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.

Official opening of the Severn Bridge © Ron Moran/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Queen sets off across the bridge
(Image credit: © Ron Moran/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

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.

Chris Carter

Chris Carter spent three glorious years reading English literature on the beautiful Welsh coast at Aberystwyth University. Graduating in 2005, he left for the University of York to specialise in Renaissance literature for his MA, before returning to his native Twickenham, in southwest London. He joined a Richmond-based recruitment company, where he worked with several clients, including the Queen’s bank, Coutts, as well as the super luxury, Dorchester-owned Coworth Park country house hotel, near Ascot in Berkshire.

Then, in 2011, Chris joined MoneyWeek. Initially working as part of the website production team, Chris soon rose to the lofty heights of wealth editor, overseeing MoneyWeek’s Spending It lifestyle section. Chris travels the globe in pursuit of his work, soaking up the local culture and sampling the very finest in cuisine, hotels and resorts for the magazine’s discerning readership. He also enjoys writing his fortnightly page on collectables, delving into the fascinating world of auctions and art, classic cars, coins, watches, wine and whisky investing.

You can follow Chris on Instagram.