John Wolfe Barry was born in December 1836 in London, the son of Charles Barry the architect of the New Palace of Westminster.
He acquired the middle name of Wolfe in tribute to his father’s best friend, also an architect, who had together with Charles undertaken a major tour of Europe and the East to see for themselves the great architectural structures of the past. These were to influence Charles significantly, especially the style of palatial building found in Florence and other historical cities on the Italian peninsula.
John was enrolled at Trinity College Glenalmond in Perthshire in January 1850, when he was just fourteen. The connection with the Barry family was apparently through John’s older brother, Alfred who had recently been appointed to teach classics at Glenalmond. It was Alfred who first escorted his young brother there on a memorable journey by train and ship. Wolfe Barry later said that he owed to the school what he possessed of English, the Classics and Mathematics.
It is not certain why, or when, John decided to take up civil engineering. Whatever the reason, he left Glenalmond in 1852 after little more than two years. His Institution of Civil Engineers obituary says that ‘after Glenalmond he went on to King’s College, London’, a statement repeated elsewhere, but King’s College has no record of this. However, as was quite normal at the time, he may have attended unrecorded some evening lectures.
Wolfe Barry was given his first practical work experience with Lucas Brothers builders and engineering contractors of Lowestoft.
His career proper began under the pupilage of Sir John Hawkshaw at about the age of 21.