Persuading Parliament to build a bridge

John Wolfe Barry was not only good at building large structures including bridges but he was good at persuading key decision makers that they should be built.

It is possible he inherited this skill from his father Sir Charles Barry, who had spent much of his life handling the competing demands of MPs, Lords, Ministers, courtiers and civil servants for the specifications of the new Palace of Westminster.

By recruiting him to the Tower Bridge project the Corporation of London was both gaining an expert civil engineer familiar with the River Thames environment, as well as a strong advocate for the technical and commercial arguments that would need to be used to win over support from Parliament.

Original plans for a bridge linking the City of London to the south bank of the Thames had been mooted for a number of years, with the advice of numerous experts of the day. The main restriction on the site was the busy river traffic which went along, against and across the current. Solutions had been proposed to deal with this but nothing was as elegant or satisfactory as the bascule bridge put forward by Horace Jones, the Corporation of London’s Architect (an illustration of which, above, is the main ‘logo’ for this website).

Where he needed Wolfe Barry’s help was turning design into reality. This is what civil and structural engineers have done on a daily basis for centuries. Whereas architects could often rely on good builders to follow their instructions for smaller scale, non-complex structures, something of this size and ambition required a more technical intermediary with sufficient knowledge and skills. This in turn gave confidence to MPs that despite strong counter arguments from those opposed to the scheme, it was worth them supporting it in Parliament.

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