Concrete, as has been discussed in Gloucester RCW and Cement Wagons on this website, was well known in the ancient world and provided the foundations for many buildings and structures such as Rome’s Colosseum and Roman roads. Although these fell into disrepair in the Dark Ages, concrete was once again the material of choice for civil engineers as the Enlightenment turned into the Industrial Revolution and then the Twentieth Century with its motor vehicles and aircraft.
While the article linked above also discusses the role of railways in delivering cement to post Second World War building sites great and small, this feature will review the lives of British engineers Raymond Sharp and Francis Walley; without whose adventures in concrete our vehicles would have inadequate roads to run on and less impressive buildings to visit.
Both men were born in 1918 and made great personal contributions to the Allied effort in the Second World War.
Raymond Sharp was born in Vancouver, Canada, on 5 July after his parents had moved there from the Isle of Man. His father, Frank, was Vancouver’s City Engineer and Raymond’s first taste of engineering was being winched up on an improvised pulley system that his father had built to hoist firewood upstairs. After schooling in Britain, Raymond studied civil engineering at the University of Birmingham from 1936.
He joined the Royal Engineers during the Second World War and worked in bomb disposal and port construction units before landing in Normandy on D Day plus one. His job there was as a diver, inspecting bomb damaged structures prior to the rebuilding of the ports at Courseulles-sur-Mer, Le Havre, Dieppe and Bologne.
As the Second World War neared its end, Raymond Sharp was also involved in supervising construction of the longest Bailey bridge ever built – just short of a mile – across the Rhine at Rees. The bridge was completed in six weeks and was opened by Field Marshall Montgomery just after VE Day. Sharp was awarded a military MBE and continued to serve in the Territorial Army after 1945.
After regular demobilisation, Sharp worked in the City Engineer’s departments of Birmingham and Kingston upon Hull before becoming Deputy City Engineer at the London Borough of Wandsworth in 1951. Here he was responsible for high rise housing and highways.
In 1954 Raymond Sharp joined the Cement and Concrete Association to lead its technical advisory division, where he worked for the next 20 years.
His speciality was concrete in roads, airfields and multi-storey car parks where he established an international reputation. His background and contacts in local government, and particularly with what were in those days the powerful city engineers and county surveyors who controlled vast building and infrastructure budgets, proved invaluable as he built up the C&CA’s services. Many projects required hands-on advice, and Sharp was at his happiest on site, taking over work tools to demonstrate a point.
Concrete had been a popular material in the heady pre-War world of Modernist architecture where practitioners such as Le Corbusier had seen its advantages for perfectly proportioned geometric houses and apartment blocks. In Britain the innovative civil engineer Owen Williams had already shown its advantages in saving time and money for large projects such as Wembley Stadium, completed in 1923.
But to many architects, engineers and builders the material was still a relatively unknown quantity. As a director of the Cement and Concrete Association for 29 years, Sharp built up an influential advisory that fielded more then 25 000 queries a year from architects, engineers and builders working on anything from high rise housing blocks to multi-storey car parks. He set up offices all over Britain and recruited engineers with knowledge of concrete design who could work with building professionals to demonstrate different mixes and strengths that would, ultimately, make possible some flamboyant sculptural forms in the architecture of the 1950s and 60s.
At the Cement and Concrete Association, which was funded by a levy on every bag that the companies in the nascent cement industry sold, Sharp oversaw research and development and ran design and construction courses from a residential training centre in Buckinghamshire. He was also in charge of the textbooks which came off the Association’s own press: his own volume on highway engineering being a well thumbed guide for road makers of the day.
Such was his reputation in his own specialism that Sharp was elected president of the Institution of Highway Engineers in 1975. He gave a prescient presidential address, looking ahead to “Highways and Transport in the Year 2001.” In it, he correctly predicted the huge rise in car ownership and traffic congestion, the growing desirability of cycling as a sustainable form of transport and the need for a UK network of cycleways as well as modern techniques of road layout and pavement design that favour pedestrians.
Raymond Sharp was appointed OBE in 1978 and retired in 1983 but continued to advise construction projects all over the World – including a concrete highway between Delhi and Agra completed in 1996 as well as enjoying sailing and collecting classic cars. He died aged 94 on 20 January 2013.
