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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!

Self-publishing: your help needed!

I decided a while back that I would self-publish my forthcoming book on the Brunel and Barry families.

This has meant foregoing current earnings to spend time writing and there is no guarantee how I will do with my first (and possibly only!) book.

I have also spent money on an editorial assessment and buying image rights, plus I am committed to further payments for editing, proofreading and design and marketing costs. Since I don’t know what sales will be like, it’s difficult to estimate future income from publication. This also depends on the cover price and whether I market it only as an e-print or also as a hard- or softback.

That being said, the people I am writing about were very familiar with the concept of risk. Isambard K Brunel’s father Marc was thrown into debtors’ prison as poor cashflow held up his ground-breaking projects. It was only the threat of him returning to the old enemy France that precipitated action at the highest levels to release Government funds. Sir Charles Barry and his son Edward Middleton Barry were consistently at loggerheads with Parliament over delayed payments for building the New Palace of Westminster.

So, it would help me greatly to know what interest there might be out there for this book. The current favoured title is “Barry, Brunel and sons:
Builders to the British Empire”. My only concern is there is too much alliteration going on in it. What do you think? Tell me in a comment below.

To get a flavour of the book please look at the content of this website – it develops from the main focus here on John Wolfe Barry, to a wider scope looking at his father, brothers and close relationship with Henry Brunel, hence brings in the latter’s famous father IK and grandfather Marc. It also makes connections between Victorian architecture and engineering and modern day structures such as the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in the UAE.

P.S. The illustration of Big Ben is made from a photo I took of it at night time before the current renovation works. Another Barry structure!

Half way there

I’ve written half my target number of words for my book on the 19th Century Barrys. The rest needs to be completed by mid-June latest.

One thing that changes as I add words to the draft is the title and structure of the book. It has now moved on from a central focus on Sir Charles Barry and his three architect/civil engineer sons, to a wider scope including the great Isambard K Brunel and his son Henry Brunel.

This makes for a better connection with the themes of family, recognition and building that run through the book, as well as allowing me to look even more closely at the relationship between architecture and civil engineering.

What, you might ask, is the connection between the Barrys and the Brunels?

John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel were close friends and business partners who lived and worked in the Brunel family home and offices in London for the first years of their civil engineering collaboration. Once John was married and children started arriving, Henry had to leave his parents’ house as a lifelong bachelor and hand it over completely to his friend. This can’t have been easy for him!

The fathers of each son knew each other and were both Fellows of the Royal Society. They had also worked together on designing a venue for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London which became known as the famous Crystal Palace. There is no evidence of any close personal or business relationship between them and this could be said to typify the traditional space between British architects and civil engineers.

The book will expand on the above and is currently due for publication by end September 2019. Fingers crossed!

To judge a book by its cover?

I’ve sent off a possible cover design for my forthcoming book on the 19th Century Barrys which I pulled together in a few minutes using a cheap software programme.

I didn’t plan to do this but an opportunity came up for a free assessment by a cover designer so I thought I’d give it a go.

I found a template with a picture of the Eiffel Tower on it and then played around a bit with the title and my name. Of course for this book the structure could be one of many towers, depending on how I want to represent the Barrys visually without just sticking their portraits on the cover.

They say you should trial a range of different cover designs with audiences to see which ones work best, but I don’t have the budget for that.

What criteria do I think should be important for a potential reader?

  • Confirmation that they are looking at the right category of book e.g. historical non-fiction about buildings and their builders
  • Sense of pleasurable expectation of an experience that opening the cover might lead to.
  • Hint of quality of a product that can’t be touched before purchase as it will be marketed electronically, and you can’t get refunds on books you don’t enjoy reading, caveat emptor.

I will reveal the design stages later down the line.

On solving difficult structural problems

I’ve had the privilege of working with leading civil and structural engineers over the period since early 2016.

I am not one of them, in the sense that I don’t have their knowledge, understanding and skills in the technical requirements of civil and structural engineering. However, I do understand much better some of their key attributes and motivations.

