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.
I’ve managed to populate this website about Sir John Wolfe Barry with a fair amount of information about him and things, issues and people linked to him. I’m now wondering what to do next and would appreciate your help. Please respond to this post with your thoughts in the comments part.
For example, should there be more content about the history of civil engineering or architecture as technical disciplines?
Or perhaps more on the commercial and contracting side of John Wolfe Barry’s professional activities?
Or just more stories about Victorian and Edwardian characters who lived and worked in the same circles as him?
The choice is yours.
I applied for an English Heritage Blue Plaque for Sir John Wolfe Barry in December 2015. The plan would be to commemorate the centenary of his death in January 2018 by having English Heritage put up a plaque on the building in Chelsea where he died. The process can take a long time due to the high demand for these in London where the scheme operates, and of course the current inhabitants need to be happy with a plaque.
I am sure there are many more worthy historical figures and you could argue that Tower Bridge is a commemoration of its own, plus there is special window in Westminster Abbey above the resting place of John’s famous father Sir Charles Barry, architect of the New Palace of Westminster.
I still remain optimistic that the plaque will be granted in 2018 even if not in time for the centenary which is only 3 months away now. It was short-listed in 2016 and it just seems too good an opportunity to miss.
As mentioned elsewhere on this website, 2018 will be a big year for engineering in terms of the sector promoting itself to a wider audience. One strand will be the Institution of Civil Engineers’ 200th anniversary celebrations. Details are gradually emerging from the ICE’s website on activities linked to a 200 theme. I’ll try to update as I find out more. Separately the UK Government is promoting a Year of Engineering for 2018.
So how will the centenary of Sir John Wolfe Barry’s death feature on 22 January 2018?
To be honest I’m not really sure, but at least there’s this website and I will try to publish something special on the day and promote it via contacts and social media.
Watch this space.
I’ve finished some content covering John Wolfe Barry’s role in establishing and sustaining the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the home of the atomic clock.
What matters when designing and planning a building: its aesthetic appeal or the nature of its form and materials? People will have different views about this depending on their tastes, which makes the built environment such a fascinating and sometimes controversial area of practice.
Debates have continued ever since humans first began to shape their environment and introduce the concept of ‘style’ to each other. Different generations may hold vastly differing views about why a particular structure appeals or not.
I’m happy to defend my appreciation of 19th Century architecture and engineering, based as it is on my background as an historian of the first Industrial Revolution, which happened to take place in my country of origin. I suppose when I first studied economic and social history at university I was fascinated by human ingenuity and organisation as an evolving complex system, less so by individual acts of creativity. As time has passed and I’ve moved along with my generation, clearly I’ve started to appreciate the aesthetical side more than I used to.
My challenge now is to address a general misunderstanding of how historical precedent can best be used to help pave the way forward for ‘modernity’, whichever way we may choose to interpret the future.
I believe looking back with hindsight at engineers such as John Wolfe Barry and his contemporaries aids us in this process.
I’ve just written a piece on John Wolfe Barry’s three elder brothers, two of whom were architects like their father, the third became Bishop of Sydney.