Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Swindon: World Heritage Site?

"Swindon in Wiltshire": What’s the first thing that comes into your mind? A whole host of jokes perhaps…particularly those assuming a complete lack of culture? Maybe, however without wanting to make remarks about how this city sized town has morphed itself into a vibrant and productive community, with excellent communications over the past 25 years, I'm going to talk about it’s innovative past.

I'm not a native of this town, but have indeed lived here for the past quarter of a century, and there is one thing that still puzzles me: Why is the Great Western Railway (GWR) works, associated Railway Village and it’s infrastructural buildings not a World Heritage site? Yes I did say, "World Heritage Site"!
The Works Water Tower Dwarfs The Village
The area is currently designated as a conservation area and the buildings are only grade 2 listed, but believe it or not here lies the cradle of the British modern social, medical and educational systems….a structure that has been more or less adopted across many modern nations. It is even arguable that this was the model for politically orientated “Socialist” living.

From humble beginnings as an early Anglo-Saxon defensive settlement on a lone hill overlooking the surrounding area, Swindon gradually developed as a market town, until between 1841 and 1842 Isambard Kingdom Brunel established his production and maintenance facilities for his rolling stock on the GWR. The works were to go on to employ some 14,500 people at its peak before it’s final closure in 1986.

Not only did Brunel build what would become one of the largest manufacturing operations in the world, but he had the social vision to understand that cared for workers, who are fit and happy make for loyal, hard working employees. Brunel consequently built not only a number of houses just outside the walls of the works, but established a thriving village community by investing in supporting infrastructure. The employees not only had a short distance to travel to work but were also provided with; faith, medical, educational, retail and entertainment services on their doorsteps.
A Row of Workers Cottages

The houses themselves are laid out in neat ranks and consist of several different sizes of property which were generally apportioned in terms of size according to the rank of the workers; the more senior management being entitled to slightly grander surroundings.  There are several rows of back to back houses with convenient arched walkthroughs which benefit from lawn frontages. There are also more traditional terraces that enjoy small discrete walled rear gardens separated at the backs by relatively wide service lanes.
Service Lanes at the House Backs 
At the ends of the terraces, towards the central area, surrounding the “Mechanics Institute" were a small number of corner shops and public houses, two of the pubs still survive today.

The Mechanics Institute, now sadly derelict and shored up, stands at the centre of the village having been on this site since 1855, previously having been established in 1844 in the close by “Chapel” building. It provided a covered market and meeting and function rooms, often used for educational purposes. Indeed it is probably fair to say that due to various educational initiatives the workforce were among the best educated manual workers in Britain at the time.  The Institute was also the centre for the promotion of local democracy and pioneering trade union activities.
The Mechanics Institute
From 1871 the workers paid a small weekly deduction from their wages that entitled them to medical care (and later other well-being facilities) that were provided via the GWR medical fund clinic and its hospital located at the edges of the campus.
The Medical Fund Hospital
Later in 1892, across the road from the hospital, a health centre; now called the “health hydro” was opened. It provided swimming pools, a dance hall, Turkish baths, laundries, a pharmacy and clinics. It also housed Britain’s first lending library.

Under the medical fund workers received not only medical care and free medicines but also prosthetic limbs and later dental surgery.  It was this integrated approach to social and medical care that became the blueprint for the modern National Health Service (NHS).

The Health Centre (Hydro)

So next time you are heading either way past Swindon on the M4 why not turn off and spend an hour or two exploring this architectural and historic gem, built out of cutting edge concern for the care and prosperity of the underpinning manual working classes?

All images and text copyright Andrew Hill 2013

More and larger Images may be found on the Revealing Light website.

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