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.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel is probably the most famous engineer in history and arguably one of Britain’s best recognised heroes. Certainly he had the advantage of an equally talented engineer father, with whom he worked closely from a young age.
By contrast, Sir Charles Barry, who was Brunel’s near contemporary, came from a less auspicious background. His projects were technically less challenging and he sought consensus rather than individual distinction.
Sir Charles’ sons achieved successful careers as architects, a senior clergyman and a civil engineer. Isambard’s eldest son became a lawyer and his youngest son Henry was a ‘junior’ partner to Sir John Wolfe Barry, in the sense that he relied on John’s moral and financial support for many years.
While the Brunel name of engineers died out with Henry after only two generations, the (Wolfe) Barry’s continued in civil engineering well into the 20th Century.
Different families make their mark on society in different ways.
Roma Agrawal is publishing her book ‘Built: the Hidden Stories Behind our Structures’ on 8 February.
I’m fortunate to know Roma and we share common interests in opening up (structural) engineering to a wider base, particularly getting more females into a profession traditionally dominated by men.
One of the stories Roma writes about in her book is on the Quebec Bridge in Canada. It’s a bridge I don’t know too well so I decided to find out more using my favourite search tool, Google of course! This brought up the Wikipedia reference used in the above hyperlink. If you want to delve further you can connect to other steel cantilever bridges around the world including the Connel (Ferry) Bridge by Sir John Wolfe Barry, and the most famous example of all, the Forth Railway Bridge built by John Fowler and Benjamin Baker (a close friend and business partner of Wolfe Barry).
But what is so special about the Quebec Bridge?
It is a world record holder as the longest spanning cantilever bridge ever built – this was to prove the downfall of the first version of the bridge which collapsed during construction on 29 August 1907 with the loss of many lives. Roma will tell you more in her book.
Famous bridges aren’t the only structures to have stories behind them. The building you live in may have more than one stor(e)y. Perhaps not as exciting or indeed tragic as the Quebec Bridge …
There are 13 days until we commemorate the death of Sir John Wolfe Barry, one hundred years ago.
The play on words in the title of this blog is obviously to do with the number thirteen, but also allows me to tell you a bit about Sir Benjamin Baker.
Baker was a close friend and business associate of Wolfe Barry and like John was also President of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He is most famous for designing and building between 1883 and 1890 with Sir John Fowler the iconic Forth Rail Bridge in Scotland, which still stands and functions as it was intended.
The steel for the bridge was supplied by William Arrol, who also provided the steel for Tower Bridge and the Connel Bridge, both built by Wolfe Barry.
Benjamin Baker went on to design and construct a number of docks with Sir John including the Royal Edward at Avonmouth near Bristol. Subsequently he built the new Aswan Dan in Egypt to tame the Nile, no doubt well informed about the nature of river currents and movement of sediment.
Like Barry, Sir Benjamin has a stain glass window commemorating him in Westminster Abbey.
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!
It’s sixteen days until the 22 January when we commemorate the centenary of Sir John Wolfe Barry’s death.
In a small gesture I will visit his window in Westminster Abbey which looks down on the grave of his father, Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Palace of Westminster.
Sir John himself was buried in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, Surrey. I once tried to find his grave but failed so will have another go, even though the cemetery’s website doesn’t list it at all. I hope it’s not been removed!
ICE’s bicentenary celebrations have kicked off as has the Year of Engineering. Roma Agrawal, a chartered structural engineer, is launching her new book BUILT in early February and we’re just waiting to hear about the launch of ‘This is Engineering’, a campaign to promote the engineering profession to wider audiences of young people and their parents. I’m also hoping for a Blue Plaque on the house where Sir John died in Chelsea.
If after all this activity you still can’t work out why engineering and construction are important sectors of the global economy, which require an ongoing supply of diverse, creative and pragmatic new talent, then perhaps we will all have failed!
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.