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.
In 1901 Sir John Wolfe Barry was closely associated with the founding of the precursor to the British Standards Institution which would become famous for its Kitemark. I’ve added some new content about this.