Born in Hereford on 30 December 1918 and living until the age of 93, Francis Walley was one of the most innovative and influential structural engineers of the 20th Century.
The youngest of five children, Francis was the son of a tax inspector and his eldest brother John (later Sir John) Walley would become one of the architects of the welfare state as a civil servant responsible for the Beveridge reforms.
Francis Walley was educated at Cheltenham Grammar School and Bristol University, where he studied Engineering under Professor John F. (later Lord) Baker who pioneered plastic theory for the design of steel structures in the 1930s. While still a student, Francis took summer vacation work with Gloucestershire County Council and with the bridge builders Dorman Long in Middlesborough.
After graduating from Bristol with a First Class degree, Francis Walley went to work for Westland Aircraft where he helped develop the design of W.E.W Petter’s Welkin twin-engined high altitude fighter, devising a valve which helped solve the problems of pressurising the cabin.
One of Walley’s greatest contributions during his long career was in the field of civil defence. In the summer of 1941 Professor Baker invited him to join the research section of the Ministry of Home Security at Princes Risborough where he investigated the inadequacies of bomb shelters, analysing the effect of bombs exploding below ground and the effects of blast on reinforced concrete. These topics formed the basis of his MSc.
Francis Walley’s expertise also proved useful for offensive purposes. In 1943 he was sent to the Mediterranean to study the (largely ineffective) Allied bombardment of the island of Pantellerina, off Sicily, while in the run up to D-Day he worked on clearing mines with explosives and on the effects of explosives on reinforced concrete command posts.
After the liberation of Calais, Francis went to northern France to examine the effects of the Allied bombardment, including on the heavily defended V1 and V2 sites, and to carry out experimental demolition to improve methods of blowing up strong defensive structures. Later he was sent to Japan to investigate the effects of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Post War, Walley addressed problems of civil defence, working on blast resistance and shelter design. For the Ministry of Supply he was involved in the construction of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Foulness and he also acted as adviser to the Explosives Storage Safety Committee. later, in 1953, he would be present at the atomic weapons trials in Australia, observing their effects on concrete structures.
In the late 1940s, as technical secretary to the Standard Flats Committee, Walley developed his interest in pre-stressed concrete for use in the building of local authority apartment blocks and new offices. With the help of his wife, Margaret Probert, a linguist whom he had met at Bristol University, he translated Gustav Magnel’s book on pre-stressed concrete and wrote his own textbook on the subject, which went through two editions.
Walley’s first significant design in pre-stressed concrete was the GPO Building at Sighthill, Edinburgh. At about the same time he oversaw the safety elements for a building that housed one of the nuclear reactors at Winscale, Cumbria.
Francis Walley was also involved in all the new government research laboratories built in the early post-War era – such as the National Gas Turbine Establishment and extensions to the aeronautical establishments at Bedford and Farnborough. Later he ensured the safety of the test facilities for projects such as the Hydraulics Research section, Wallingford; TSR2 and Concorde; and the Blue Streak medium range ballistic missile. This was subsequently cancelled as a weapon, but not before Walley had solved fracture problems in the test stand.
The nature of his work meant that many of Walley’s structures were destroyed – often by himself – as part of the testing process. But among those that have survived is the pre-stressed concrete bridge in London’s St James Park, which had to be built to withstand enormous volumes of pedestrian traffic.
As superintending engineer in the newly formed Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, Francis Walley was involved in the construction of Cambridge University’s Radio Telescope in 1963 and in 1963 became director of Estate Management Overseas, identifying a site for the new British Embassy in Moscow and helping build the British section of the East-West highway in Nepal.
Then taking charge of the Post Office Estate, Walley designed the telecommunication research laboratories at Martlesham Heath and the International Exchange in London. He also had to ensure the structural safety of the Post Office Tower in London after it was attacked by the IRA in 1971.
Francis Walley was appointed CBE on his retirement in 1978 and before his death on 18 October 2012 he was elected to the Council of the Institution of Civil Engineers and vice-president of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
Opinion still remains sharply divided on the aesthetic and social merits of many concrete projects with many structures having weathered poorly and drivers (including this author!) generally preferring to drive on quieter asphalt road surfaces. But by the late 1970s both Sharp and Walley could survey a British built environment which they had turned from the red of bricks to grey.