Kirkaldy Museum at 99�Southwark Street, London

Heritage under threat - Kirkaldy's Machine

Every time a site of historical importance changes hands the new owners pore over the deeds and ask themselves why the previous incumbents felt it so important to preserve that pile of junk in the basement. Kirkaldy's Machine, the foundation to the modern system of materials testing, is currently under such scrutiny. Should it be saved? And could you help to save it?

An understanding of the strength of materials is essential for modern mechanical and structural engineering. But it was not until the advent of the railway that British engineers found themselves on - literally - a crash course in the forces affecting the structures of the materials they were using. Boilers exploded, chains broke and bridges collapsed due to poor-quality materials and sometimes counterfeit engineering components.

In May 1847, Robert Stephenson's new bridge across the River Dee near Chester collapsed throwing a train into the river and killing five people. The bridge was constructed using three cast-iron girders, dovetailed together and strengthened by wrought iron bars strapped along their length. Government reports condemned the use of trussed cast iron in railway bridges. Many similar bridges failed over the ensuing decades, and casting defects in the iron plus blow holes were usually to blame. A more famous disaster occurred in 1879, when the new Tay Bridge collapsed taking a train and 75 people into the icy water. Again, structural failings were deemed to be at fault. Engineers needed means to investigate the strength of components before use, but there was no valid data.

A head for pressure

David Kirkaldy was born in 1820 near Dundee, where his father was a linen manufacturer. In 1843 David left the family firm for an apprenticeship with the Glasgow shipbuilding firm Robert Napier & Sons. Within four years, he was the chief draughtsman and calculator, and his draughtsmanship was considered good enough for his drawings to be exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

In 1858 he was asked to determine the suitability of the materials being offered to Napier for high-pressure marine boilers. He built a single-lever machine to test the strength of the boiler plates, and so started his work in materials testing. By 1862 he had amassed sufficient data to publish a book on the strength of wrought iron and steel. This book became the standard work on the strength of iron until the turn of the century and established Kirkaldy's reputation.

In 1862, Kirkaldy left Napier and established an independent testing facility. He designed a testing machine that was exceptional in size and power and was a great advance on those previously used by some engineers, including Barlow of the Royal Arsenal. Kirkaldy commissioned Greenwood & Batley of Leeds to build his machine. It was constructed between 1864-65. The machine, 47ft 7in (14.5m) long and weighing 116 tonnes, was installed in the Grove, Southwark. The business was immediately successful and a few years later Kirkaldy asked the architect TR Smith to design a four-storey-plus-basement works fronting on to the new Southwark Street. The design included specially strengthened pillars in the basement to support the machine.

Kirkaldy's Testing & Experimenting Works opened at 99 Southwark St, London, in January 1874. The machine was designed to work horizontally, the load applied by a hydraulic cylinder and ram. Loads up to one million pounds (446 tonnes) could be applied and accurately registered. Kirkaldy later wrote that he never worked above 300 tonnes. A moveable carriage allowed pieces of 25ft in length to be tested. The load was applied by increasing the water pressure and was usually accurately measured by Kirkaldy, who stood, his back to the testing machine, slowly moving weights on a steelyard, connected to a bulk head on to which the test piece butted. Initially a steam engine powered a hydraulic system; later the power was supplied by the London Hydraulic Power Company.

To expand the business, Kirkaldy installed a horizontal chain tester, which can still be found in the basement. The first floor was home to the workshop. Kirkaldy insisted that test pieces must be completely fractured; he even kept a 'museum of fractures' on the second and top floors. The works tested every type of material: from metal and wooden beams to chains and concrete.

Kirkaldy was not an academic and disliked writing up experiments, yet the quality and accuracy of his work was appreciated by engineers, steelmakers and ironfounders in Britain and elsewhere.

On opening the Grove Works, samples of parts for Blackfriars Bridge, then under construction, were sent in for testing from Krupps in Essen, Germany. American samples from Eads' New Orleans Bridge were tested in 1869. These commissions came about because 99 Southwark St was the only independent testing house in the world for many years. The motto over the door in Southwark St – 'Facts not Opinions' – spoke volumes.

The business prospered under Kirkaldy and, later, his son William George. In 1914, Dr Gulliver was appointed manager, since at the time the next family member was only four. In 1938, Kirkaldy's grandson David became the owner until 1965 when the works was sold. It eventually closed in 1974.

