Kirkaldy’s Testing and Experimenting Works

web_kirkaldyOur trip this month (February) was to the Kirkaldy Test Museum in Southwark, London. The founder, David  Kirkaldy (1820–1897), was unique in his time for recognising that industrial accidents such as the Tay Bridge Disaster were caused by failure to sufficiently understand and test the materials being used in the course of the Industrial Revolution.

He alone drove forward the development of materials testing and designed many of the testing machines housed in the museum, and his work continued in turn by his son and grandson. Notably, the motto which appears above the front door of the museum is “Facts Not Opinions”, and the building and museum contents are now Grade 2* listed.

Kirkaldy’s Testing and Experimenting Works

The museum occupies the ground floor and basement of 99 Southwark Street in the area just south of Tate Modern.

This building was built in 1874 specifically to house “Kirkaldy’s Testing and Experimenting Works”. It was a place where experiments took place on materials to determine their strength. This was done primarily using Kirkaldy’s own design of testing machine.

You may be wondering why it is in this particular location rather than in a northern city or more obviously industrial area of London, but 130 years ago this area was a hive of industry, very different to what it is now. Also, the location of the testing works was near to the headquarters of industry, the engineering institutions, Government and Parliament.

Why is the Kirkaldy Testing Museum important?

David Kirkaldy’s Testing and Experimenting Works set international standards in testing materials from which everyone’s everyday life benefits today.

Today, this unique Victorian workshop keeps alive our direct link with Kirkaldy’s innovation, at the heart of this bustling commercial district of London. The Kirkaldy Testing Museum preserves Kirkaldy’s unique Universal Testing Machine – the huge hydraulic powered machine he designed and had built in Leeds – in full working order in the premises he built to house it.


The Kirkaldy Machine – “The Big Machine” on the right and below. Samples can be tested in tension and compression. Crushing, shear and torsion tests are also possible.



Impact Machines to determine the behaviour of materials under shock loading. The Charpy machine is in front, and made in 1916 by the French and the Izod type machine is behind.


The Tarnogrock Wire Machine – Used for testing wire under torsional deformation

As well as presenting the story of the family who ran the business for almost 100 years and of the wider development of materials testing, the workshop and the Universal Testing Machine provide a unique crucible for new experimentation and collaboration – which can inspire future generations of scientists and artists alike to continue enquiring into the properties of the materials on which we build our lives.


The Brinell Machine – Used to determine the hardness values of samples.

The Objectives of the Museum

 To preserve David Kirkaldy’s machine in good working order and close to its original condition.

  • To retain as far as possible the Victorian character of the Works.
  • To explain to the public Kirkaldy’s role in developing quality control by regular monthly opening and special open days.
  • To store and exhibit the Kirkaldy archive, and develop a library on the history of materials testing.
  • To build and maintain a representative collection of working testing machines.

The museum is now run entirely by enthusiastic volunteers who welcome questions. Our visit started with a video to “set the scene” and then proceeded to demonstrations of how materials such iron, steel and concrete behave under tension and compression. These tests are now automatically built into projects ( where would Crossrail be without them?) but few people realise that we have the Kirkaldy family to thank for their magnificent legacy.

The group was introduced to a whole range of testing machines of varying sizes and shapes, some of which were demonstrated with our involvement. Some of these machines are now the only existing examples of their kind (the French would be delighted to have one in particular from the 1930’s back on French soil!). We were fascinated by one particular machine developed to test the bindings and cords used on parachutes which was demonstrated using modern blue binding tape used for parcels. This behaves in a variety of ways depending on the tensile strength and the time under stress which we would not have understood had we not seen the demonstration.


This machine is used to test both the bindings and cords of parachutes

At the end of the tour the volunteers powered up the huge Universal Testing Machine and demonstrated it’s capabilities, the maximum load this can apply is 300 tonnes!

As this museum is entirely run by volunteers, see the website for monthly openings days and hours


Part of the elegant frontage of the Kirkaldy building (Google Streetview) and the Mulberry Bush pub. Suspicious characters loitering outside

In accordance with Wings and Wheels tradition, later we enjoyed an excellent lunch at the Mulberry Bush pub in Upper Ground near to the OXO building. A very good day had by all !!


No stress here

Thanks to Peter D for the words and Peter and Jean T for photos.