Swindon: the heritage of a railway town

By Historic England

In the mid 19th century, the Great Western Railway transformed Swindon from a small, hilltop market town into an industrial giant. At its height, the Great Western Railway works was one of the largest railway engineering complexes in the world. This gallery of images from the Historic England Archive illustrates some of the town's incredible railway heritage.

Site of the Great Western Railway Works, Swindon (2015-06-18) by Damian Grady, Historic EnglandHistoric England

Swindon: the heritage of a railway town

Swindon is one of the most important historic railway towns in England. In the 1840s a greenfield site near the market town was transformed by the Great Western Railway (GWR). The scale of the GWR's influence on Swindon reached its peak in the second quarter of the 20th century. Gradual decline followed and in 1986 the Works closed. Prior to the final closure, many important buildings were recorded and added to the National Heritage List because of their historical and architectural significance, and their wider national importance. This gallery of images from the Historic England Archive illustrates the industrial, domestic, leisure and health buildings that contribute to the town's proud railway heritage.

The Great Western Railway Works, Swindon, from the east. (1938-08-30) by Aerofilms LtdHistoric England

The Great Western Railway transforms Swindon

The Great Western Railway revolutionized Swindon. In 1841 the population of the small hilltop market town numbered 2,459. By the middle of the 20th century, over 14,000 people worked in the town's massive railway works. A New Swindon was born.

The Great Western Railway Works and environs, Swindon, from the south-west (1946-11-13) by Aerofilms LtdHistoric England

Why Swindon?

The Great Western Railway was established in 1833 to connect Bristol and London. The line was to pass just to the north of  hill-top Swindon, on flatter land, where a branch line would run north to Gloucester. Swindon was also a practical location as it was here that the land became steeper, meaning that a more powerful engine had to be attached here to complete the journey to Bristol. In 1840 it was decided that Swindon was to be the site of the GWR's engine shed and repair and manufacturing works. The following year, it was agreed that refreshment rooms would be made available at Swindon for passengers waiting for the engines to be swapped.

Swindon Railway Station, Station Road, Swindon (1961-05-13) by Unknown photographerHistoric England

Swindon Station

The GWR struck a deal with the contractors JD&C Rigby to build Swindon's railway station.

The journey between London and Bristol took four hours. It was agreed that trains would stop at Swindon for ten minutes while engines were changed.

As Swindon was the only stop between London and Bristol with refreshment rooms, Rigbys were able to take advantage of this money-making opportunity.

Poor service and high prices soon gave the refreshment rooms a bad reputation.

The Railway Works, Swindon, from the west (1954-03-29) by Aerofilms LtdHistoric England

The Works site

The GWR Works at Swindon grew rapidly as a greenfield site was filled with workshops, stores, offices and lines of railtrack.

Building material included stone from the quarries up the hill in old Swindon. These quarries had been worked since Roman times.

The workshops first built waggons and soon after the GWR's own locomotives. The Works established a world-class reputation for the quality of its engineering.

The Engine House, Fire Fly Avenue, Swindon (2020-02-11) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

The General Offices

The GWR's general office building was the nerve centre of the GWR Works in Swindon. It was built in 1842-3 and was enlarged in the 1870s and 1900s. It housed the office of Sir Daniel Gooch, the GWR's first locomotive superintendent, and the drawing office, where some of the great steam locomotives were designed.

After the closure of the Works, it became the head office of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. The building is now used as offices for Historic England and English Heritage.

Read the National Heritage List entry for the offices.

GWR Carriage Works No 8 Shop, London Street, Swindon (2020-01-21) by Stee Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

The Carriage Works

Swindon was chosen for the location of the GWR's Carriage Works in the late 1860s. A new range of buildings were erected between the main line and the Railway Village.

The carriages were constructed on the upper floor, which was level with the main line. The lower floor included accommdation for machinery and a vast canteen for workers.

Read the National Heritage List entries for the Carriage Works No 7 Shop and No 8 Shop.

GWR Works entrance, Emlyn Square, Swindon (2020-01-21) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

The Works Entrance

Prior to 1870 workers had to cross over the rail line to get to the Works buildings from the Railway Village. This resulted in a number of accidents.

When a new Carriage Works was constructed, it included a new entrance building and subway beneath the main line.

Read the National Heritage List entry for the Works Entrance.

The subway beneath the GWR Carraige Works, Emlyn Square, Swindon (2020-02-11) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

The Subway

The 1870 subway allowed GWR workers to pass safely under the main line, between the Railway Village and the GWR Works.

Great Western Railway Works Water Tower, Bristol Street, Swindon (2020-02-11) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

The Water Tower

Some amazing GWR works structures have been landmarks for over 100 years.

This water tower was designed in 1870. It was built to provide water at high pressure for fire-fighting in the Carriage Works.

Read the National Heritage List entry for the Water Tower.

Terraced houses, Bristol Street, Swindon (1995) by Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of EnglandHistoric England

Accommodating a new workforce

As there was no local heavy industry tradition in Swindon, workers had to be brought in from Bristol, London, northern England and Scotland. Good quality housing and a range of facilities were needed to entice and retain a skilled workforce. 

