Saturday, January 31, 2009

Southwark Street and Price's Street, London

Testing, testing

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.


Peter Ashley said...

Fantastic. I've always wanted to know about this building ever since I saw it from the railway as it rattles over the streets from Charing Cross to London Bridge. Thankyou, I have one or two things that could do with a good testing.

Anne said...

I only heard about this a few weeks ago. How fascinating! Hope you can get in there sometime soon. Must add it to my to-do list!

CarolineLD said...

It's well worth a visit - I finally made it during Open House weekend last autumn. I love the motto above the door: a very stern 'Facts Not Opinions'.

Ron Combo said...

Perhaps your new herringbone trousers could be given a good testing here before they are subjected to full Leicestershire public house combat conditions Peter?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Even the tough fabrics used by Old Town for their resilient trousers would meet their match with Mr Kirkaldy's massive machine, Ron.

Jon Dudley said...

Groin area strength is probably what's most required. Maybe the trousers are made of real herringbone for maximum comfort, eh Mr.A.
Another fine study Philip - Facts not Opinions - marvellous.

Colin Jenkins said...

The museum now has a website
We need a lot more visitors and volunteers if the museum is going to survive for much longer.

Colin - One of the small band of volunteers.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Colin: Thank you for your comment. I do hope you get more volunteers soon.