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A brief pause before the writing really begins

I’m using this blog to share my thoughts about issues related to the life and impact of Sir John Wolfe Barry, 19th Century civil engineer and builder of Tower Bridge.

I’ve been in a pause phase as I’m now committed to writing a book about John’s father and brothers and their relationships with him and each other. I’m planning the book project as I wind up full-time employment commuting into Central London which I have been doing for the last 17 out of 21 years (there was a four year hiatus).

The key goal is to write words!

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

This is sooner said than done. Words don’t come easy, to quote a song lyric. I’m setting up an environment where I can focus 100% on writing without distraction. My chosen location is the rear bedroom in our house which overlooks the garden. I will remove the temporary bed there and set up a desk in front of the window. It doesn’t get direct sunlight until the afternoon so I will start early and write until lunchtime.

I will somehow need to avoid referring too much to my many sources as this will hold up the flow. Blogging has probably helped with this. The key is to establish a good framework for the text and themes and then fill the space with words.

I know I can do it. I may review the product of my first draft but I must avoid perfecting things continuously as I go along – this just serves to slow down momentum and lead to self-doubt and questioning. Wish me luck!

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Welcome to Sir John Wolfe Barry’s site

He built Tower Bridge

This website tells the story of Sir John Wolfe Barry.

Who was he?

He was the civil engineer who built Tower Bridge. He doesn’t get as much credit for this as he perhaps deserves. So the purpose of the site is to tell his story to mark the centenary of his death on 22 January 2018.

The site is split into blog posts and content pages which connect with each other and external links.

If you want quick snapshots then read the blog posts – use the category cloud to help you find things you are interested in e.g. Tower Bridge.

If you want to read the story of JWB (as I call him) then use the top menu for sections of content which all link to each other in the same order.

Enjoy!

Back to school nerves

As I write this I am heading back home from school.

It is one I attended as a teenager and of which I have mixed memories, hence some nerves on my arrival earlier today.

When there I never appreciated the beautiful old building in which we had assemblies and were taught. Too busy surviving as a confused teenager. Now I returned as an alumni who is fascinated by the building’s architect Charles Barry junior.

My final year subjects were history, French and economics. The first two were strong personal preferences and because I wasn’t allowed to do maths with them (shocking but true), I opted for economics which my older brother had recommended to me.

I continually regret not having done maths after age 16 and this in part inspired me to work later in life in maths education policy. An achievement of which I am proud is that we managed to convince the English Government of the importance of as many teenagers as possible doing post16 maths.

I did meet the head teacher but we didn’t discuss education. As it turns out the school is celebrating 400 years since its foundation as a place for poor scholars to study. Part of the celebrations was a lecture a fortnight back by Caroline Shenton on Sir Charles Barry, who like his son had been surveyor to the vast Dulwich Estate. During today’s research I took a photograph of an original 1830 letter of reference from Edward Cust allowing Barry senior to gain his position. Cust had previously chaired the selection panel which had chosen Charles to design and build the seminal Travellers Club in London.

Such was the way of the world and it still continues to this day. Who you know is more important than what you know. I don’t agree with it but would be foolish to ignore the benefits.

Structuring a book on structures

I never realised it would be so hard to write a book!

In my case not only have I started to write my first one, but I’ve added to the challenge by deciding to self-publish it.

But it seems that there has been a break through after a period of editor’s block. In the post I described one or two issues going on which were holding me up – now I feel that progress has been made and I wanted to share this with you.

After a number of conversations with different prospective editors I chose one of them to do an editorial assessment for me. This was relatively simple and inexpensive and helped me focus my writing on key tasks. Then I asked for offers to undertake bigger editorial tasks. The problem was I didn’t really know how big these tasks were going to be. So this time round my conversations with prospects were more about eliciting advice on the editorial process for self-publishers. I am much clearer now.

Finally, I selected one candidate to take me on. This wasn’t easy as there were good offers coming in including from one individual who probably knew more about architectural history than me. However, I decided to go with a different choice because I liked the way they presented themselves and we spoke on the phone at their suggestion.

The other thing that helped me was finally getting in touch with the acknowledged expert on Sir Charles Barry. I had put this off for many years, partly through not being easily able to contact him electronically, my favoured medium. In the end I simply tracked down a phone number and called, not being sure of what reaction I might get. To my surprise we had a great conversation and informally agreed not to get in each others’ way. My focus will be on the Barry dynasty, his on the great architect. I have to admit some relief about this!

I now have a clear goal of writing a specific number of words on a contents list of headings for the book. Should be plain sailing then …

Iconic 19th Century structures: the Eiffel Tower

As I write this post I am in a Paris Hotel enjoying a few days in the French capital.

Of all the iconic 19th Century structures in the world, including Big Ben and Tower Bridge credited to the Barrys, for me the Eiffel Tower stands out the most. It is the symbol of Paris, arguably France, somewhat ironic given the temporary nature of the original iron tower built for the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris by Gustave Eiffel, as well as the hostile reception from many quarters.

Eiffel’s company had won a competition to build a 300m high metal structure on the site. This was achieved rapidly and systematically using standardised components creating a mathematically stable tower. The essential designs were made by engineers but an architect was needed to beautify the structure and add floors for visitors.

Despite a unique achievement the reaction of many was dismay at the perceived ugliness of the tower and a campaign to tear it down began. Fortunately this never succeeded and we still can admire the structure in its original completeness. In deed 7 million visitors come each year making it the most popular paying attraction in the world.

