Wolfe-Barry, the youngest son of architect Sir Charles Barry, added ‘Wolfe’ to his inherited name in 1898. He was educated at Glenalmond and King’s College London, and was a pupil of civil engineer Sir John Hawkshaw, as was Henri Marc Brunel, son of the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Barry and Hawkshaw worked on railway bridge crossings across the Thames, among other projects (Brunel pursued his own business from 1871, but in 1878 went into partnership with Barry). Barry began his own practice in 1867, and carried out more work for the railways.
However, it was Tower Bridge that really made Wolfe-Barry’s name. In 1878, architect Horace Jones first proposed a low-level bascule bridge. An Act of Parliament allowing the Corporation of the City of London to build it was passed in 1885. Jones was appointed architect, and knighted, but died the same year. Wolfe-Barry, already well-established with experience of bridges across the Thames, then took control.
His other projects included:
- Cannon Street Railway Bridge (aka the Alexandra Bridge) (1866)
- Blackfriars Railway Bridge (aka St Paul’s Bridge), London (1886)
- docks at Barry near Cardiff, south Wales
- District Line of the London Underground (with Sir John Hawkshaw)
- pumping stations on the Regent’s Canal, north London
- Kew Bridge, west London (1903)
- expansion of Greenland Dock, Surrey Docks (now Surrey Quays), south-east London (1904)
A recognised industry leader (he was elected President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1896, knighted in 1897, and served on several Royal Commissions), Wolfe-Barry played a prominent role in the development of industry standardisation, urging the ICE’s Council to form a committee to focus on standards for iron and steel sections.
Two members each from the ICE, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the Institution of Naval Architects and the Iron and Steel Institute first met on 26 April 1901. With the Institution of Electrical Engineers who joining the following year, these bodies were the founder institutions of what is today the British Standards Institution or BSI.
He was chairman of Cable and Wireless from 1900 to 1917.
In 1902 Wolfe-Barry joined the consulting firm Robert White & Partners, and it was renamed Wolfe-Barry, Robert White & Partners (later, 1946, Sir Bruce White, Wolfe Barry and Partners – now part of London-based consultancy Beckett Rankine).
Wolfe-Barry died in January 1918 and was buried in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking in Surrey.