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Sir John Wolfe Barry’s archive proves a fascinating insight

Picking up the extant archive of Sir John Wolfe Barry from the descendants of one of his last partners, was probably one of my most enjoyable tasks in 2013.

Wolfe Barry was one of the leading engineers of the second half of the 19th century, with a career extending from the 1860s, when he worked on the railway into Charing Cross and Cannon Street stations for Sir John ­Hawkshaw, through to the First World War.

His best known achievements today are probably Tower Bridge, which he designed in association with Marc Brunel, and the establishment of what became the British Standards Institution.

A full appreciation of his career has been difficult as the archive of his firm, latterly Sir Bruce White, Wolfe Barry & Partners was believed to have been lost.

The records that have now been passed to the ICE include ­drawings of most of the projects with which the practice is known to have been involved between 1880 and 1915.

These include some surprises such as First World War airship shelters, and the Kowloon-Canton Railway. They also include drawings of those parts of London Underground with which Wolfe Barry was involved, the Barry Docks and railway, plus the Ballachulish Branch of the Calendar and Oban Railway, including the Connel Ferry Bridge.

And there are three photograph albums illustrating works with which he was involved, including an incredible view of him emerging from an excavation.

The survival of an archive from this period is remarkable. Most drawings of the period were salvaged for dressings in the First World War, or were microfilmed and destroyed in the 1950s and 1960s.

The donation of this record means that the ICE now has records of four of the leading firms of the period - High Point Rendel, Fowler and Baker, Douglas Fox, and Wolfe Barry, in various states of completeness - a situation unthinkable when the ICE archives began its work 40 years ago. People will be increasingly aware that the anniversary of the First World War is almost upon us.

Perhaps Wolfe Barry’s last public address was to an Anglo American electrical engineering conference in 1917 when he stated: “It is a matter of the most profound gratification that the two great governments of the Anglo-Saxon race are now marching side by side in the great endeavour to forward the interests of humanity, having both of them the same ideals and looking forward to a peace which shall guarantee those ideals and aspirations to the world now so sorely afflicted by war and its attendant miseries.”

The ICE intends to commemorate the First Word War with a number of exhibitions and events. Any member who has personal papers relating to the work of engineers in that conflict should contact the archivist She can also supply a list of the Wolfe Barry material.

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