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The family values of Sir John Wolfe-Barry

Tower Bridge celebrates its 106th birthday this June. It was built by Sir John Wolfe-Barry, whose father Sir Charles Barry designed the Houses of Parliament

London’s Tower Bridge is an iconic structure. Stretching 244m across the River Thames, it is one of the world’s most recognisable landmarks, attracting 40,000 motorists and pedestrians and scores of tourists daily.

Sir John Wolfe-Barry was the civil engineer behind the bridge. Wolfe-Barry devised the structure of a double leaf bascule − two “leaves” that rise up to let river traffic through the middle − with two 65m tall towers built on piers. The two side-spans connecting the river bank to the towers are suspension bridges, and the towers are joined at the top by two horizontal walkways.

The bascule leaves − which weigh a hefty 1,000t each − were originally powered by steam from coal-burning boilers that pumped river water into hydraulic accumulators, where it was stored under pressure and used to raise and lower the bridge. Today the power comes from oil and electricity.

The bridge opened in 1894 after eight years of construction. Wolfe-Barry was experienced from his work on Cannon Street and Blackfriars railway bridges, but it was Tower Bridge that really made his name.

“The heavy 1,000t bascule leaves were originally powered by steam from coal-burning boilers.”

Son of Parliament architect Sir Charles Barry, Wolfe-Barry first worked in partnership with Henri Marc Brunel, son of legendary civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, before starting his own practice in 1867.

He worked on the London Underground District Line, Kew Bridge, and Greenland Dock in London’s Docklands.

He was also prominent in the development of industry standards, which are vital today. He urged the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) to form a committee on the issue, from which the British Standards Institution later evolved. Well respected among engineers, Wolfe- Barry was elected ICE president in 1896 and was knighted in 1897.

Tower Bridge remains beloved and has moved with the times. It became a patriotic symbol when it was painted red, white and blue for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, and has recently found renewed fame with its @towerbridge updates on Twitter, sparking funny imitations from @ImLondonBridge.

Now undergoing a £4M facelift, the bridge is being carefully preserved and repainted in its original 1894 colour scheme − so Wolfe-Barry’s most famous creation will stay looking smart for decades to come.

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