Commemorating 22 January 1918 #sirjohnwolfebarry

Monday 22 January 2018 marks exactly 100 years since the death of Sir John Wolfe Barry, the man who built Tower Bridge, London. He died peacefully at his home in Chelsea at the venerable age of 81.

His lifetime is commemorated on this website, the culmination of a project that started many years ago. It is also commemorated on a window in Westminster Abbey, below which lies the tomb of his famous father the architect of the Houses of Parliament.

At the time of his death Sir John had achieved many things in addition to building Tower Bridge between 1886 and 1894. He had been President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the 1890s, a famous organisation celebrating its bicentenary this year. He was credited with founding the Engineering Standards Committee at the turn of the 20th Century, which eventually became the British Standards Institution, home of the Kitemark. He was pivotal in helping to establish the National Physical Laboratory at around the same time.

Less well-known about him was the fact that he chaired the Board of the telegraph companies which were eventually to become Cable & Wireless. His close business partner for many decades was Henry Brunel, younger son of Isambard K Brunel. Sir John took over the lease of the Brunels’ house in Westminster, London and made it his own family home before he moved on to Chelsea.

Finally, Sir John’s civil engineering consultancy eventually became part of the same company which helped build the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at the time of writing the world’s tallest building.



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.


Standards are about people communicating with each other properly

John Wolfe Barry helped establish the British Standards Institution in the early 20th Century to produce material and production standards, some of which still apply to this day. Prior to that he advised on setting up a National Physical Laboratory which would be responsible for physical standards. Finally, as President of the Institution of Civil Engineers and a mentor to his apprentices and staff, he promoted professional standards in his discipline.

Standards are important in life as they set the level of expectations for a society. They inevitably have to be based on consensus in order to work – imposed standards can be set and followed by robots if required, but as we know too well, humans are different. They bring with them the unexpected in the form of new ideas and approaches to problems. This is also an essential part of society. Without them it will stagnate.

What binds this all together?

People are developed by other people and themselves. They are motivated by many different things, including food and material possessions, but feeling good about themselves also rates highly. Professions can provide this to them through opportunities to help others in their sector and their social communities. Civil engineering does this well with practical examples of joining together villages in previously inaccessible parts of the world, or allowing waste products to be disposed of safely and without harm to future generations. But humans can also mess things up as we know too well from past wars and conflicts, or environmental disasters. This is because we may not listen to different views about standards even though they have merit.

Standards are about people communicating with each other properly.

Why study great engineers of the past?

I’m reading a biography of the 19th Century Scottish engineer William Fairbairn. It has been very well researched with hundreds of references to primary and secondary materials. Personally, I find it a fascinating read, but I could imagine it doesn’t appeal to many. Too technical and detailed they might say.

That’s where the challenge comes along to those who would like to spread the lessons from historical biography. These are case studies of significant individuals who have clearly made a difference to an area, a sector, a technology, a community, a nation, a world etc.

As Roma Agrawal has shown with her book BUILT, people are interested in stories about other people. This allows us to entice them in the direction of more scientific and technical issues which have traditionally scared them away.

Even though William Fairbairn didn’t have a proper education, he learned by doing and by reading voraciously in his little spare time. He was driven by a bigger purpose than making money for himself and his family. He wanted to change society for the better. This is surely a reason for knowing a little more about him and his personal and physical achievements.

Engineering versus Architecture concluded

This is my final post on the topic of engineering versus architecture on this website. Previous ones are here and here, respectively. It’s a theme I’m very interested in so will probably explore elsewhere.

I’ve just finished Andrew Saint’s book ‘Architect and Engineer: a study in sibling rivalry’. I won’t go into detail as it is well reviewed elsewhere on WordPress. Suffice to say that is a comprehensive academic analysis of the intertwined history of the two professions.

It refers to Sir Charles Barry’s major project on the New Palace of Westminster as a pivotal moment in the 19th Century. This is because it brought together key individuals (including the highly talented Augustus Pugin) with new materials to create a unique building, at a time when the traditional roles of architects and engineers were being tested by rapid technological change initiated by the First Industrial Revolution in Britain. Iron making had expanded from a village craft to a large scale manufacturing industry. The new textile mills which had proven to be the drivers of industrial growth were being built with iron to protect them from collapse during a fire, the scourge of timber-framed construction. This transferred across to other buildings and Charles Barry was an early adopter amongst British architects.

The Houses of Parliament still contain a large amount of iron behind the traditional wood and stone interiors and exteriors. Most of this is located in the floors and roof spaces, but a significant amount was to be found in the Victoria Tower until it was refurbished in the 1950s and 1960s. Given the sheer size and height of the tower, let alone its significance to the reigning monarch, Charles Barry was clearly keen to ensure that it stayed upright! For all these reasons he sought regular advice from a contracted engineer during construction.

It would seem that ground-breaking projects such as the New Palace of Westminster have forced architects and engineers to work closely together. As mentioned elsewhere on this website, Charles Barry’s sons Edward and Charles, both architects, worked closely with their brother John Wolfe, a consulting civil engineer. Their shared admiration for their father no doubt helped to minimise any sibling rivalries (literally).

Nowadays architects still appear to get most of the credit for the inspiring design side of novel structures. This epitomises the ongoing cultural divide between desk-bound ‘creatives’ and those who get their hands dirty actually building things.

Would Pugin were still here with us to give his views!

