Monday 22 January 2018 marked 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 this centenary date the world’s tallest building.
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.
The Institution of Civil Engineers is celebrating its bicentenary this year under the label ICE 200. One aspect of the celebrations is a theme called ‘Invisible Superheroes’, a year long exhibition focusing on the civil engineers behind a range of historical and current projects.
Isambard K Brunel was certainly my hero, if not one with supernatural powers called ‘Captain Innovation’ by ICE. I first came across him when I started an undergrad degree at Bristol University. Everyone in the city knew about him as the man who had built the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge. It turns out that he didn’t complete it himself, but come on, superheroes are busy people!
Brunel was also responsible for constructing the first regular steam travel system between the UK and the USA. Under the ‘Great Western’ brand, travellers could catch a train from Paddington Station in London, disembark at Bristol and join the Great Western steamship for its 16 day trip across the Atlantic. A new museum called ‘Being Brunel’ is opening in Bristol in a few months time.
A number of years after I graduated I came back to the West of England to study a Masters in Social Research at Bath University supervised by Professor Angus Buchanan, one of the leading academics on Brunel. As mentioned elsewhere this research introduced me to Sir John Wolfe Barry who was a close business partner of Henry Brunel, IK’s civil engineer son.
It’s sixteen days until the 22 January when we commemorate the centenary of Sir John Wolfe Barry’s death.
In a small gesture I will visit his window in Westminster Abbey which looks down on the grave of his father, Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Palace of Westminster.
Sir John himself was buried in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, Surrey. I once tried to find his grave but failed so will have another go, even though the cemetery’s website doesn’t list it at all. I hope it’s not been removed!
ICE’s bicentenary celebrations have kicked off as has the Year of Engineering. Roma Agrawal, a chartered structural engineer, is launching her new book BUILT in early February and we’re just waiting to hear about the launch of ‘This is Engineering’, a campaign to promote the engineering profession to wider audiences of young people and their parents. I’m also hoping for a Blue Plaque on the house where Sir John died in Chelsea.
If after all this activity you still can’t work out why engineering and construction are important sectors of the global economy, which require an ongoing supply of diverse, creative and pragmatic new talent, then perhaps we will all have failed!
The Barry family are an interesting case study because John was the only civil engineer amongst a father and two elder brothers who were all successful architects. It isn’t clear whether it was his choice to follow a different profession or his father’s decision. But we do know that he worked together with his brothers on a few projects.
One of these was the construction of railway stations with adjoining hotels at Charing Cross and Cannon Street in London during the early 1860s. Edward Middleton Barry was the architect for both hotels. John worked as a civil engineering assistant to Sir John Hawkshaw who had overall responsibility for the two extensions to the rail line from London Bridge Station.
Another project which linked brothers was the construction of a new HQ for the Institution of Civil Engineers at the time John was it’s President. His other brother Charles was asked to advise on the design from an architectural perspective. Sadly the building was demolished not long after it was completed to make way for the Government’s new Treasury offices in Westminster.
It would be interesting to know how the brothers discussed built environment issues together, whether informally or in a business context. How passionate did emotions get over the use of form as opposed to aesthetics or vice versa?
The Institution of Civil Engineers has photographic archives of civil engineering structures and people over time. These include the below pictures of Tower Bridge under construction in the 1890s which should be attributed to ICE if used elsewhere.
A fortnight after Sir John Wolfe Barry’s death on 22 January 1918, British adult women were finally given the vote by Act of Parliament. Not all of them mind you, as suffrage still depended on your seniority and was only reduced to 21 years of age in 1928.
Those were different times but they provided an important context for what happens in a male-dominated society. Saudi Arabian women only received the vote in 2015 and have recently been allowed to drive!
What does this mean for civil and structural engineers of today wherever they practice?
To my mind it presents a continual challenge for them to both respect different cultures, yet operate to the highest demands of their technical professionalism. I believe that John Wolfe Barry tried to do the same, though have little first-hand evidence of his personal thoughts about this.
There were many eulogies to the man once news of his demise was announced. The nearest to the truth, bearing in mind that personal tributes inevitably glow with positivity on the death of someone close, was by his close friend and son’s father-in-law John Strain. It was published in the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), the professional body to which Wolfe Barry had belonged for many decades of his life and of which he took a leadership role in his later years. Strain’s obituary goes into considerable detail about all the engineering and other achievements John had been involved with, but what is most striking is this personal tribute to his friend:
All this was good; it was the well-merited reward of useful and faithful work in and for the world, which honoured itself in the recognition it awarded him. But he had another and a still better reward – if that can properly be called reward which is less the result of what a man does than of what he is – in the wonderful personal feeling of esteem, touched with affection, with which he was so widely regarded. It was the appropriate response to the spontaneous human friendliness of his own outlook. Perhaps it was due no less to his extraordinary tact, which in itself was just the flower and essence of that same kindliness. He did not mason about such matters – he perceived instinctively the right and gracious thing to do, and, if one may put it so, it did itself. And in thinking over his many social gifts and aptitudes I am not sure but that these were the best of them all.