Britain: The Kirkaldy Testing Museum in London- Health and Safety, Victorian style.

The Kirkaldy Testing Museum is one of London’s least-known historic collections. 

Why visit?
The Museum comprises a unique Victorian workshop which set international standards in testing materials, making the world a safer place.

The museum retains the grime and glamour of Victorian cutting edge technology and retains at its heart David Kirkaldy’s original hydraulic testing machine, which the museum’s enthusiastic volunteers are happy to demonstrate.

The Kirkaldy Testing Museum can be found at 99 Southwark Street (SE1 0JF). Map.

VICTORIAN SOUTH LONDON was once an area packed with different industries. Although long since abandoned they have left some fascinating remains. A unique example is the Kirkaldy Testing Works at 99 Southwark Street, once a global centre for measuring the tensile strength of construction materials.

The works were founded by the Scottish engineer David Kirkaldy (1820–1897), who as a young man was apprenticed at an iron foundry in Glasgow. He quickly moved from workshop to drawing office, where between 1858 and 1861 he undertook a ground-breaking series of tensile load tests. With the Industrial Revolution in full swing, steel was replacing wrought iron, and tests were necessary to better understand the new material’s strengths and limitations.

In 1863, and by now an expert in his field, Kirkaldy left Glasgow and relocated to London to establish his own testing works. He designed and patented a large hydraulic tensile test machine, or tensometer, which was manufactured in Leeds and sent down to Southwark in 1865. The machine was moved to its present custom-built location in 1874, where visitors can still see it operating today.
The hydraulic tensile test machine in its full glory. 
Over 14 metres in length and weighing in at 116 tons the tensometer is designed to work horizontally, with the desired load applied by a hydraulic cylinder and ram. With a load capacity of around 450 tons it can test samples up to six metres in length in either tension or compression, and up to eight metres in bending. Crushing, shearing and torsion tests are also possible. Powered originally by high pressure water from the London Hydraulic Power Company the tensometer is now worked by an electric pump. In deference to the machine’s antiquity a load not exceeding 20 tons is used when breaking specimens for visitors.
Until its closure in the 1960s the Kirkaldy Testing Works tested materials sent from all over the world. Locally they tested parts used in the construction of several Thames bridges, as well as the Empire Stadium at Wembley (1923) and the Skylon at the Festival of Britain (1951). Metals suspected of having failed were also tested, including the remains of a de Havilland Comet aircraft that crashed off Elba in 1954. Most famously the works tested samples for the official inquiry into the Tay Bridge disaster. The bridge had collapsed during a storm in 1879 claiming the lives of all 75 passengers in a train crossing over it at the time. Using his tensometer, Kirkaldy demonstrated categorically that the cast iron lugs used to connect the framework of the bridge to the columns supporting it had failed. Little wonder the phrase “Facts not opinions” is inscribed over the works’ entrance!
Members of the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society first visited the abandoned works in 1974, as a result of which the building and its contents were listed for preservation (the first time in Britain such a joint listing had occurred). The ground floor and basement of the works were subsequently converted into a self-financing museum and the upper floors turned over to offices. Since its opening the museum has become a resting place for numerous other testing machines making it a one-of-a-kind collection.

Getting there: 
Jubilee line to Southwark.

The Kirkaldy Testing Museum is open on the first Sunday each month 10am–4pm.

Useful links: 
The official website of the Museum.

About the author:
Duncan J. D. Smith is a self-styled urban explorer, travel writer, historian and photographer. Born in Sheffield in the north of England he is currently based in Vienna, Austria. 

Duncan is the sole author and publisher of the ‘Only In’ Guides, a series of guidebooks revealing European cities from unusual perspectives. Published volumes include Berlin, Budapest, Cologne, Hamburg, Munich, Paris, Prague, Vienna, and Zurich. The article above is extracted from Duncan’s latest book “Only in London”.

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