99 Southwark Street
Sunday May 6 2018
Jo had visited once before so this time Linda visited with Roger – as we live in Southwark we thought this would be a straightforward journey and visit totally possible to complete before lunch…well yes and no. The bus up was a ‘church bus’ with the women and children of SE London all in their floral Sunday best.
The Museum is run by volunteers and as such is only open on the first Sunday of each month with occasional evening sessions. As this is Year National Engineering Year it seemed appropriate to visit this quite unique establishment, which is housed in its purpose built setting now a Grade 2* listed building.. Because there are stone stairs and slightly uneven floors the tours are all guided and you would not want to move around unaccompanied.
The tour starts in the basement where there is an 8 minute introductory video explaining a little about David Kirkaldy, who founded the company and why he did so. As you might guess from his name David was a Scot and started his working life as a draftsman in the then very lively shipbuilding yards of the Clyde. An exciting time it was with the UK at the height of the Industrial Revolution and with new materials and methods being introduced all the time. All the trades were involved with carpenters, blacksmiths and stonemasons contributing to the country’s booming landscapes.
Kirkaldy could already see that what was required was some independent testing of the materials and methods being used and he moved to London and set himself up as ‘an independent tester’. His strapline and selling point was ‘FACTS NOT OPINIONS’ which are embedded in the building inside and out. At the time he came to London Southwark was home to a range of industries – leather for one – then the river and docks nearby and several railways converging. After a few years at the Grove Kirkaldy moved his testing apparatus into this building in 1874, which was in effect purpose built around his largest testing machine. This can be seen quite clearly from the basement workrooms where you see the wheel shaped components jutting down from the ceiling.
The practical demonstrations started with the Chapry (French) and IZOD testing machines – these were set up to test IMPACT and are in effect large mechanised hammers coming down on the material to be tested which is held in a clamp. The amount of impact can be increased and there is a calibrated scale to indicate what this means.
(At this point I should say that I did about one year of very basic physics 60 years ago, so to say I am ignorant is an understatement; the two questions I asked were met with patient tolerance) . Kirkaldy never recommended anything to anybody – all he did was to send them a signed certificate to indicate at which point the material no longer held. It was then up to the builder/developer/engineer etc to make up their own minds. When he started this testing there were no British Standards which were not introduced until 1901 and have been going strong ever since.
The second machine we were shown tested the strength of concrete under pressure (COMPRESSION) and had been doing so for some time. As our guide pointed out one of the characteristics of concrete is that it does not fully set for a couple of weeks. With tower blocks of course you cannot wait two weeks between each floor so presumably nowadays there are different ways of measuring the strength of load bearing surfaces… The machines here are powered by hydraulic pressure. Apparently there used to be a specialist London firm that just supplied water under pressure suitable for hydraulic applications (lifts in hotels for example) but here it was further beefed up by ever smaller pipes (this had to be explained to me) . Standing around were labelled bits of concrete that had been tested for the Ministries of Works and Defence and coincidentally for the Lee Green Shopping Centre, now a rather desolate shadow of its 1971 self… .
From compression we moved into TENSILE testing , most particularly that of chains… what had originally been the caretaker’s flat was annexed into a longer room so that, again under hydraulic pressure, lengths of chain could be pulled /stretched to their breaking point . This was heavy work as the WHOLE chain is moved along. ( I had thought maybe they do ‘sample testing’) but on the contrary each link must be put under pressure as any ‘weak link’ could cause the chain to break and chains hold up bridges and loads and secure ships everywhere. This machine is known as the DENTON Chain machine. Our guide pointed out that Kirkaldy never advertised – firms approached him. An early customer was the German firm KRUPPS, which certainly would have given the firm prestige.
The building and its contents stayed in the Kirkaldy family for three generations before closing in the Sixties. Back up the stairs you are able to see David’s original office, much as it was, dust included, and this is where the Museum displays his prize-winning drawing of a paddle steamer – the prize was given by the Royal Academy and remains the only occasion when they awarded such to a technical piece
Tucked away on the open plan ground floor was a further small machine designed to test the hardness of materials ; two versions were available one with an industrial diamond which is brought down under pressure onto the material , the other a round steel ball. Both make dents at certain points from which, via a series of tables and calculations you can work out at what pressure the material might start to distort.
This lead us to the BIG MACHINE which was able to measure the strength and the compression tension and torsion as applied to larger pieces such as girders – both front and back doors can be opened in order for large and long posts or pillars to be held secure in the jaws and subject to series of stress tests. Apparently some of the bits were so long they hung out into Southwark Street and an employee had to sit there, day and night sometimes, in order to ensure the passing traffic did not trip over them…This machine still works and the volunteers run it at 2PM on their Open Days. It does take up most of this floor and was built in Leeds by Greenwood & Batley nearly 100 years ago.
Tucked away in another corner was a small, more modern machine that had been used to test the cords on parachutes and today was able to demonstrate how far that awful flat plastic tape that you fight to get off parcels would last under tension – the tension on this occasion produced by a young girl turning a handle until the tape broke into multiple fibres (the museum jokingly describes itself as the only museum that likes to break things). We had been given safety goggles which made me reflect quite how much we owed Kirkaldy and his successors as they pioneered what we know as ensuring safe structures. We assume (Grenfell Tower apart) that we can trust that the materials chosen and incorporated are strong enough for the purposes they are used and have been tested as such.
Our visit finished at this point and in a spirit of nostalgia we decided to take a bus 381 back to Peckham for onward transport The driver explained as we boarded (the only passengers) that he would not be going to London Bridges as there was a detour. We spent the next 45 minutes or so trundling round SE1 and some of SE 16 and went up and down Tower Bridge Road in both directions – I was very puzzled at this point and asked him: he said Tooley Street was closed because of the ongoing building around London Bridge and there were road works also off Southwark Street. We briefly got back on route only to be diverted again after Canada Water, where a few more passengers got on. At one point he seemed to think he was a Number 1 bus. I queried our travelling and checked we were still heading for Peckham at which point he said ‘My controller expects me to be there in 20 minutes and it will take me 10 to get round this corner’ (somewhere in Rotherhithe). I went to sit down and not long afterwards he stopped the bus at Sherwood Gardens, got off and disappeared. Passengers closer to the driving seat had heard him say ‘well in that case I am abandoning the bus’. We all waited about 5 minutes and then got off (he had left both doors open) and went our various ways. Quite what happened to bus and driver we don’t know but in all our 546 journeys that we took during the Project nothing like this had ever happened…