8 and 9 Bristol Street, Swindon (2020-02-21) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

A cottage estate was built to the south side of the main line. Between 1842 and 1855 300 cottages were built. Rent payments were deducted from GWR employees' weekly pay.

To supplement income, rooms were often sub-let, meaning that some cottages were home to two families. This led to overcrowding in the Railway Village.

Front parlour, 34 Faringdon Road, Swindon (2020-03-02) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

The Railway Village Museum, 34 Faringdon Road

One of the workers' cottages has been preserved as a museum. This view shows the front parlour furnished in the style of a railway worker's home in around 1900.

Read the National Heritage List entry for the terrace of cottages at 4-34 Faringdon Road.

The rear of workers' cottages, Oxford Street, Swindon (2020-02-06) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

The rear of a terrace of Railway Village cottages.

Read the National Heritage List entry for the cottages at 15-30 Oxford Street.

The Platform, Faringdon Road, Swindon (2020-02-06) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

The Barracks

Not all of the dwellings built to house GWR workers were in the form of rows of cottages.

An imposing lodging house was built in the Railway Village to accommodate single, male workers. Known as The Barracks, it had over 100 sleeping-rooms, a day room, a bakery and kitchens.

It proved unpopular as many potential occupants preferred to lodge with local families. In 1868-9 it was converted into a Wesleyan Methodist chapel and a pair of stair towers added to the front.

Nearly a century later, it became the Great Western Railway Museum and since 2010 has been a youth centre.

Read the National Heritage List entry for The Barracks.

Park House, Church Place, Swindon (2006-01-20) by Peter Williams, English HeritageHistoric England

Park House

Park House was built as a home and surgery for the GWR's chief medical officer. It was later used as a medical centre where men seeking employment with the GWR were examined.

Read the National Heritage List entry for Park House.

The Park, Faringdon Road, Swindon (2020-02-11) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

Workers' health and wellbeing

The GWR and its workers built and developed buildings and facilities that were essential for the spiritual, physical and intellectual health of employees, their families and the wider local community. Such amenities included a public park, a parish church, medical facilities and public houses. As well as being of significance to the people of Swindon and railway enthusiasts, Swindon's railway heritage connects directly with the founding of one of the nation's most treasured institutions - the National Health Service.  

Church of St Mark, Church Place, Swindon (1995) by Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of EnglandHistoric England

Church of St Mark

Before a church could be built for the New Swindon community, a temporary church was set up in a room in the GWR works.

Funds from a public subscription and the GWR soon enabled the construction of the Anglican Church of St Mark. New Swindon's parish church was consecrated by the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol on 25 April 1845, in front of the directors and senior officials of the GWR.

A vicarage and school were also built as part of the scheme.

Read the National Heritage List entries for the Church of St Mark and St Mark's Vicarage.

The Park, Faringdon Road, Swindon (2019-10-16) by Damian Grady, Historic EnglandHistoric England

The Cricket Ground and The Park

In 1844 farmland to the west of the cottages of the Railway Village was obtained for a cricket and recreation ground for GWR workers.

In 1871-2 the Cricket Ground was landscaped, creating a public park with an entrance lodge, formal gardens and greenhouses.

Sign for the GWR New Swindon Park, Faringdon Road, Swindon (2006-03) by Peter Williams, English HeritageHistoric England

The Park was the site of the annual Children’s Fete, which in 1904 attracted 38,000 people who consumed 1,200 gallons of tea and 3.5 tons of cake.

Children under the age of 14 were admitted for free and given a cup of tea, piece of cake and a free ride on the roundabouts.

The Mechanics' Institution, Emlyn Square, Swindon (2020-01-21) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

The GWR Mechanics' Institution

The GWR Mechanics' Institution was formed in 1844. Its purpose was to educate and entertain the workers of the GWR and the local community in New Swindon.

Originally housed in a building on the Works site, a new, bespoke Institution was built at the heart of the Railway Village in 1853-5 and enlarged in 1892-3.

It contained a library and reading room, coffee room, mess room, baths and an assembly hall/theatre. Attached to the south end was a covered market, which was later replaced by a reading room extension.

Following the closure of the Swindon Works, the Mechanics' Institution closed on 9 February 1986.

Read the National Heritage List entry for the Mechanics' Institution.

Former GWR Mechanics' Institution Branch Reading Rooms, Rodbourne Road, Swindon (2006-01-20) by Peter Williams, English HeritageHistoric England

GWR Mechanics' Institution Branch Reading Rooms

Demand on the Mechanics' Institution was such that a branch was built in 1904 amongst working-class housing to the north-west of the GWR Works. It had a reading room, hall and games room.

The Glue Pot public house, Emlyn Square, Swindon (2020-01-21) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

Hotels and public houses

Swindon's railway heritage includes hotels and public houses that were built for the benefit of GWR passengers, workers and the wider New Swindon community.

At the heart of the Railway Village, some commercial premises were converted into public houses, like The Glue Pot, pictured here.

