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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas


Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas NOVEMBER. 13, 2020

[100-365] 13th. November 2020- We went on a long walk today which was quite arduous as it usually involves some quite steep lanes around here. There are a lot of back lanes with varying degrees of surface on them from some to none. Many are not suitable for anything other than dirt bikes or those really sturdy four wheel buggies which some farmers use around here to get around. If you do have a vehicle that can cope they are probably great fun and also great for short cuts as some of the main routes are quite narrow for ordinary two way traffic and quite often a long way around.

Having negotiated this short stretch up top which was probably the muddiest bit I spotted this sign and although I know the term it struck me as an odd term for a road or lane. Either metalled or unmetalled.

So why is a road "metalled " in the first place? Metalled roads are so called, from the Latin metallum, meaning 'quarry'. The earliest proper roads in Britain would have been just that, quarried pieces of stone laid on the surface, probably built by the Romans. So nothing to do with metal at all.

Today though a metalled road is more accurately a Tarmac surface which is stone chippings held together with bitumen. So an unmetalled road is not Tarmac and could be anything, expect the worst. In this case, ironically, the lane we walked along had several areas where big chunks of stone had recently been laid down into the worst ruts. I assume the farmer has done this to aid the passage of his tractors, so in fact this unmetalled road had been metalled in the original Roman sense albeit in a homestyle fashion. Probably more like a road an ancient Roman would have been familiar with.

Why Tarmac? And is that a name that is only used in Britain? The original Tarmacadam was the invention of Mr. McAdam of Scotland.

Actually Tarmac (short for tarmacadam) is a road surface material patented in 1902 in the UK. It is a road surfacing material made by combining macadam surfaces, tar, and sand, patented by Welsh inventor Edgar Purnell Hooley. It is an improvement on the surface developed in the 1820's by John Loudon McAdam.

I had never heard of Edgar Purnell Hooley and I am Welsh so I thought he needed a bit of a shout out here, seeing as almost everyone in the world has driven or been driven over his invention. It is an interesting story, how he came up with the idea.

He was appointed County Surveyor to Nottinghamshire County Council in 1889. In his capacity as the County Surveyor, Hooley was passing a tarworks in 1901 when he noticed that a barrel of tar had been spilled on the roadway and that, in an attempt to reduce the mess, someone had dumped gravel on top of it. The area was remarkably dust-free compared to the surrounding road, and it inspired Hooley to develop tarmac in Britain. Hooley applied for a patent for tarmac in 1902 (GB 7796), which was granted in 1903.

He called his company, which he registered in 1903, Tar Macadam (Purnell Hooley's Patent) Syndicate Limited, but unfortunately he had trouble selling his product as he was not an experienced businessman.

I think the real problem was answering the phone with that name, "Hello? Tar Macadam (Purnell Hooley's Patent) Syndicate Limited, Edgar Purnell Hooley speaking, how may I help you?" By the time he finished that there was never anyone on the line.

Hooley's company was bought out by the Wolverhampton MP, Sir Alfred Hickman, who was also the owner of a steelworks which produced large quantities of waste slag. The Tarmac company was relaunched by Hickman in 1905.

This latter piece of information answered a question I always had when I was living in Wolverhampton in the eighties and passed the large Tarmac building every day, why were they based in obscure Wolverhampton? Well now I know. Years ago I walked past the Tarmac building every day and today I walked along a road with no Tarmac.

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