The BUILT environment

I often use the term ‘built environment’ to encompass a knowledge and skills sector that covers civil and structural engineering, architecture, construction, building services, surveying and other related disciplines.

This is an important sector for the world economy because without it we wouldn’t have much of the infrastructure we rely on in a civilised culture. It may also help us build the platform for expansion of humanity off the planet, an increasingly important issue given the ongoing risks to us of global warming, population increase and religious/cultural intolerance. These all mirror previous reasons for exodus if we look back at mass migrations of the past.

But ‘BUILT’ is also the title of Roma Agrawal’s first book which is reaching out to broad audiences with stories about building structures. For example, she describes the biological origins of bridge-building by looking at the amazing Darwin’s bark spider which can shoot 25 meter silk lines across rivers. Roma posits that perhaps one day humans will be able to do the same on a much larger scale with innovative new materials.

So the BUILT environment is a play on words.

It tries to capture the fact that we need to create a wide community of interest in the value of designing and making structures, particularly in those largely Western countries where this basic skill set has been superseded by the ability to argue a highly technical legal case before a judge, or undertake intricate surgery to keep bodies functioning longer than they might naturally be designed to do.

This is not to undermine those professions, but perhaps to re-balance things back to where they used to be in ages gone by. Hence the Year of Engineering in the UK this year and the associated longer term ‘This is Engineering’ campaign. Not to forget the Institution of Civil Engineering’s 200th Anniversary in 2018 which includes celebrating 200 great global civil engineering related accomplishments during the course of the year. One of those added to the list is the foundation of the British Standards Institution (BSI) in 1901 by Sir John Wolfe Barry, more about which can be read on this website.

Who are the modern day Brunels and Wolfe Barry’s?

Architecture has its modern day heroes such as Enzo Piano or Norman Foster or the late Zaha Hadid.

Civil and structural engineers are less well known nowadays compared to the legends of the past.

What has happened?

I would venture to suggest that people are more impressed nowadays by creativity and aesthetics than by downright structural solidity.

Is this fair?

No, but then it’s not fair that medicine attracts huge numbers of applicants and quite happily rejects large percentages of them in the upper echelons. No shame in not making the cut, you can always try another profession (by implication, easier).

I hope very much that this bias will change over time. I don’t believe it helps any profession. It’s not the obvious that matters, rather the less well perceived.

However beautiful a skyscraper or a bridge, what we need to be sure of is that they will last serving a good purpose. They won’t if they collapse or if they produce more problems than solutions for the communities in which they are built.

Civil engineering inspiration since the Victorian Age

The Victorians were huge achievers on a global scale.

Amongst the many contributors to this process were civil engineers such as Telford, Brunel, Hawkshaw, Fowler, Baker and Wolfe Barry.

I attended a wonderful book launch this week for Roma Agrawal’s new book BUILT during which she kindly signed my copy. The occasion was hosted at the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe on the site of the first traffic tunnel under a navigable waterway, the River Thames. The civil engineers responsible were Marc and Isambard Brunel, father and son. As I’ve posted elsewhere on this site, Isambard’s son Henry became a close business partner of John Wolfe Barry.

The final chapter of Roma’s book is called ‘Dream’. Everyone dreams, literally, but not so many actually achieve them in real life. Roma managed to write her book which started as a spreadsheet and she’d previously designed key structural parts of the Shard, an architect’s dream come true.

Young people ever since Victorian times (and before) have wanted to fulfil their dreams. Civil  and structural engineering is one very visible way of doing this – not just a small, invisible component of a household object, but a big, visible, in-your-face statement of how conceptual design can change the world physically for the better.

Where there was no hospital there now is one to treat the sick, where no bridge now one stands to cross a river.

Communities can flourish and in turn have an influence on their environment, gradually ensuring that it reflects shared ideals and aspirations, including beauty, sustainability and using an ethical approach.

John Wolfe Barry would have been happy with such an outcome.


060218 #votesforwomen #vote100 what it means for engineering

On Tuesday many people will be marking the centenary of voting rights being extended to women in the UK.

I’ve blogged about this already in the context of Sir John Wolfe Barry, who died a fortnight before the legislation was passed by Parliament in the building designed and constructed by his father and completed by his brother. Interestingly, last week a different assembly finally decided that the same New Palace of Westminster would need to be vacated and renovated in the next few years to prevent it from becoming a death trap!

Why were votes for women so important a hundred years ago and what relevance does this have to the modern engineering sector? Below are some possible answers.

  • (some) women gaining the vote was both a major political reform, as well as a symbolic statement about the place of women in British society.
  • other states were ahead of the UK in this, so there was a need to catch up and show that (some) British women were as equally valued as men.
  • nowadays this might be considered ‘positive discrimination’ to redress a historical imbalance between genders, an approach that can seem controversial with women who believe in equal treatment as opposed to what they would term ‘tokenism’.
  • all the above social context has had an impact on women engineers today.
  • in 2018 we are celebrating engineering as a worthwhile profession for both genders, but which is also a critical sector to a successful post-Brexit UK economy and infrastructure.
  • it is a ‘no-brainer’ to say that more diverse pathways into engineering and allied disciplines can only be good for the nurturing of future talent in a sector which needs to catch up with others.

Whether you agree with these or not, or have your own different ones, please spread the message through your networks so that the debate can go out as widely as possible.