Read the National Heritage List entry for The Glue Pot.

The Queens Tap, Station Road, Swindon (2006-02-28) by Peter Williams, English HeritageHistoric England

The Queens Tap

The Queens Tap public house was built directly opposite Swindon Station. It was built by Rigbys in 1842-3 as part of the deal that saw the firm develop the cottages in the Railway Village.

Read the National Heritage List entry for The Queens Tap.

The Great Western Hotel, Station Road, Swindon (2006-02-28) by Peter Williams, English HeritageHistoric England

The Great Western Hotel

The construction of the Carriage Works from the late 1860s neccessitated further expansion of New Swindon.

A new estate was built on land to the south of Swindon Station, including terraced houses, shops and a public house - the Great Western Hotel.

The Great Western was built in 1869-70 for the local brewers, Messrs Arkell & Son. Before the end of the century, it was extensively enlarged.

Read the National Heritage List entry for the Great Western Hotel.

Dolphin Hotel, Rodbourne Road, Swindon (2006-03) by Peter Williams, English HeritageHistoric England

The Dolphin Hotel

Another Arkells public house, The Dolphin Hotel was popular with GWR workers as it was situated just outside the factory complex and close to the Branch Mechanics' Institution.

Special licences were obtained to permit early opening so that The Dolphin could service GWR workers and their families prior to departure on the company holiday, known as 'Trip'.

The large swimming pool at the Health Hydro, Milton Road, Swindon (2020-03-04) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

Swindon: the blueprint for the National Health Service

In 1847 the Great Western Railway Medical Fund Society was formed by GWR employees. It provided help for employees and their families with doctors' bills and to ensure that Railway Village cottages were habitable. Subscriptions to the fund were deducted from wages. Until it was taken over by the National Health Service in 1947, the Medical Fund Society was run by a committee of GWR employees who were elected by their colleagues. 

Central Community Centre, Taunton Street, Swindon (2020-02-11) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

From armoury and drill hall to hospital

The fear of a French invasion inspired the building of an armoury and drill hall in the Railway Village in 1862. Within ten years it and adjacent cottages had been converted to the GWR accident hospital.

The Health Hydro, Milton Road, Swindon (2020-02-21) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

Medical Fund Baths and Dispensary

The Baths and Dispensary brought together most of the various, dispersed Medical Fund Society provisions under one roof.

Built in 1891-2, it included two swimming pools, medical consultation rooms and a dispensary. In the following years, extensions added washing baths and Turkish and Russian baths.

Aneurin Bevan, chief architect of the National Health Service, stated: "There it was, a complete health service. All we had to do was to expand it to embrace the whole country!".

Read the National Heritage List entry for the Medical Fund Baths.

Plunge pool at the Turkish Baths, Health Hydro, Milton Road, Swindon (2020-03-04) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

The Turkish baths at the Medical Fund Baths and Dispensary are considered to be the oldest surviving, continually-functioning Turkish baths in England.

Site of the Great Western Railway Works, Swindon (2015-04-15) by Damian Grady, Historic EnglandHistoric England

Regeneration of the Works site

Since the closure of the Works much has been done to transform the vast site. While some factory buildings have been lost over the years, a number of significant GWR buildings have survived and put to new uses.

The cottages in the Railway Village continue to be occupied but the Mechanics' Institution at the heart of the Village remains empty and at risk. The baths, park and church all continue to serve the local community.

Surviving GWR offices and workshops have been converted to provide accommodation for Historic England and English Heritage, and a vast retail outlet has become a major leisure destination. Appropriately, a museum of the GWR has been created in surviving former workshops.

Where buildings have been cleared away, new apartment blocks have been built and a new headquarters for the National Trust has been added.

Replacing rail tracks and industrial buildings, roads and car parks have been created to serve the new homes, offices and leisure facilities. While there is still more to do, a great deal has been achieved to reinvigorate and celebrate some of Swindon's impressive railway heritage.

Work continues to bring all redundant buildings back into use, and the Heritage Action Zone partnership between Historic England and Swindon Borough Council is aiming to boost this process.

Health Hydro, Milton Road, Swindon (2020-02-21) by Steve Baker, Historic EnglandHistoric England

The Swindon Heritage Action Zone

Launched in 2019, the Swindon Heritage Action Zone is an ambitious project by Historic England, Swindon Borough Council and others to revitalise the town’s unique heritage and unlock its economic potential.

It will breathe new life into the railway works and village, to make them a more attractive place for residents, businesses, tourists and investors.

The initiative will restore and repair neglected public buildings and bring them back into use, improve public spaces and connections between the village and the town centre, and promote and celebrate the area’s special qualities.

Find out more about the Heritage Action Zone at Historic England and Swindon Borough Council.

Credits: Story

Much of the information used in this exhibit has been sourced from the book Swindon: the Legacy of a Railway Town (1995, 2000) by John Cattell and Keith Falconer, and from entries in the National Heritage List for England

Historic England is the public body that helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England's spectacular historic environment, from beaches and battlefields to parks and pie shops.

Discover the Historic England Archive.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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