Born in Charlton in south-east London, the son of an engineer and mathematician (Professor Peter Barlow, who taught at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich), William Barlow grew up close to Woolwich Dockyard and his formative years as an engineer were spent studying with his father and working in the Dockyard’s machinery department.
He then spent six years working as an engineer in Constantinople, Turkey, helping build an ordnance factory on behalf of Henry Maudslay’s machine tool company (and working on some lighthouses in the Bosphorus), before returning to take up a post as assistant engineer on the Manchester and Birmingham (London and North-western) Railway (1838), after which he joined the Midland Railway (1842).
He formed his own consulting practice in 1857, but remained a consultant for the Midland Railway.
An active member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Barlow became involved in several ICE initiatives, including the design of the building used for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the realisation of the Clifton Suspension Bridge after the death of the celebrated Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1859.
As chief engineer for the Midland Railway, Barlow was responsible for sections of the main railway lines between London and the east Midlands. The route’s most famous landmark is the train shed at its London terminus: St Pancras Station (1864-68), which Barlow designed with R.M. Ordish. This has an arched cast iron and steel canopy with a 74m (243ft) span – then the longest of its kind in the world. The canopy is 213m (700ft) long and about 30m (100ft) high.
His brother Peter W. Barlow was also a noted engineer, whose major contributions included new developments in tunnelling shields in conjunction with James Henry Greathead – a pupil of William Barlow’s during the late 1860s.
Barlow was a Fellow of the Royal Society from 1850, and was elected as President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1879. His leading role in the profession led to his appointment as a member of the Board of Trade Enquiry that investigated the disastrous failure of the railway bridge across the River Tay near Dundee in 1879 (the Tay Rail Bridge Disaster). He then led the design of the replacement bridge (1882-87). During the same period, he also helped check the designs for the Forth Railway Bridge, west of Edinburgh.
William Barlow lived in Charlton at 145 Charlton Road (blue plaque).