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Railway Giants: A Tragic Railroad Accident and the Legacy of British Engineer William Henry Barlow

Railway Giants: A Tragic Railroad Accident and the Legacy of British Engineer William Henry Barlow
photo: John Collier / Wikimedia Commons/William Henry Barlow
22 / 12 / 2023

William Henry Barlow may not be the first name that comes to mind when thinking of railway giants. Yet, who else can claim to have designed a new type of rail or led one of the greatest investigations in railway transport history? In the next installment of the 'Railway Giants' series, we will explore the life of such a man.

Predestined since Childhood

It's May 1812 in Woolwich, a southeast suburb of London. William Henry Barlow, son of mathematics and physics professor Peter Barlow, is born. His upbringing proved beneficial right from the start. He learned civil engineering from his father, and by the time he left for an internship at the Royal Navy shipyards at age 17, he was almost a fully-fledged engineer.

Fast forward to 1832. William, now 20 years old, is pondering his next steps in life. His father has laid a solid foundation, but William feels the need for significant practical experience. In an era of uncertainty and turmoil, especially regarding workers' conditions in England, he decides to venture abroad. In 1832, he heads to the Ottoman Empire, where the living conditions of the local population are even harsher. However, William knows that the industrial revolution is just dawning in the Ottoman Empire, offering foreign engineers an exceptional status. He spends six years there, employed as a builder by Maudslay, Sons & Field.

Midland Railway

By 1838, 26-year-old William returns to Britain and quickly finds employment. He joins the renowned engineer George W. Buck as an assistant, helping to build a railway connecting the industrial centers of Manchester and Liverpool. After two years, he moves to the emerging Midland Counties Railway as an engineer responsible for the section between Rugby and Derby. His career flourishes, and in the same year, he marries Selina Crawford Caffin. Together, they will have six children, and their marriage will provide significant support throughout his life. He retains his position as an engineer even after the Midland Counties Railway merges into the newly formed Midland Railway, which would continue until 1922.

Commissioner Geoff  / Wikimedia Commons

While working for the Midland Railway, Barlow realizes that repairing sleepers is more costly than repairing rails, as sleepers break more frequently. To address this, he develops and patents his own rail design in 1849. This rail would be adopted by several railway companies, including the Great Western Railway, but would eventually be abandoned, ironically due to maintenance challenges. His rail featured a wide flanged profile that could be laid directly on the track bed, eliminating the need for sleepers, and requiring only regular weighbridges to maintain the correct track gauge.

Barlow's boss, designer Joseph Paxton, who was tasked with designing a palace for part of the 1851 World Exhibition in London, asks for William's help with the calculations for the frame of this glass palace. William seizes this opportunity brilliantly, significantly enhancing his reputation in the eyes of his boss.

Philip Henry Delamotte (1821–1889) - Smithsonian Libraries / Wikimedia Commons

I'm on My Own

William certainly did not set small goals for himself, and feeling sufficiently prepared at the age of 45, he left the Midland Railway to start his own company. It was no coincidence that one of Barlow's firm's biggest clients would be the Midland Railway. He assisted them primarily between 1862 and 1869 in extending the railway's southern reach from Bedford to London.

The first significant project came swiftly. After the death of the brilliant engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1859, William was entrusted with completing the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. Its construction had been halted for 16 years due to a lack of funds. The energetic William secured the necessary financing, completed the construction, and in 1864, the bridge, boasting the longest span (an impressive 214 meters) in all of Great Britain, was opened.

Arpingstone / Wikimedia Commons

On December 28, 1879, Britain witnessed one of the worst railway disasters in its history. The Tay Bridge over the River Tay collapsed near Dundee during a severe storm as an express train crossed it. Tragically, all 75 passengers and crew members perished. William was appointed to the Board of Trade's Court of Inquiry into the disaster and co-authored one of the final reports, which recommended the establishment of a commission to investigate wind loads on bridges. The court of inquiry concluded that the bridge, designed by Sir Thomas Bouch and opened just a year before its collapse, was "ill-designed, ill-built, and ill-maintained." Sir Thomas Bouch, the ill-fated architect of the bridge, died a year later, disgraced and devastated by the catastrophe partly of his own making.

 Peterrhyslewis / Old photography / Wikimedia Commons

The establishment of the Wind Pressure Commission marked a significant advancement in railway safety. William himself led a project, in collaboration with his son Crawford, to build a new bridge over the River Tay, successfully completed in 1887. He didn't undertake many more projects in his life. When he became vice-president of the Royal Society in 1881, he recognized that his life’s work was essentially complete. He retired in failing health in 1896 alongside his son Crawford and passed away in late 1902 from exhaustion after suffering a broken leg. He was buried in Charleston Cemetery, next to his father's grave.

This marks the end of the life journey of a man whose path was firmly set by his father. William himself stayed true to this course and carried the family legacy further than his father could have ever imagined.