Just 3 days until the #buildingpassions book launch

I’m launching the print copy of ‘Building Passions’ on Wednesday 20 November in Central London. The e-book has been out since September on www.kobo.com . The full title is Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture .

The day before that, English Heritage will put up a Blue Plaque on the house in Chelsea where Sir John Wolfe Barry lived and died.

Both of these events will be a major personal milestone for me as an historian and author. But they also represent the first steps, I hope, in my shared efforts to expand our knowledge about the built environment. As I have recognised in my book, Roma Agrawal really started this for many of us with her fantastic book ‘BUILT’.

What happens after the book is launched?

Well, I’m writing my next one, an historical novel based on the life of my grandfather Baron Lex von Behr, who may have been a spy … I hope to publish it in 2020, a century after he escaped from the clutches of Soviet Red Guards in what is modern day Uzbekistan.

I will continue to promote ‘Building Passions’ through the website and give talks about it to local audiences in Kent where I live.

I’m also thinking about doing academic research linked to one of the themes in the book – what helped define architectural ‘modernity’ in the Victorian era, how does this link to our built environment legacy, and why is it important for the current process of quality design and build?

Or something along those lines …

When you first get your own book, it’s like seeing a new child #buildingpassions

I saw the printed version of my book today! The feeling was one of elation after 9 months gestation.

Though I didn’t carry our daughter for a similar period 19 years ago, I kind of understand the emotional ride. As a father your relationship tends to develop later on, once they are up on their feet more and starting to think for themselves.

Why did I leave it so long to write a book?

Because there were other things going on in my life and they always came first. I’m not complaining. But I did have to take a risk and stop full-time work to self-publish the book.

I did other things as well, but in effect I have had a type of parental unpaid leave with no job to go back to. My wife has been incredibly supportive throughout this period, for which I am very grateful.

What next?

I’ve started planning my next book, a historical novel, and will write it during November as part of National Novel Writing Month. I’ve already sought editing proposals for the finished draft. It will be published in 2020, 100 years since the protagonist, based on my grandfather, escaped from the Communists in Tashkent and ended up living a new life in England via Persia and India.

Family stories are great stories #buildingpassions

I’m currently sitting in our hotel room on Ischia trying to write my next book.

Since recently self-publishing my first book ‘Building Passions’, I now have some time to focus on the subsequent one. It helps that it’s raining all day here and that yesterday we went on a 10k walk which included the 800m peak of the dormant volcano on the island, so my legs are still recovering a bit.

My next book is historical fiction based on a true story close to me. It’s about the eventful life of my grandfather, Lex von Behr, who had no links of any kind to a Batman villain with the same first name. However, he may well have been a double agent for the British and Soviets, possibly also for the Germans. We may never know the entire truth.

We do know that he died in Paris in 1951 from serious burns caused by a fire in his apartment. My grandmother was convinced this was due to his spy work, I have my doubts, but then this is why I’m writing it as historical fiction …

The common theme is family stories, which I feel are both historically and socially important. The former, because they provide a case study in a different context of how human groups have behaved and what they have created. The latter, because we are all part of families, whether fully related or not, and these close networks need to be reinforced by their stories, good or bad. I’ve blogged about this before.

I’m still mulling over whether I need a new website for the new book, or one that brings together the two books under the family story theme. Watch this space.

At last! A Blue Plaque for the man who built Tower Bridge #buildingpassions

After almost four years since applying for one, it seems that we will finally have an English Heritage Blue Plaque for Sir John Wolfe Barry!

I often say patience is a virtue. In this case it really is.

I remember completing the application thinking that it may well be rejected due to the sheer numbers of competing ones. But it was worth a try. The process is deliberately slow and careful to ensure that literally everyone is happy with the decision.

Why does JWB deserve this commemoration, given that he already has a window in Westminster Abbey, and the iconic Tower Bridge he built with his business partner and close friend Henry Marc Brunel is a global landmark?

I could give many reasons, but I think foremost is a tribute to the great metropolis of London where he was born, raised, worked and died. He wasn’t just there all the time, but it clearly was a very significant city for him.

My book ‘Building Passions’ not only covers the story of John Wolfe Barry, but also of his father Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament (who already has a Blue Plaque at his former home), as well as other members of the Barry and Brunel families. Not least the ‘2nd Greatest Briton’, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, starts it all off.

The location of the Blue Plaque will be adjoining Chelsea Embankment on the Thames, on the outside of the house where John Wolfe Barry died in 1918 aged 81 years. While it has just missed the centenary of his death, I’m hoping it can still mark 125 years of Tower Bridge.

His life was a great innings, to use a cricketing metaphor, and its legacy continued through the organisations and structures associated with him, the Brunels and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture.

Once I know more about the exact details of the unveiling I will publicise it on this blog.

With a bit of (hidden) help from your dad

I was researching in London yesterday and came across an interesting story.

The archives of the Royal Opera House are accessed after a meandering walk through the labyrinth of corridors that make up the building. In them you can find original diaries by the 19th Century manager Frederick Gye. He was clearly a dynamic and somewhat flamboyant character who was determined to rebuild his theatre which had burnt down in March 1856. But not just as a simple like-for-like replacement, something much more grandiose that changed the nature of Covent Garden where it was located. This had once been a very fashionable area of 17th Century London but since became a major fruit and vegetable market for the capital, as well as acquiring a more salubrious reputation.

Reading through Gye’s diaries I stumbled across an entry for 30 December 1856 which tells us that he approached Sir Charles Barry to be the architect for the new development. He had previously raised this with Sir Charles in conversations about the use of fireproofing for building with wood, and the architect reiterated his unavailability but put forward his son Edward instead, who was only 26 years old at the time. The Barry name was clearly influential in gaining the necessary financing to support the development.

So from then on Edward Middleton Barry became the chief designer of the third theatre as it came to be known and the home of Italian Opera in England. By September 1857 Barry younger had costed the whole project at £70,000 (worth almost £8m in today’s rates) and was told by Gye to find reductions, though in the meantime he approached his main benefactor the Duke of Bedford for more funds!

Curiously, his father didn’t just drop out of the picture. It seems that Mr Gye regularly dropped in on Sir Charles for advice, some of which he ignored. How much young Edward knew about this is yet to be discovered!

Footnote: thanks are extended to Jane Fowler, Archivist at the Royal Opera House for allowing me access to the original Gye diaries.

20 days into the book

I’m now 20 days into writing my book on the 19th Century Barrys. Here is a quick recap on the pros and cons of the process so far.


  • In some ways writing has been easier than I thought once my thoughts are clear.
  • I’ve enjoyed the process. Unlike commuting into the office I don’t consider it a daily grind.
  • Starting to write while finishing off my regular employment has helped, as well as writing content for this website on John Wolfe Barry over the last year and a half.
  • Setting yourself weekly and longer goals helps to motivate and break down into achievable targets of word counts.


  • It is still easy to be distracted wherever you write. I’ve tried a few places and none of them is ideal. The photo is of a seafront which inspires me occasionally. But switching around probably helps me.
  • I still tend to dip into research material both to remind myself of the facts and to see if I can find previously undiscovered angles. This can hold me up.
  • I get comments like ‘how’s the holiday?’ which infuriate me, or ‘how’s the job search going?’ which merely irritate. Most people still won’t accept that you can spend most of your time writing unless you have a contract or are in employment. It’s some kind of luxury.

That’s all for now, got to get back to the drafting ….

Commemorating 22 January 1918 #sirjohnwolfebarry

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.