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John Vernon Bartlett (ICE's 118th President)

John Vernon Bartlett (ICE's 118th President)

civil engineer, 1927-2021


Structural, Geotechnical, Construction


United Kingdom
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Appointed CBE in 1976

Became ICE’s 118th president from 1982-83 

Awarded Sir Frank Whittle Medal in 2018 

Why you might have heard of John Vernon Bartlett

John Vernon Bartlett CBE was a civil engineer and tunnelling specialist.

He's well known for his work on the Dartford Crossing, the first tunnelled section of the Toronto subway, London’s Victoria line, and most notably, the Channel Tunnel.

He worked on the Channel Tunnel first as principal designer for the scheme. He then returned as principal design consultant for all civil and geotechnical engineering for the UK section after the project was revised in the early 1970s.

Bartlett is also well known for his invention of the bentonite tunnelling machine, which was designed to dig through loose sandy or gravelly soils.


Bartlett started his civil engineering career at contractor John Mowlem.

He moved to consulting engineers Mott, Hay & Anderson in 1957, where he remained until he retired in 1988. By then he was chair and senior partner of the firm.

He became a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 1978 and was elected ICE President in 1982.

In 2018, Bartlett was presented with the Sir Frank Whittle Medal by the Royal Academy of Engineering for his work as an engineer whose achievements had a profound impact on the discipline.

At the award ceremony, Bartlett said: “Civil engineering today is a team game. I hope members of my team will enjoy sharing the recognition given by this award.”

The bentonite tunnel boring machine

Tunnelling through loose sandy or gravelly soils can be difficult.

Prior to Bartlett’s invention, when attempted, it was done by excavating by hand in sealed chambers under compressed air. This was complicated and posed danger to health, as workers presented pressure-related conditions. It was also very costly.

Bartlett’s invention was inspired by a visit to Milan, where the city’s first metro line was being built using a cut and cover method. The engineers were using bentonite clay to support the trenches while they excavated, due to the soft gravelly soil present in the area.

Bentonite clay is thixotropic, meaning it’s a liquid when agitated, so it can be pumped, and a gel when at rest, so it can support the sides of excavation, preventing a collapse.

Bartlett’s machine used pressurised bentonite slurry to stabilise the tunnel while it was being dug. The excavated soil would then be separated from the slurry, which was recirculated into the machine.

The bentonite TBM became the prototype for slurry and earth pressure balance tunnelling machines. By the end of the 1970s, more than 1,000 had been used worldwide.

The descendant TBMs have been used in major civil engineering projects, including Sophia and Mary, used by Crossrail, and Busy Lizzie, which cut the Lee Tunnel in the first section of Thames Tideway.

Personal Life

John Vernon Bartlett was born on 18 June 1927 in Wimbledon, London to Vernon and Olga Bartlett.

His father, also an engineer, was a senior partner of Mott, Hay & Anderson, the firm his son would later join and then head.

John Bartlett attended Stowe school. He served in the 9th Airborne Squadron of the Royal Engineers, and studied engineering and law at Cambridge University.

He was a passionate musician. He acted and sang with the Footlights, the university’s drama society. He was invited to audition with the D’Oyly Carte Opera, which could’ve led to a career in musicals and light comic opera. Ultimately, he decided civil engineering was his path.

He married his wife Gill in 1951 and had four sons.

He had a lifelong obsession with ships. In 2003, he donated 6,000 books on the topic to the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall. The Bartlett Maritime Research Centre is named after him.

He died on 17 November 2021.

Bartlett's presidential theme was 'the country's infrastructure', meaning the UK's public works, communications, transport facilities, utilities and services.

He closed his presidential address in 1982 with the following call to action:

"We must not be dispirited by this present low level of expenditure on public works in the UK. We must press on with the complex task of deciding what the country’s future infrastructure should be, and of persuading the country that it must be built."

Major projects

Connect the UK to continental Europe with a very long undersea tunnel

The Channel Tunnel

Connect the UK to continental Europe with a very long undersea tunnel

Construct crossings so that people can cross the river Thames in the east

Dartford Crossing

Construct crossings so that people can cross the river Thames in the east

Make digging tunnels much easier by using mechanics rather than pick axe

Tunnel boring machines

Make digging tunnels much easier by using mechanics rather than pick axe

Membership of other bodies and committees

British Tunnelling Society

  • Founding member
  • Chair – 1977-79

Royal Academy of Engineering

  • Fellow - 1978

ICE positions

  • Student member – 1946
  • Graduate member – 1954
  • Chartered member – 1956
  • Fellow of the ICE – 1964
  • ICE Council member – 1974
  • President – 1982-83