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The testing machine that moved here in 1874Across the road and at the back of Kirkaldy’s Testing and Experimenting Works in Southwark, south London, vast high-rise buildings are being built, testimony to the current regeneration of a neglected part of the inner city, which is less than a mile from the financial heart.

The money that’s being lavished on the new construction is in rather stark contrast to Kirkaldy’s itself, where the works, which has been on the site since 1874 and is now a museum that houses perhaps the world’s most complete collection of Victorian and early 20th century mechanical testing machinery, is in need of both funds and friends.

Particularly friends. A snowy Sunday in early February may not be the easiest time to get your volunteers out, but the current level of willing helpers means that the museum opens for the first Sunday of every month, and at other times only “by arrangement”. And you need a few people to be around to work the machines, especially the biggest one of them all.

The centrepiece of the Kirkaldy’s Works is, as it has been since curmudgeonly Scots engineer David Kirkaldy set the place up, a huge hydraulically-powered “universal” testing machine for carrying out tensile and compressive testing of large-scale components. A complex arrangement of weights and arms allows the current configuration to exert forces up to 150,000 lb; in the past, and perhaps the future if restoration funds are available, it could go up to 1,000,000 lb.

The machine was designed by Kirkaldy himself and was built by a Leeds firm; it was installed first on a site nearby and the current building was built around it with power coming from the London Hydraulic Power Company whose network of pipes also lifted Tower Bridge’s road deck and revolved the stage at the London Palladium.

With his huge testing machine, 47 feet and seven inches long and weighing 116 tons, Kirkaldy may not have invented materials testing, but he certainly brought it to a new peak and established the idea of an independent test house. His motto, “Facts not opinions”, indicates Victorian qualities of earnestness, but also encapsulates the rigour of the profession.

It was rigour that was well used in the 91 years that the works operated commercially on the site until the retirement of Kirkaldy’s grandson in 1965. Among the artefacts brought here were the girders from first Tay bridge, retrieved from waters of the firth after the disastrous collapse in December 1879. Old photographs of Kirkaldy’s “gallery of failures” on an upper floor of the building – now smart high-tech offices – show other tested pieces: buckled locomotive tyres, a fractured stringer from the current Hammersmith Bridge.

The Testing Museum that now occupies the ground and basement floors of Kirkaldy’s works has many other smaller testing machines as well, some of them originals bought by the firm, others loaned or bequeathed over the years. Many of them work: a 1916 French Charpy testing machine cuts through a piece of modern steel as neatly as it would have done for the First World War munitions factory that bought it; a 1930s Avery fabric testing machine explains Hooke’s law without using words.

Kirkaldy's Testing and Experimenting WorksKirkaldy’s is helped by close links to Imperial College and the benign influence of the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society, but its long-term survival, now that Southwark has been “discovered”, has to be in some doubt. For a snapshot of real engineering and problem-solving, it’s to be hoped that it finds funds and friends soon.

Kirkaldy’s Testing Museum, open first Sunday in the month at 99 Southwark Street, London SE1 0JF.