A Benjamin Baker’s dozen

There are 13 days until we commemorate the death of Sir John Wolfe Barry, one hundred years ago.

The play on words in the title of this blog is obviously to do with the number thirteen, but also allows me to tell you a bit about Sir Benjamin Baker.

Baker was a close friend and business associate of Wolfe Barry and like John was also President of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He is most famous for designing and building between 1883 and 1890 with Sir John Fowler the iconic Forth Rail Bridge in Scotland, which still stands and functions as it was intended.

The steel for the bridge was supplied by William Arrol, who also provided the steel for Tower Bridge and the Connel Bridge, both built by Wolfe Barry.

Benjamin Baker went on to design and construct a number of docks with Sir John including the Royal Edward at Avonmouth near Bristol. Subsequently he  built the new Aswan Dan in Egypt to tame the Nile, no doubt well informed about the nature of river currents and movement of sediment.

Like Barry, Sir Benjamin has a stain glass window commemorating him in Westminster Abbey.

How I got to know JWB

The name of John Wolfe Barry first came across my path when I was doing voluntary research for the Bristol Industrial Museum (now called the M Shed) back in the 1990s.

That led me on to a Masters in Social Research specialising in the History of Technology at the University of Bath, supervised by Professor Angus Buchanan OBE (author of an excellent biography of IK Brunel). My first research project for the Masters was on the history of the Port of Bristol. Within that I looked at plans to develop the port first begun by Brunel in the 19th Century and ending in the construction by John Wolfe Barry and Benjamin Baker of the Royal Edward Docks at Avonmouth, opened in 1908 by the monarch himself.

I was struck by the fact that JWB, as I would refer to him, seemed very confident in his knowledge about dock-building in the complex tidal environment of the Bristol Channel. But then he seemed a very thorough man from reading his technical reports. Many years later when I saw his testimony to the Parliamentary Committee investigating plans for a bridge across the Thames, recorded a decade or more earlier, I sensed the same confidence in his abilities as a civil engineer completely familiar with building structures in and across rivers.

Finally, the fact that a window in Westminster Abbey above the grave of his father commemorates his life, appeared to confirm that he was highly respected by his peers.