Barnes Wallis


On 26th September 1887, Barnes Neville Wallis was born in Ripley, Derbyshire, the second son of Charles Wallis and Edith Ashby. He was one of four children born to them. The eldest, John, is pictured with Barnes and their mother below, and there were two younger children, Annie and Charles. A family photo of everyone but Charles can be seen in the Photo Gallery. When Barnes was two they moved to New Cross Road in London where Charles Wallis was a doctor, but in 1893 he contracted poliomyelitis which left him crippled. He still continued with his career on a solid-wheeled tricycle but it was deeply affected by it. One memory my great-grandmother (Annie) had of her brother was his enjoyment in making things. Barnes and his brother John had a workshop in a part of the house which they used as children, and Barnes also made structures out of paper for Annie to play with.

Barnes received his education at Christ’s Hospital in Horsham , a public school founded in 1552. He and his brother John were nominated by Colonel Newcombe to take a competitive entrance exam for a scholarship as the Wallis family were too poor to pay themselves. Barnes came seventh out of 110 boys and received a place at the school. However, although Barnes was a natural at Mathematics, English and Science, he was completely incompetent at Latin. By the end of his successful education Barnes had decided that he wanted to be an engineer.


Wallis secured his first job at Thames Engineering Works, where they made ship engines. It was here that he fell in love with ships. By 1908, Barnes decided to transfer to John Samuel White’s shipyard on the Isle of Wight. In 1913, Barnes Wallis landed a job with Vickers through his good friend Pratt with whom he had worked in Cowes. Although Barnes did not know a thing about airships and air travel, he soon picked it up with help from his friend.

With the outbreak of the First World War, Barnes found himself unemployed when the Admiralty decided that they did not want to spend any more money on airships during the war. Wallis took the opportunity to join the Services but unfortunately failed the eye test to allow him to get in. Wallis overcame this by recruiting in another section of the Services and when the men were stripping just before their medical, was careful to do so near the sight-testing card and memorised it. However, soon after he had joined up, the airship designing team were recalled and the War Office was persuaded to release Wallis, and Pratt who had joined too, from the Army.


Barnes helped to design airships and aircraft including the R100, pictured above.

However, Barnes Wallis is best known for his Bouncing Bomb used in the Dambuster Raid during the Second World War. Barnes felt that the best way of defeating Germany was to attack its industry. The most logical way of doing this was to destroy the dams which collected and used the water which was so essential for industry to continue. He set out on a task to design a bomb which could successfully destroy the strong and difficult to reach structures of the dams. The original idea was to use a spherical bomb but in the end, the design was cylindrical. Barnes also designed other bombs such as the Tallboy and also aircraft in common use during the War, such as the Wellington Bomber.

After the War, Barnes did not stop designing and inventing. He carried on until he was forced to retire, at the age of 83, and even this did not stop him. He had ideas for swing-wing planes, such as the Swallow, hypersonic aircraft and other modifications and improvements for the air industry. Barnes also invented the non-misting, glassless mirror which is made out of unbreakable and non-flammable polyester. One of these mirrors was even sold to Buckingham Palace!

Barnes received a knighthood for his work and service to his country in 1968. He was also presented with a 10, 000 pounds government award which he gave to his old school and made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

Family Life

Barnes married Molly Bloxam on St George’s Day 1925. He was sixteen years older than her and they were step cousins. They had four children, Elizabeth, Christopher, Mary and Barnes and also adopted Molly’s sister's children when their parents died. His own four children are photographed with Barnes’ sister Annie at the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to Barnes Wallis’ work at his childhood home.

They spent most of their life living in Effingham, the house is shown below. Barnes’ children soon grew up and had 20 children of their own to create an extensive family. A photograph of his children and grandchildren can be seen in the Photo Gallery. Barnes used to eat three spoonfuls of porridge and eight prunes for breakfast and always ate cold rice pudding when he got home. He was certainly eccentric and definitely a genius.


Barnes died on 30th October 1979, at the age of 92, and his obituary appeared in all of the major newspapers.His funeral was held at St Lawrence, Effingham on the 3rd November.A memorial service was also held a year later at St Pauls Cathedral, attended by the Prince of Wales. His contribution to the engineering world will always be remembered.


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