Peter W. Barlow

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Peter William Barlow
Born (1809-02-01)1 February 1809
Woolwich, London
Died 19 May 1885(1885-05-19) (aged 76)
Spouse(s) Bethia Crawford Caffin
Children two daughters, one son
Parent(s) Peter Barlow and ?
Engineering career
Engineering discipline Civil Engineer
Institution memberships Institution of Civil Engineers
Significant projects Lambeth Bridge
Tower Subway
Significant design Barlow-Greathead tunnelling shield

Peter William Barlow (1 February 1809 – 19 May 1885) was an English civil engineer, particularly associated with railways, bridges (he designed the first Lambeth Bridge, a crossing of the River Thames in London), the design of tunnels and the development of tunnelling techniques. In 1864 he patented a design for a cylindrical tunnelling shield, later developed further by his pupil James Greathead in the construction of a tunnel under the Thames.

Early life

He was born at Woolwich, the son of an engineer and mathematician, professor Peter Barlow of the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He was privately educated, winning a Royal Society of Arts medal in 1824 for his drawing of a transit theodolite; he then became a pupil of civil engineer Henry Robinson Palmer, a founder member of the Institution of Civil Engineers – of which Barlow became an Associate Member in 1826.[1] Under Palmer, Barlow worked on the Liverpool and Birmingham Canal and the new London Docks.[2]

Barlow contributed to the ICE journal, writing on The strain to which lock gates are subjected in 1836.[3] He also contributed learned papers to the Royal Society.[4]

His brother William Henry Barlow was a noted 19th-century railway engineer.

Professional career

From 1836 Peter Barlow was the resident civil engineer under Sir William Cubitt on parts of the South Eastern Railway London to Dover line, before taking responsibility for the whole line in 1840,[5] and later becoming Engineer-in-Chief. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in November 1845 as someone who was "Distinguished for his acquaintance with the science of Mathematics as applied to Engineering Subjects".[6] From the 1850s to the 1870s, Barlow was engineer-in-chief to the Newtown and Oswestry,[2] Londonderry and Enniskillen and Londonderry and Coleraine railways; in the mid-1860s he was also consultant engineer to the Finn Valley Railway.[7]

He investigated construction of long-span bridges, writing a paper on the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge,[2] before becoming the engineer for the first Lambeth Bridge (1860–1862).[5] While designing the piers for this suspension bridge (since replaced by the current structure), Barlow experimented with driving iron cylinders into the clay upon which much of central and north London sits.[8]

This experience led him to look at use of cylindrical devices for tunnelling work and in September 1864 he patented a circular tunnelling shield[9] which offered significant differences to the shield used by Marc Isambard Brunel in constructing the Thames Tunnel (1825–1843).

This prepared him to work with his pupil James Greathead on the development of a rigid one-piece circular cross-section tunnelling shield used in the 11-month construction of the Tower Subway in 1869 and 1870. The Barlow-Greathead design was a major advance; the change from a rectangular to a circular shield, and "the reduction of the multiplicity of parts in the Brunel shield to a single rigid unit was of immense advantage and an advance perhaps equal to the shield concept of tunneling itself."[10]

From 1859 to 1867, Barlow lived at No 8 The Paragon, Blackheath, London.[11]

He died at 56 Lansdowne Road, Notting Hill,[2] and is buried in the Kensal Green Cemetery, London.[12] At the time of his death he was the oldest member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[8]


In 1836, on 5 July, Peter Barlow married Bethia Crawford Caffin; they had two daughters, and one son, also called Peter William Barlow (who also became a civil engineer and who emigrated to New Zealand in the 1880s).[8]


  1. "Mercury & Minerva Medal, RSA". Retrieved 30 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Wikisource:Barlow, Peter William (DNB01)
  3. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  4. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  5. 5.0 5.1 Vauxhall Society. "Peter William Barlow (1809–1885)". Vauxhall Society. Retrieved 30 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Library and Archive catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 10 December 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Barlow, Peter William". Dictionary of Irish Architects, 1720–1940. Irish Architectural Archive. Retrieved 30 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "Peter W. Barlow". Grace's Guide. Retrieved 30 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "For an invention of "improvements in constructing and working railways and in constructing railway tunnels"" (PDF). The London Gazette. 20 September 1867.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Vogel, Robert M (1966). Tunnel Engineering: A Museum Treatment. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. p. 221.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Rhind, N. (1983) Blackheath Village & Environs, 1790–1970, Vol. 2 (Bookshop Blackheath, London)
  12. "Peter William Barlow". Find A Grave. Retrieved 30 January 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


 Carlyle, Edward Irving (1901). "Barlow, Peter William". In Sidney Lee. Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement​. London: Smith, Elder & Co.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>