William Henry Barlow (1812–1902)

William Henry Barlow
William Henry Barlow

Civil Engineer

WH Barlow was a civil engineer known for his large scale engineering projects in the late nineteenth century. He was responsible for the magnificent train shed roof at St Pancras station, the largest in the world when constructed. In the wake of disaster he designed the new Tay Bridge, setting new standards for civil engineering. His investigations into steel and the engineering of girders led to the design of the Forth Bridge, one of the most impressive railway structures in the world.

Early life

William Henry Barlow was born near Woolwich, the son of an eminent mathematician and physicist. At sixteen he began work with his father before serving an apprenticeship in mechanical and civil engineering at both the Woolwich and London Dockyards. In 1832 he was employed by engineers Maudslay & Field and posted to Istanbul (then Constantinople) to establish an arsenal for the Turkish government.

On his return to England in 1838, Barlow was appointed assistant engineer to the Birmingham & Manchester Railway. The line was completed in 1842 at which time Barlow was appointed resident engineer to the Midland Counties Railway, based in Derby. In 1844 the Midland Counties became a major part of the new Midland Railway, which appointed Barlow its chief engineer working alongside George Stephenson, the railway company’s consultant engineer. At this time Barlow was concerned that despite the rapid wear of the iron rails used on the early railways, it was the wooden sleepers supporting the rails that rotted first. He developed and patented a new type of rail which could be laid directly on the track bed, not requiring sleepers and only using occasional cross ties to maintain the gauge. Known as the ‘Barlow Rail’, it was used by Isambard Kingdom Brunel at certain locations on the Great Western Railway broad gauge.

Consulting engineer

In 1857 Barlow moved to London and set up in private practice. He was retained by the Midland Railway as its new consulting engineer after the retirement of George Stephenson. His major commission from the Midland came with the company’s extension from Bedford into London. Starting in 1862, the extension gave them independent access to London for the first time. Barlow was responsible for the arrangement of St Pancras station, the company’s own terminus on Euston Road. This included the station’s magnificent train shed roof; at 240ft, it was at the time of construction the largest in the world.

Tay and Forth bridges

After the Tay Bridge disaster in 1879, Barlow joined the committee investigating the causes of the accident. The North British Railway, keen to rebuild the bridge across the Tay, invited him to recommend the next and best course of action. His recommendation was to build a new double line bridge, completely independent of the old. Designed by WH Barlow & Son and constructed by William Arrol of Glasgow, work on the new Tay Bridge started in 1882, and opened for traffic in June 1887.

After the collapse of the first Tay Bridge, work on a bridge across the Forth stopped immediately. Barlow, as consultant engineer to the Midland Railway, was asked along with Sir John Fowler and T E Harrison to report on the construction of a new bridge across the Forth. A number of designs were put forward, including one for a continuous girder bridge by Benjamin Baker, based on a patent design obtained in 1859 by Barlow. Benjamin Baker’s design was accepted and Barlow improved the stability of the bridge by modifying the vertical columns to all the piers in the cantilever design. Barlow, along with Fowler and Harrison were asked to obtain permission to construct the bridge by the newly formed Forth Bridge Railway, a consortium of the Midland, North British, Great Northern and North Eastern railway companies. Once permission to build the bridge was granted, construction was handed to Sir John Fowler and Benjamin Baker.

Engineering and scientific investigations

Over the course of his career Barlow presented numerous papers on engineering issues of the day, and investigations that had captured his imagination. These ranged from establishing the presence of electrical currents on the surface of the earth (noted while he was in charge of the Midland Railway’s electric telegraph system), to recordings of the human voice.

Barlow played a major part in introducing steel to railway construction. In 1868 he was invited to join a committee undertaking a series of experiments with steel, proving it was suitable for use in construction. Barlow quickly understood that its properties would enable engineers to construct bridges across openings that could not be achieved with iron. He was appointed to a committee which in 1877 established for the first time a safe level of stress for the use of steel in railway engineering. It is no coincidence that the Forth Bridge, in which Barlow had a hand, was the first major structure in Britain to be made of steel.

Both William Henry Barlow and his son Crawford retired from their engineering firm in 1896. He died on 12 November 1902 at home in Old Charlton, Kent.

Did you know?

William Barlow devised a revolutionary method of sound recording in the 1870s which was the forerunner to the record player and the telephone. 


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