A wonderful testing works on London’s South Bank
The imposing art deco Tate Modern and its new-ish extension, coupled with the glass severity that is the Blue Fin Building, tower over a nearby testing facility whose custom-made machine is as enduring a memorial as his own gravestone.
The entrance to the building is surmounted with one of those social media honeypots which seem tailor-made for peoples feeds. The words have particular provenance in today’s society as much as they did when they were first installed in 1874, in a building designed by Thomas Roger Smith.1 ‘Facts, not opinions‘. Indeed.
This is the ethos of the Kirkaldy Testing and Experiment Works, a real gem on London’s South Bank. To many of us, engineering in the form of an Apple store has a stylishly designed interior. Here, in an age before electronics, it’s all pistons, machinery and grease. It’s 19th century innovation and investigation in all its mechanical might.
The works were opened by Dundee-born David Kirkaldy as a place where science and design solve engineering’s challenges. He was a pioneer in tensile testing who cut his teeth in Napier’s engine works in Glasgow in 1843, where he was also chief draughtsman.
Exacting detail was something he strove for and his draughtsmanship extended to his talent as an artist. His coloured sketches of four ocean liners were displayed at the Paris Exhibition of 1855 and later exhibited in The Louvre. In 1861 his drawing of RMS Persia was exhibited in the Royal Academy at its Summer Exhibition – this was the first time an engineering drawing was regarded in the same manner as an artwork.
Kirkaldy began to experiment with the tensile strength of steel, a new material compared to the old standards of wrought and cast iron 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 universal testing machine, which was built by Greenwood and Batley of Leeds and shipped to London.
Used for all manner of civil, naval and construction engineering, Kirkaldy’s machine specialised in ‘pulling, thrusting, bending, twisting, shearing, punching and bulging’.2 The Works most important role was its part in examining the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879. The bridge, built by Sir Thomas Bouch, was endorsed by Queen Victoria and was widely heralded as an engineering wonder of the age.
A terrible storm in 1879 knackered the structure, sending a train full of passengers plunging into the river below.3 This wasthe worst railway disaster in British history up until that point and the accident was attributed largely to poor design and quality control. Parts of the structure were taken to Kirkaldy’s works for inspection and testing to help determine the cause of structural failure. It was the only independent testing works of its kind in the world: it is remarkable that no such place existed beforehand.
The machine and the works were not limited to London; projects from America also used its expertise. In the 1880s Hammersmith Bridge, which nowadays is beset with strutural issues and, albeit much later, The Skylon (a much-missed structure built for the Festival of Britain in 1951) had its components tested here too. Kirkaldy kept his own ‘museum of fractures’ on the second and third floors to demonstrate his remarkable machines achievements.
The business passed to his son and grandson before its eventual closure in 1974. In 1983, the site was managed by enthusiastic volunteers and a museum trust to keep the spirit of Kirkaldy’s work ethic alive. It’s open a few days a month and is well worth a visit.
So – where is Kirkaldy now?
A man whose whose engineering work should have him on the same level as Fowler, Brunel or Bazalgette is buried in Highgate Cemetery.
Kirkaldy died in 1897 after a three month battle against heart failure, at his home in Tufnell Park. His methodical analysis on materials testing led to him being regarded as, somewhat tongue in cheek rather than as a genuine thought I suspect, as ‘the best hated man in London.’ He was buried in Highgate East alongside Karl Marx, Malcolm McClaren and Claudia Jones.
1 Smith also designed Mount Vernon Hospital in Hampstead. He was active in the colonial debate on enforcing European architecture in India rather than using local styles. Thomas R. Metcalf, Architecture and the Representation of Empire: India, 1860–1910, Representations No. 6 (Spring, 1984), pp. 37–65, at p. 37. Published by: University of California Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2928537
3 Only 46 out of the known 59 passengers on board were recovered: the disaster effectively ended Bouch’s career and his plans for the Forth Bridge were not adopted. Remarkably the locomotive was salvaged from the river and returned to active service, gaining the moniker ‘The Diver’.
All photos other than the first image © Sheldon K Goodman 2022.
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