One that stands out is their approach to solving problems. If a building or a bridge falls down killing and injuring people then the first question asked is: who built it? There may be some context for this, in the sense that if the structural failure was due to an ‘Act of God’ such as an earthquake or tidal wave, then some leeway is given to the identified responsible person. However, if as in the Grenfell Tower inferno, or the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, there is some sense that the blame was entirely linked to human neglect, then the repercussions can be very severe for those found wanting.

On the other hand, progress through technical advances is only really made as a response to a crisis of some kind. If we had no crises then life might appear easier for all of us, but there would be costly consequences. Society would become stale and complacent, more susceptible to potential threats that could have much bigger impacts for larger numbers of victims. There are difficult choices to be made with pros and cons each way.

Civil and structural engineers therefore solve problems as ‘scientifically’ as they can, based on hard evidence of past failures and successes, but also with due acknowledgement to present circumstances and future possibilities. The professional standards they set for themselves assure that this is the case, and if the public is not sufficiently convinced then Government legislates as a further safeguard.

The 19th Century Barrys, about whom I am currently writing, faced these same issues as builders of structures. They also tried to guide the conversation through their involvement with developing professional bodies in architecture and civil engineering. Charles Barry junior and John Wolfe Barry were both Presidents of their Institutions (RIBA and ICE) and Sir Charles Barry won a preeminent Royal Gold Medal from Queen Victoria for his professional services to architecture.

The value of Parliament

The British Houses of Parliament have been in the news lately because of the laborious process for leaving the EU.

This process was clearly set up to discourage any state from doing a Brexit, Grexit or Frexit. Perhaps call it Nexit to be clear? The British people just want a clear decision to avoid current uncertainty.

As I watched the debates in the House of Commons last week I couldn’t help but admire the chamber in which the Members of Parliament sit, assuming they can find a spare place. It was deliberately designed by Charles Barry senior to be cosy, at the express wishes of the 19th Century incumbents who feared it would look vast and empty during an average poorly attended session!

Once completed by Edward Middleton Barry, the New Palace of Westminster would see numerous debates and committee sessions, including an inquiry into building a bridge across the adjacent Thames further downriver next to the Tower of London. One of the expert witnesses was Sir Charles’ other son John Wolfe Barry by then a respected civil engineer, who reassured MPs that despite vociferous opposition from some local commercial interests, the proposed bascule bridge would be a huge benefit to road traffic and a minor hindrance to river traffic. Tower Bridge still operates on this premise over a century later.

The benefit of hindsight ….

Becoming an expert

One thing I’ve realised since first starting to work for and with professional and learned bodies in 1998: experts are not always what they are made out to be.

I had high regard for academic experts when I started my undergraduate degree, influenced by my grandfather who had taught engineering at university and then become a UN advisor on industrial development in the less advanced parts of the world.

This was slightly dented by some of my senior lecturers who you couldn’t even understand because of their research jargon or lack of training in how to teach. But occasionally I would meet remarkable professors or other less elite staff and understand that experts came in different shades.

This was reinforced by a Masters course and as I have said, daily work with leading scientists and engineers who were trying to reinforce the credibility of their professions. I may now have become an expert myself as I probably know more about Sir John Wolfe Barry than any living person.

This has its pros and cons. It helps me have conversations with people who are also very knowledgeable about other famous engineers. We can share our reflections. On the reverse side of the coin, it can cause friction with experts who actually come from those and allied professions. My stance is that as a trained historian who has specialised in economic and technical history but not completed a PhD, I may not be as good as others, but my arguments are valid and can always be critiqued, preferably in public.

So I hope the forthcoming book on the 19th Century Barrys will be well received and not simply shot down by those better equipped to fire arrows. Not that it matters to me personally I should add.

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. He would go on to be one of the judges who selected Barry’s design for the New Houses of Parliament, declaring no personal interest in the outcome.

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.