be further steep hikes in the price of oil in the years to come. The reality that the west had to pay what the OPEC nations demanded was compounded by the fact that, for all its technological brilliance, the western world has still not come up with a truly viable, flexible alternative to the internal combustion engine.
Edward Heath called an early election for 28 February 1974 amid the gloom of the Three-Day Week and his battles with the Trade Union movement. Ernest Marples took the opportunity to stand down from Parliament and retired from politics. In May 1974, he was made a life peer as Baron Marples of Wallasey in the County of Merseyside.
In 1974, Marples part-exchanged his hatchback Mini Cooper S with a Renault dealer in Maidenhead. It was one of 20 cars shipped to Peter Neill Ltd at Clevedon. Around this time it lost its 963 LOP registration and became KMG 840B.
Marples’ world begins to collapse
It was also in 1974 that Ernest Marples world began to collapse around him. He lost 130 cases of wine to a fire in a store he owned under a railway line in Brixton, and he had been convicted of drinking and driving for which he received a one-year ban and a £45 fine. The irony being he was the Minister of Transport who had introduced the drink drive laws, although he was not the first nor the last politician to be caught inebriated at the wheel.
He also banked everything on the Conservatives winning the 1974 General Election. He planned to avoid paying tax on his properties by involving a Liechtenstein-based company with which he had been involved for more than ten years. He was to sell his Harwood Court block of flats, Upper Richmond Road, Putney, London, for £500,000 to Vin International which would refurbish and sell them for between £2.25 million and £2.5 million. Marples would only be liable for Capital Gains Tax at 30 per cent on the transfer to Vin which, as an offshore company, would only be liable for stamp duty at 2 per cent.
Following the Conservatives’ defeat at the polls, the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror newspaper published details of Marples’ tax avoidance plans. The Treasury responded by freezing Marples’ assets in Britain.
In addition to this, tenants of his block of flats in Harwood Court, London, were demanding that he repair serious structural faults and had threatened legal action. He was being sued for £145,000 by the Bankers Trust merchant bank in relation to an agreement made with the French company Ernest Marples et Cie.
He was also being sued by John Holmes, the Chartered Surveyor and Director of Marples’ property company Ecclestone Enterprises, for wrongful dismissal and who was claiming £70,000 in damages. The Inland Revenue was demanding that he pay back nearly 30 years’ back taxes on his residence in Eccleston Street, Belgravia, London, as well as Capital Gains Tax on his properties in Kensington.
Fleeing to Monte Carlo
Early in 1975, Marples suddenly fled to Monte Carlo. He left just before the end of the tax year, fearing that he would otherwise be liable for a substantial tax bill. Among the journalists who investigated his unexpected flight was Daily Mirror Editor Richard Stott, who wrote: ‘In the early 1970s… he tried to fight off a revaluation of his assets which would undoubtedly cost him dear…
‘So Marples decided he had to go and hatched a plot to remove £2 million from Britain through his Liechtenstein company… there was nothing for it but to cut and run, which Marples did just before the tax year of 1975. He left by the night ferry with his belongings crammed into tea chests, leaving the floors of his home in Belgravia littered with discarded clothes and possessions…
‘He claimed he had been asked to pay nearly 30 years’ overdue tax … The Treasury froze his assets in Britain for the next ten years. By then most of them were safely in Monaco and Liechtenstein.’
In November 1977, Marples paid £7600 to the British Government in settlement of his breach of exchange control regulations, following which he made a return to London.
Marples’ final years were spent on his 45-acre vineyard estate in Fleurie, France. He died in a Monte Carlo hospital on 6 July 1978. In his will, he left property valued at £388,166, which even in 1978 did not seem a great deal, unless he had hidden assets. He is buried in a family plot in Southern Cemetery, Manchester. His widow Ruth, Lady Marples lived until 2014.
The real vilification of Ernest Marples did not really begin until the upsurge of rail use in the 21st century, when serious questions about the loss of rail capacity in the 1960s began to be asked by people who were not rail enthusiasts. But Marples was just one cog in a machine that saw road travel as the future.
Ernest Marples may have left us in July 1978, but his hatchback Mini Cooper survived him. Alan Meaker learned of the car’s existence in 1979. Interviewed by Graham Robson in the January 2000 edition of MINI Magazine, he said: ‘A friend told me about this car in 1979. I went to see it and it was in a hell of a state. The engine was out and it was off the road because the gearbox had broken. The roof of the garage had collapsed around it, but the owner wouldn’t sell it. It was six years before he finally agreed to let it go – and nothing had been done to it in all that time.’
Alan Meaker eventually bought KMG 840B in 1985 and began the process of restoration. However, progress was slow, so in 1991 he enlisted the help of Dave Gilbert, who owned GRX 310D, an ex-works rally Mini Cooper 1275S. Together they brought the car back to life and restoration was completed in 1994.
By 2004, the car was up for sale. I first saw the ‘Marples Mini’ at the Mini 45 celebrations at Silverstone in 2004. It attracted a great deal of attention, though most onlookers were probably unaware of what they were looking at and the significance of the car. Indeed, most people probably had no idea who Ernest Marples was.
The car was still up for sale in 2007 when I last saw it. So what happened to the ‘Marples Mini’? Is it still in Alan Meaker’s ownership, stored away somewhere, or is it in some private collection, perhaps overseas? Does anyone out there know anything?