When John Wolfe Barry was completing Tower Bridge during the same period but over a longer time span, he also attracted criticism from his profession, this time for concealing the metal matrix under cladding.

Which shows that you can’t please everyone and might as well do what you think is right.

With a bit of (hidden) help from your dad

I was researching in London yesterday and came across an interesting story.

The archives of the Royal Opera House are accessed after a meandering walk through the labyrinth of corridors that make up the building. In them you can find original diaries by the 19th Century manager Frederick Gye. He was clearly a dynamic and somewhat flamboyant character who was determined to rebuild his theatre which had burnt down in March 1856. But not just as a simple like-for-like replacement, something much more grandiose that changed the nature of Covent Garden where it was located. This had once been a very fashionable area of 17th Century London but since became a major fruit and vegetable market for the capital, as well as acquiring a more salubrious reputation.

Reading through Gye’s diaries I stumbled across an entry for 30 December 1856 which tells us that he approached Sir Charles Barry to be the architect for the new development. He had previously raised this with Sir Charles in conversations about the use of fireproofing for building with wood, and the architect reiterated his unavailability but put forward his son Edward instead, who was only 26 years old at the time. The Barry name was clearly influential in gaining the necessary financing to support the development.

So from then on Edward Middleton Barry became the chief designer of the third theatre as it came to be known and the home of Italian Opera in England. By September 1857 Barry younger had costed the whole project at £70,000 (worth almost £8m in today’s rates) and was told by Gye to find reductions, though in the meantime he approached his main benefactor the Duke of Bedford for more funds!

Curiously, his father didn’t just drop out of the picture. It seems that Mr Gye regularly dropped in on Sir Charles for advice, some of which he ignored. How much young Edward knew about this is yet to be discovered!

Footnote: thanks are extended to Jane Fowler, Archivist at the Royal Opera House for allowing me access to the original Gye diaries.

Editor’s block

I’m getting my book on the 19th Century Barrys assessed by an independent editor. This is because I want to be sure that it is headed in the right direction.

To do this I’ve sent on my draft text so far plus a chapter summary. My chosen editor lives in the States and will skype with me once she has assessed things. I hope I can take her critique!

While awaiting this essential feedback I feel I’m in a bit of a limbo. I’d like to keep writing but see no point in this until I know better where to head. So I am continuing with research for the book and some local volunteering plus thinking of tasks that can usefully be done to our house. This latter means building up confidence in my DIY abilities! The wife and I will also take a break to Paris for a few days, our first mini-holiday together for quite a while other than weekend breaks in England.

The world moves on around us with both certainty and surprises. I’m less keen on the latter nowadays, perhaps out of sheer frustration that we never seem to learn from history, or worse, wilfully ignore its lessons.

I also miss many of my office colleagues, left behind when I committed to writing the book. The loneliness of the long-distance writer.

Purveyor of country house upgrades to the aristocracy

Sir Charles Barry established a reputation amongst the British aristocracy for upgrading their country houses in the 19th Century.

His route in was through his design of the Travellers Club in London (see my recent photo), a pivotal building in the history of British architecture. He successfully married his own design preferences with the combined tastes of the elite Club members including the Duke of Wellington no less. This produced a highly admired Italianate structure adapted from its Florentine and Roman influences to suit British culture and climate.

Dukes and Earls came flocking in his direction with commissions and this was further boosted by Barry’s successful bid to rebuild the Houses of Parliament after they were destroyed by fire in 1834. This became his major lifetime work, but he still managed to keep other clients satisfied with his redesign advice. Highclere Castle, Cliveden House and Dunrobin Castle all still stand today as examples of his influence.

This all explains why he was given the single honour of being buried in the aisle of Westminster Abbey at a funeral in 1860 attended by the good and the great.

His sons would never achieve their father’s status. However, I think that John Wolfe Barry deserves the most credit for maintaining the family hallmark of structural excellence, though having moved slightly out of Sir Charles’s shadow into civil engineering. There he established himself by completing Tower Bridge, less an architectural feat and more a triumph of structural and mechanical engineering.

On the trail of the Barrys

By Barrys I don’t mean Barry Manilow or Barry from Eastenders.

I do mean Sir Charles Barry and his sons Charles junior, Edward and John. They are the main characters in the joint biography I am writing of an atypical Victorian family.

Most of us associate the Victorian period with scenes from a Charles Dickens novel or with Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort Albert. For me it is inextricably linked to architecture (we live in a Victorian house even though it was built a few years after the Empress died) as well as the industrial and commercial expansion of the British Empire culminating in the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in the magnificent Crystal Palace.

That last structure brings together a few strands in the developing book. Sir Charles Barry sat on the planning committee for it together with Prince Albert and IK Brunel. His close collaborator on the New Palace of Westminster, Augustus Pugin, created an amazing display of medieval crafts which typified the Gothic Revival style he defended so vociferously against Greek classicists.

Once the Great Exhibition finished it was decided to move the whole structure to Sydenham Hill outside London, though now in a suburb in the capital aptly called Crystal Palace. To allow access to it a new high level railway station was built at the top of the hill to reduce the walk for visitors. There is some dispute whether Charles Barry junior or his brother Edward Middleton Barry was responsible for this structure since demolished, but certainly the subway from the station to the site of the palace is still accessible with its amazing vaulting and decoration.

Charles Barry junior did build the splendid new Dulwich College in the 1860s just down the hill from the Crystal Palace and shown in the above photo. I went to school there but never realised its architectural significance or link to the Barry family. Not even my best friend Barry knew this. If he actually existed that is ….