WOLFE BARRY, Sir John (1836-1918)
Plaque erected in 2019 by English Heritage at Delahay House, 15 Chelsea Embankment, SW3 4LA, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Engineering and Transport
Sir JOHN WOLFE BARRY 1836-1918 Civil Engineer lived and died here
Sir John Wolfe Barry was one of the most prominent civil engineers of the late 19th century. He was responsible for constructing one of London’s most famous landmarks, Tower Bridge, alongside numerous other structures across the country and internationally. He is commemorated with a blue plaque at Delahay House in Chelsea – named after his previous long-term residence and workplace at 21–23 Delahay Street (now demolished) – where he spent the final years of his life.
John Barry was born in London on 7 December 1836, the youngest of five sons of the architect Charles Barry (1795–1860) and his wife, Sarah Rowsell (1798–1882). He was named after his godfather, the artist John Lewis Wolfe (1798–1881), and he added the name ‘Wolfe’ to his surname in 1898.
In 1857 Wolfe Barry became a pupil in the offices of Sir John Hawkshaw, a renowned civil engineer. Over the next decade working with Hawkshaw, Wolfe Barry was engineer on a number of important projects including the Charing Cross railway station and bridge project, the Cannon Street project, and the completion of the Inner Circle line on London’s underground railway network.
During this time Wolfe Barry established a friendship with fellow pupil Henry Marc Brunel, the youngest son of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and in 1878 they became business partners, with Wolfe Barry as senior partner. They set up their offices and residence at Brunel’s family home, 17–18 Duke Street, Westminster (later 21–23 Delahay Street), and remained there for the majority of their partnership.
Over the following years business flourished and Wolfe Barry contributed to a number of major civil engineering projects in Britain and internationally. Commissions included the Alexandra Dock in Newport, Wales; the Caledonian Railway Bridge in Glasgow, Scotland; the Buenos Aires and Rosario Railway in Argentina; and the Shanghai–Nanjing Railway in China.
However, it was the Tower Bridge project in London that really cemented Wolfe Barry's reputation. Working with architect Horace Jones, he designed and built the combined suspension and bascule bridge which was opened in 1894. The design combined the ingenuity of hydraulically operated ‘bascules’ – mechanisms that allow the two sides of the bridge to lift in under two minutes, for large ships to pass under – with impressive Gothic Revival architecture. Today the bridge is one of Britain’s most iconic landmarks.
An Industry Leader
Wolfe Barry was elected President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1896 and was awarded a knighthood in 1897. As an industry leader Wolfe Barry used his influence to campaign for the standardisation of engineering components which later led to the development of what became the BSI ‘kitemark’ – a service quality trade mark owned by the British Standards Institution and still used today.
21–23 Delahay Street remained Wolfe Barry’s home and business address until the building was demolished in 1909 to make way for the new Treasury Building. Wolfe Barry then lived at Delahay House at 15 Chelsea Embankment until his death in 1918.
Wolfe Barry evidently had a close association with Delahay House, choosing to name it after his and Brunel’s former home and workplace in Delahay Street.
While living there, in May 1911, Wolfe Barry was celebrated by leading figures in the engineering and construction industries at a dinner in Goldsmith’s Hall to mark the 10th anniversary of the Engineering Standards Committee. He was described by one of the speakers, William H. White, as ‘a man who commanded universal respect … and who was, above all, experienced as an engineer, unblemished in reputation’.