With a bit of (hidden) help from your dad

I was researching in London yesterday and came across an interesting story.

The archives of the Royal Opera House are accessed after a meandering walk through the labyrinth of corridors that make up the building. In them you can find original diaries by the 19th Century manager Frederick Gye. He was clearly a dynamic and somewhat flamboyant character who was determined to rebuild his theatre which had burnt down in March 1856. But not just as a simple like-for-like replacement, something much more grandiose that changed the nature of Covent Garden where it was located. This had once been a very fashionable area of 17th Century London but since became a major fruit and vegetable market for the capital, as well as acquiring a more salubrious reputation.

Reading through Gye’s diaries I stumbled across an entry for 30 December 1856 which tells us that he approached Sir Charles Barry to be the architect for the new development. He had previously raised this with Sir Charles in conversations about the use of fireproofing for building with wood, and the architect reiterated his unavailability but put forward his son Edward instead, who was only 26 years old at the time. The Barry name was clearly influential in gaining the necessary financing to support the development.

So from then on Edward Middleton Barry became the chief designer of the third theatre as it came to be known and the home of Italian Opera in England. By September 1857 Barry younger had costed the whole project at £70,000 (worth almost £8m in today’s rates) and was told by Gye to find reductions, though in the meantime he approached his main benefactor the Duke of Bedford for more funds!

Curiously, his father didn’t just drop out of the picture. It seems that Mr Gye regularly dropped in on Sir Charles for advice, some of which he ignored. How much young Edward knew about this is yet to be discovered!

Footnote: thanks are extended to Jane Fowler, Archivist at the Royal Opera House for allowing me access to the original Gye diaries.

Author: Nick von Behr

I've been blogging since 2012 under different guises and on a range of topics mainly linked to education, but more recently focusing on the history of civil engineering and architecture as well as writing more generally. I have written a book on the 19th-century Brunel and Barry families of successful architects and civil engineers who built the Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge, Paddington Station and the Royal Opera House in London and the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. www.buildingpassions.co.uk

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