The Sussex Cyclist and his lasting legacy

Overlooking the Cuckmere Valley between Alfriston and Seaford is a viewing point provided by the Rees Jeffrey Fund.   Rees Jeffrey was a cyclist who did more then most people to ensure our roads are safe.

Viewpoint at High & Over

William Rees Jeffreys was born in Paddington, London in 1872 but lived in Sussex.  He was a keen cyclist and in 1900 was elected as a member of the council of the Cyclists Touring Club. (CTC) The following year he became the representative of the CTC on the Roads Improvement Council.  The CTC recommended their members certain routes and hotels and one of these was the Smugglers Inn at Alfriston which still has the club badge affixed to the outside.

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William was keen to cut down on the amount of dust on roads and campaigned for the surfaces of roads to be properly treated. In Seaford, the Council deployed mobile water sprinklers in the summer to spray the roads to keep the dust down.  In the winter the dust would turn to mud.

In 1902 William visited Switzerland and witnessed in an experiment to spread tar on the road between Geneva and Lausanne.  In 1904 he became secretary Motor Union and soon after the Secretary of the Road Board. In 1907 he established a competition to invent a tar-spreading machine for roads.   He also complained that year that petrol had risen from 7 pence to 1 shilling (5p) a gallon.

In 1912 he visited the U.S.A. But was unimpressed with their road network saying that “American roads are good in places but there is no connected system of highways and between towns, roads are unmade.”

The roads of Great Britain were gradually metalled.  This vastly improved travel but also improved health.  Of course another benefit was to early motorists as it allowed them to drive faster with less damage to their vehicles. Surprisingly (for a cyclist) William was against speed limits on roads.

During the census of 1911, William was a guest at a hotel in Hindhead, Surrey and his occupation is shown as the Secretary to the Road Board.   He was also the secretary of the R.A.C., Chairman of the Roads Improvement Association and Treasurer for the Institute of Automobile Engineers.    When the Road Board became the Ministry of Transport in 1919, William remained the ‘Secretary for Roads’. It was he who promoted the building a bridge across the River Seven and the UK Road Classification System.  He divided the UK into 9 zones.  Kent and Sussex are in Zone 2, so most of our local road numbers begin with the number 2.  (Thus we have the M23, A27, A259 etc)

It took a long time for roads to improve.  In 1928 The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, told Parliament that English roads were the best in the world. Jeffreys was furious and said that Churchill was spouting ‘political dope’  He said that in fact English roads were narrow, ill-designed and abounding with hidden corners and blind turns and were indeed the most congested and overcrowded in the world.  He said that £100 million should be immediately spent on building new roads.

Roads were still dangerous and in 1936 he again confronted the political establishment by complaining that “The Government has used the BBC night after night to convey that the appalling number for road accidents is due to careless and negligent drivers. This false suggestion is made by the Government to cover up its own shortcomings. The British motor-driver is the most cautious, considerate and law-abiding of any drivers in the world. The principle reason for the enormous number of accidents is our inadequate road system.”   In 1930 there were just over 2 million vehicles on the road but over 7,000 motor fatalities whereas in 2014 there were 34 million vehicles on the road but only 1,700 fatalities.

In 1937, former Prime Minister Lloyd George described William as “The Greatest Authority on roads in the United Kingdom and one of the greatest in the whole world” 

During the War William helped to raise money for the Haywards Heath and Area Spitfire Fund, some of the money was sent by his friends in the USA.

In 1944 he wrote a letter to the Times advocating the establishment of ‘Roadside Parks’  he said “Roadside Parks should be situated on the outskirts of towns and in the countryside at viewpoints and restful places.. They would be available for children, hikers, cyclists and motorists to rest, play and take picnic meals. They should be laid out and tended so they can be enjoyed by all who pass by.  He also thought that the parks would become obstacles to prevent ribbon development.  He offered ten sums of £100 for the establishment of ten parks and hoped that one would be in West and another in East Sussex.

In 1949 he published a book, ‘The King’s Highway’  This was the title of a Rees Jeffreys bookMotoring magazine that he contributed to forty years earlier. He was interested in all transport and in 1932 he was calling for the nationalisation of the railways (16 years before it was finally agreed)

William Rees Jeffreys died on 18th August 1954 at his home in Wivilsfield Hall, Wivilsfield Green and is buried in Wivilsfield Churchyard. Following his death a fund was established to promote and support education, research and road related projects.   He was also an art collector and after his death 127 of his paintings, (including works by Braque and Matisse which he purchased from the artists themselves), were actioned at Christies. Some were bought by the Tate Gallery and the money raised went towards his Road Fund Charity. 

The charity provided a number of memorial at viewpoints across the country but remembered their founders request for Sussex.  A viewpoint is provided at Duncton Down on the A285 at Petworth. It overlooks the playing fields of Seaford College.  In East Sussex a viewing platform was erected at High and Over giving stunning views over the Cuckmere Valley.    (By the way it was here that I proposed to my wife in 1984 – Thank you William!)  Sadly the area around the viewpoint has become overgrown and the fantastic vista down the Cuckmere Valley to Exceat and the famous meanders of Cuckmere Haven can no longer be seen.

The Viewpoint at High and Over

Are you aware of any other viewpoints in Sussex provided by the Rees Jeffrey Fund?


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