History as a learning tool

Studying historical people and structures is an excellent way to learn about the present. Telling the story of John Wolfe Barry provides context for the value of technical and personal relationships which persist now and will continue into the future. It also allows us to engage as learners, looking as vicarious viewers into the experiences of others and drawing out our own lessons. So please use this website to expand your knowledge.

Don’t forget to give me feedback at nickvonbehr@researchandanalysis.net

Architect versus Engineer

John Wolfe Barry was a distinguished Victorian civil engineer recognised by his peers. His father had achieved the same status within the architectural profession, and John was the only one of his sons to choose civil engineering. Would he have been a successful architect had he decided to follow that path?

It’s a difficult question to answer but it does raise a range of issues about the key differences between the two professions, as well as public perceptions of these, which may not always match reality.

I’ll try to spend some time on this as I complete this website in time for the centenary of John Wolfe Barry’s death which is less than 4 months away now.

Structural engineering in Victorian London

I’m reading a fascinating book about the use of iron and steel in buildings in Victorian London. One of these structures was Tower Bridge which John Wolfe Barry built with his partner Henry Brunel.

You could argue it was more than just a bridge as the two steel towers were clad in stone to provide sympathetic context with the Tower of London.

This stirred up great architectural debate at the time.

Author Jonathan Clarke of the English Heritage monograph  ‘Early Structural Steel in London Buildings: A discreet revolution’ explains the basis behind these disagreements on aesthetics and use of materials, which you might say characterised the professional divide between traditional architects and futuristic structural engineers at the time.

Hawkshaw and Brunel

I’ve just written another section about John Wolfe Barry’s connections to Sir John Hawkshaw, another eminent Victorian civil engineer, to whom he was apprenticed. Also included is information about his business partnership with Henry Brunel, son of Isambard K Brunel. They would both build Tower Bridge

About this website

The author of this website about Sir John Wolfe Barry was Nick von Behr. I am indebted particularly to research and writing by the late James Sutherland. There is a more recent website about Wolfe Barry, Tower Bridge and other structures.

I populated this website with content in time for 22 January 2018, the centenary of John Wolfe Barry’s death. 2018 was the official UK Year of Engineering and the bicentenary of the Institution of Civil Engineers and the year structural engineer Roma Agrawal published her amazing book ‘Built’.

Originally I wanted to have some kind of commemoration in Westminster Abbey where a window can be found in his honour and his father is interred. More concretely, an English Heritage Blue Plaque was put up on the house where he died in London. This was a slow burner, having applied in December 2015, but it finally happened in 2019 coinciding with the 125th anniversary of the opening of Tower Bridge.

I have written a book called ‘Building Passions‘ about the 19th-century Brunel and Barry families of architects and civil engineers. Much of the material derives from this website and the research behind it.

The founder of the Kitemark

In 1901 Sir John Wolfe Barry was closely associated with the founding of the precursor to the British Standards Institution which would become famous for its Kitemark. I’ve added some new content about this.

His father rebuilt Parliament

John Wolfe Barry was born the son of Sir Charles Barry, architect of the British Houses of Parliament or the New Palace of Westminster.

For more on how the Old Palace was rebuilt after a terrible fire in the early 19th Century see Caroline Shenton’s website. The story features Augustus Pugin as well as Big Ben.