8 September 1966: the Queen opens the Severn Bridge
Five years after construction began, the Queen declared the Severn Bridge connecting England and Wales open on this day in 1966.
On 8 September 1966, The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arrived at the newly completed Severn Bridge connecting England and Wales. "If any Welshman had the slightest dislike for the ceremony, he hid it well", wrote The Times. That might have had something to do with the more than 500 police officers scanning the crowd for troublemakers. "The Welsh dragon was absent, and not a boo could be heard above the cheers."
If there had been a boo, it might well have come from poor old Enoch Williams. Williams was the ferryman who had plied his trade across the water since the first day of the General Strike in 1926. Thanks to the Severn Bridge, he was now out of a job.
The idea for a bridge wasn't new. In 1824, Scottish engineer Thomas Telford had proposed building a bridge in the area, but lack of funds meant that it never got off the ground. It was only with increased road traffic in the years following the Second World War, and the building of the motorways, that the need for a bridge over the estuary became more pressing.
Once the Forth Road Bridge was out of the way, government funding was freed up and construction began in 1961.The Severn Bridge is actually four connecting bridges: a box girder bridge at Aust, Gloucestershire, then the Severn suspension bridge itself. Next comes another box girder bridge at Beachley, and a cable-stayed bridge over the River Wye. Five years and £8m later, the whole ensemble was finished five months ahead of schedule.
The Queen expressed her hope that the crowd all felt "very proud and happy on this memorable day", and the secretary of state for Wales, Cledwyn Hughes, declared the "beginning of a new and exciting chapter in the social and economic life of this part of Great Britain". The royal party then trundled over to the Welsh side for the unveiling of a commemorative stone to mark the bridge's first crossing – a ceremony that a spokesman for the royal household assured was "almost as important" as the first.
The toll was set at a half a crown, and all the money was collected on the English side, causing more than a few grumbles on the Welsh side. There were fears from the outset that the toll would never make back the public money spent on building the bridge. "It takes a large number of half-crowns to cover the costs", another Times article noted. "In the case of the Severn Bridge it is £14,500,000, including interest". Tolls were abolished in December 2018.
As it turned out, a lot of half-crowns were soon collected. Just three days after the opening, traffic queued for eight miles to the west and five to the east of the new bridge. Four thousand vehicles were making the crossing every hour. The one thing you didn't want to do, however, was break down half way across. Having your car towed to the other side could cost as much as £5. That's over £83 in today's money.