Visit the Kirkaldy Testing Museum

Wandering the streets of Southwark one day, I looked up and spotted an intriguing sign:

Who is/was Kirkaldy, I wondered, and what does/did he test?

David Kirkaldy (1820-1897) was one of your classic Victorians. A Scottish engineer who rose from draughtsman to one of the most highly-respected engineering experts in the world. He designed a Universal Testing Machine for testing the strength of metals – vitally important for the new industrial age of iron and steel, railways and shipping, vast bridges and powerful engines. His machine – 47ft (14.5m) long, 116 ton hydraulic machine could stretch, compress and twist bits of metal up to 20ft (if I remember rightly) long, to find out how much pressure they could handle before they broke.

He also developed much smaller machines for testing the strength of concrete, and was sent samples from as far away as Sudan and Australia for testing.

Unfortunately, almost as soon as his machine was completed it had been superseded, as it was realised that you didn’t have to test a whole 20ft pillar for its breaking point, just a sample of it. His business remained successful, though, and the machine tested materials used in many of Bazalgette’s bridges, the Skylon (built for the Festival of Britain in 1951) and, most famously, materials from the Tay Bridge disaster, as part of the investigations to find out just what had gone wrong.

The machine was housed in a purpose-built warehouse in Southwark, where it remains – in working order – to this day.

This machine was testing the strength of packing tape/webbing.

Until now the Kirkaldy Testing Museum has only been open on the first Sunday of the month, with machine demonstrations at 2pm. The demonstrations have become so popular, however, that the museum has decided not to run them during Sunday openings, but instead do them on the second Saturday of the month. Tours of the building are available on both days (and are well worth doing – there are lots more exciting bits of machinery to watch in action, some of which you can have a go at yourself) and if you manage to get Carlos as your guide (main image), you’ll find him interesting and knowledgeable. He’s really much more smily than this picture suggests, but he wouldn’t let me use the other shots I took!

I suspect that the Saturday tours will be busier than the Sunday ones, so if you want to be able to ask lots of questions (as I did!), I’d recommend the Sundays. There’s not a lot to see with the machine working – and very few satisfyingly Victorian clanks or piston noises, though there is a suitably oily smell in the building – it just gets on quietly with its work of pulling a metal bar apart. So if you can’t make it on a Saturday, you will get just as good an experience (for a few pounds less) on a Sunday.

———

What: Visit a Victorian metal- and concrete-testing facility

Where: 99 Southwark Street, London SE1 0JF (just behind Tate Modern)

When: First Sunday of the month, 11am-5pm (last entry 4pm). Tours every half hour. Machine NOT running. Just turn up.

Second Saturday of the month, 2pm-5pm. Machine will run at 3pm, with tours available before and after the run. Tickets must be bought in advance for this. See the Eventbrite listing on the opening times page.

How much: Sunday openings: £8/£6 (under 12s free – but only take them if they’re really interested in engineering – you’re not allowed to wander at your own pace). Just show up.

Saturday openings: £15/13 (pricing for under 12s not yet listed). Prebook only.

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