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.


#ICE200 was Brunel a superhero?

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!

From the Burj Khalifa to BAT

Another section has been added to this website about the legacy of John Wolfe Barry’s civil engineering consultancy both in terms of partnerships and people. A link can be traced back to him from the construction of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest free-standing structure, as well as to other industries such as tobacco and automobiles.