A Pressure Point on Southwark Street

by Sheldon

We often lament and celebrate Cemeteries on this blog but its easy to forget that some of the places our forebears worked during their lives remarkably still exist. Down the soulless corridor of Southwark Street, eyeing the imposing Blue Fin Building, is a peculiarity. Part of a terrace of late Victorian design, this happy little yellow bricked building beams its mantra ‘facts not opinions‘ to passers-by on the street.

© John Lord 2011

© John Lord 2011

Strange, coming from a building that should proudly proclaim ‘A.D 1874’ (which is when it was built). No, instead its motto causes people to draw in with curiosity, with the rather large ‘Kirkaldy’s Testing and Experimenting Works’ further heightening the intrigue.

Last Sunday myself and Steve were walking down the street and saw that the Works had its doors wide open. Finally, a chance to peer inside after years of walking past it. With an hour or two to kill, we stepped over the threshold and were immediately transported to a time where the slick curves and simplicity of Apple products were instead represented in an age of pistons, grease and steam.

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The works were opened by David Kirkaldy, a Scot who cut his teeth in a Foundry Works on the River Clyde in the late 1830’s. In an age where the possibilities of Steel were offering far more scope than the likes of wrought and cast iron, he began to experiment with the tensile strength of this new metal between 1858 and 1861.He published his ‘Results of an Experimental Inquiry into the Comparative Tensile Strength and other properties of various kinds of Wrought-Iron and Steel’ in 1862, which led him to design his own testing equipment which was shipped, incomplete from Leeds, to premises in London.

He moved to an area filled with industry and soon all sorts of people (perhaps even our old friend Sir John Fowler) utilised the equipment he devised to test the strength of their materials. Its scope was not limited to London; projects from America also used its expertise. The Skylon, a key structure of the Festival of Britain, dismantled by order of Winston Churchill after he deemed the whole project ‘too Socialist’ from the previous Labour government, had its components tested here too.

Its most famous work is perhaps its role in examining why the Tay Bridge Disaster happened. Built by Sir Thomas Bouch, the bridge was endorsed by Queen Victoria who bestowed a Knighthood on him in 1879. Widely heralded, after a terrible storm in 1880 the bridge crumpled with a train full of passengers on board, becoming the worst Railway disaster in British history. Largely down to poor design and poor quality control, parts of the structure were taken here and examined to identify why the bridge failed.

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Kirkaldy1

The works however played the host to a nice little exhibition called Chain Reaction. Fully embracing the industrial equipment thats been here for the most part of 140 years, it seeks to examine the fluid nature of time with a number of interactive and ingenious installations. As you descend into the basement of the building, you encounter a scene that could easily be lifted from a Dickens novel: a subterranean corridor that is encrusted with the filth of a long gone London – with a collection of exhibits which do a superb job in giving you a sense of what this building must have been like when men, their faces and clothes stained with oil and sweat, navigated this warren of counterweights and metal work. 


P.S. The works continued through the family right up until David’s grandson retired in 1965. It is grade II* listed, a classification which makes up 5.5% of all listed buildings in the UK, and is a designated as part of a group of ‘particularly important buildings of more than special interest’.

Where Mr Kirkaldy was buried after his death in 1897, I wasn’t able to find.

Chain Reaction runs from the 15th – 18th October,between 1-7pm at the Kirkaldy Testing Museum. Details how to get there can be found here.

All photos other than the first image © Sheldon K Goodman 2015. 

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About SheldonKGoodman

I'm Sheldon, a City of Westminster guide who has a love of all things Cemetery! Co-founding the Cemetery Club in May 2014, it's my ambition to challenge the perception of Cemeteries are mournful places but to champion them as museums of people and libraries of the dead. I also co-lead the official Pride in London tour and do guided walks for Open Garden Square Weekend.
This entry was posted in Engineering, Heritage, History, London, Restored. Bookmark the permalink.

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