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.
The (locomotive) wheel had come full circle!
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.
Since I’ve produced this website about the man who built Tower Bridge, perhaps it would be reasonable to ask why there is such global interest in the structure? Here are 10 reasons:
- It symbolises London. This was used to much effect during the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony.
- It is a must see for those millions of tourists who visit London every year for its history, together with the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral.
- Many people are fascinated by a bascule bridge which you don’t see very often and even if you have seen one, not on this scale. IK Brunel’s son Henry was closely involved in its design.
- Tower Bridge spans the River Thames with many other famous bridges (including London Bridge, but not the original one) and is the furthest east of those to be found in Central London.
- You can take a boat trip along the Thames and if you travel far enough eastwards towards Greenwich (where the Meridian is to be found) you will have to pass under Tower Bridge.
- The Thames Footpath is a great walking and cycling route along England’s most famous river. If you continue west starting at Tower Bridge you will eventually pass Kew Gardens, Hampton Court Palace, Windsor Castle and Henley on Thames (where the summer regattas take place – John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel, the builders of Tower Bridge, loved rowing on the Thames).
- Of course there are some die-hards like myself who actually love Tower Bridge as a working bridge built in the Victorian era.
- Perhaps you’ve made the bridge with a Lego kit or using Meccano and want to compare your model with the real thing?
- Or you’ve watched a movie/film/TV programme which has featured it, for example one from the James Bond series (www.007.com).
- Then there’s the off chance that you might bump into a member of the Royal Family on the bridge on their way back to the Tower of London where they all live … 😉
I’ve just written another section about John Wolfe Barry’s connections to Sir John Hawkshaw, another eminent Victorian civil engineer, to whom he was apprenticed. Also included is information about his business partnership with Henry Brunel, son of Isambard K Brunel. They would both build Tower Bridge …