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.
The Barry family are an interesting case study because John was the only civil engineer amongst a father and two elder brothers who were all successful architects. It isn’t clear whether it was his choice to follow a different profession or his father’s decision. But we do know that he worked together with his brothers on a few projects.
One of these was the construction of railway stations with adjoining hotels at Charing Cross and Cannon Street in London during the early 1860s. Edward Middleton Barry was the architect for both hotels. John worked as a civil engineering assistant to Sir John Hawkshaw who had overall responsibility for the two extensions to the rail line from London Bridge Station.
Another project which linked brothers was the construction of a new HQ for the Institution of Civil Engineers at the time John was it’s President. His other brother Charles was asked to advise on the design from an architectural perspective. Sadly the building was demolished not long after it was completed to make way for the Government’s new Treasury offices in Westminster.
It would be interesting to know how the brothers discussed built environment issues together, whether informally or in a business context. How passionate did emotions get over the use of form as opposed to aesthetics or vice versa?
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 … 😉
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.
The Institution of Civil Engineers has photographic archives of civil engineering structures and people over time. These include the below pictures of Tower Bridge under construction in the 1890s which should be attributed to ICE if used elsewhere.
I’ve added more content on John Wolfe Barry’s other projects and introduced three categories for these, railways, docks and other. I’ve also put in more links from a range of pages to other websites. Hopefully some of them will reciprocate.