Saturday, January 31, 2009
Southwark Street and Price's Street, London
Not many people notice the Kirkaldy Testing Museum, a building on London’s Southwark Street not far from the back of Tate Modern. I came across it by chance, and learned from the notice on the front wall that it was built for Scottish engineer David Kirkaldy (1820–97), who built the first machine capable of testing really large construction components to find out whether they would be strong enough for their planned use. With this device (built in 1865 or 1874 according to which notice you read), Kirkaldy could test full-size girders, beams, columns, and so on, in tension and compression, and could find out how they would respond to twisting, bending, impact, and other challenges. The Testing Works, as the building was originally called, was clearly a very important place for Victorian builders and engineers, and Kirkaldy’s amazing machine is still inside.
The Southwark Street front is a solid-looking brick facade in the round-arched style that the Victorians sometimes used, but I popped round the back to have a look at the rear elevation in Price’s Street. Here the building looks more like the archetypical Southwark warehouse, in stock brick with iron crane, but with the original name emblazoned across the top. I admired the lettering but was rather concerned about the broken downpipe: Kirkaldy would not have approved. This façade must have housed the working entrance, where all the beams, girders, ship plates, railway wheels, and so on were brought in to be put through their paces.
This was ground-breaking work in the days before simulation and computers, and when bridges, tunnels, factories, and other structures were growing bigger then ever before. We probably owe the durability of many of our Victorian structures to the tests carried out in this important but little-known place. I hope to go back some time, on one of the days when the museum is open (the first Sunday in each month), have a look inside, and see Kirkaldy’s machine – all 116 tons of it.
You can read more about Kirkaldy's Works and see a photograph of his machine here.