In 1987, Kirkaldy Senior's machine was given an Engineering Heritage Award by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. The citation read: 'This machine established the present-day system of materials testing and specifications of mechanical properties for engineering materials.'

The Museum Project

By chance, in December 1974, Denis Smith, then chair of the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society (GLIAS) was photographing the building when he was invited in. He found the interior almost unchanged in 100 years, with Kirkaldy's machine still in its original place. The Crown Estates personnel, charged with looking after the building, were equally enthusiastic and permitted the Goldsmith College IA class and GLIAS to record the building and its machinery in mid-January 1975. At this time, some fixtures and fittings, along with an archive of documents, were handed over to the care of the Science Museum.

The building had been listed in 1971 on the merits of its architecture and with knowledge of its contents. In 1975, the site was registered by English Heritage. The machine, listed as part of the building, became a Grade 2 listed object. In the late 1970s, the Crown Estates leased the whole site to the Industrial Buildings Preservation Trust, who planned to convert the empty upper floors into offices for small-scale and charitable ventures. The lease stated that the ground floor and basement were to be a museum, based around the Kirkaldy Machine.

The Kirkaldy Testing Museum was finally opened in spring 1984. The museum's band of volunteers has returned the Kirkaldy Machine to working order, maintained the unique Victorian atmosphere of the ground and basement floors, and opened the doors to thousands of visitors over the last two decades. Various testing machines have been donated to the museum and some smaller ones can be operated by the public.

The planned use of the upper floors, however, never materialised, and the lease was acquired by Waterman Partnership, civil engineers who were very sympathetic to the Museum and used it for corporate events.

Engineering shrine in a cafe?

Nothing much had changed at Kirkaldy Works until in 201, when the site was acquired by Rosemount Kirkaldy Ltd.

Rosemount upgraded the upper floors, cleaned the frontage and let out the offices. However, they found the museum a problem, especially since its existence was confirmed in the lease. Their initial plan was to buy off the museum and move the Kirkaldy Machine elsewhere.

The museum directors rejected this proposal and enlisted the support of like-minded organisations. They wanted to enhance statutory protection for the building and its contents. The estimates for moving Kirkaldy's Machine were in excess of £100,000. Many other difficulties were obvious: the lease said that it should remain a museum; the listing implied the same. The trustees finally decided that moving the machine to another building would be totally inappropriate.

Given that moving the museum out of the building had been rejected, Rosemount has commissioned architects to suggest how the ground floor and basement can be converted into a cafe/restaurant. Their provisional scheme would be to site the cafe around the Kirkaldy Machine on the ground floor as well as to include some office space currently let to others. The museum area would be open for the public, as it is now. The basement area would be upgraded and an annual donation made to the museum to keep the machine operational.

The problem here is that to create the caf' much of the machinery would have to go. Rosemount refers to the success of similar conversions of industrial buildings; however, most of those occupy generally empty shells.

One example is the re-use of the former LHP pumping station in Wapping, London. In this pumphouse, built in 1892 and closed in 1977, many of the hydraulic pumps were retained and are now part of a successful and popular restaurant, The Wapping Project, where diners sit near or around the pumps. A similar conversion befell the Der Pump cafe/restaurant in Berlin, where diners sit alongside the restored horizontal sewage-pumping engines. The main difference between the Kirkaldy Museum and these two restaurants, however, is floor space, which in the Wapping Project is considerable – sufficient to accommodate a number of restaurant tables. This is not the case in No 99, where the testing machine occupies the whole of the centre of the ground floor.

Likewise, it is not clear how a working museum will be able to share the space with a commercial operation, with all the required health and safety provisions. The character of the functioning Victorian engineering business has so far been preserved, but this will inevitably be lost in the proposed hybrid scheme that will permanently damage the internationally important historic building.

When Rosemount bought the building, they must have been aware that the Kirkaldy Museum housed a unique piece of Victorian engineering. While their present scheme contains some good features, too much would still be lost.

GLIAS believes that Kirkaldys should be raised to Grade 1 status immediately and that should include the associated equipment. GLIAS has agreed to start and coordinate this process. Support has come from bodies such as the Newcomen Society for the History of Engineering and Technology, The AIA and the London Borough of Southwark, as well as many individuals, but more support is needed especially from those professionally involved in the subject and the engineering institutions.

Professor David Perrett is chair of GLIAS

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles