Swindon is one of the larger towns in Wiltshire with a population of around 150,000.
The original Saxon settlement of Swindon sat in a defensible position atop a limestone hill. It is referred to in the Domesday Book as Suindune, believed to be derived from the Anglo-Saxon words swine and dun meaning ‘pig hill’, or possibly ‘Sweyn’s hill’, where Sweyn would be the local landlord.
Swindon was a small market town until the late 1840’s and this original area known as Old Town is situated on top of the hill to the south of the New Town.
The Industrial Revolution saw the start of Swindon’s growth with the construction of the Wilts and Berks Canal in 1810 and the North Wilts Canal in 1819. However, in 1840, Isambard Kingdom Brunel chose Swindon as the site for the railway works he planned for the Great Western Railway. Eastwards towards London the line was gently graded, while westwards there was a steep descent towards Bath. Swindon was also the junction for the proposed line to Gloucester.
Swindon Junction station opened in 1842 and until 1895 every train stopped for at least 10 minutes to change locomotives. As a result, the station hosted the first recorded railway refreshment rooms. There were three storeys to the station in 1842, with the refreshment rooms on the ground floor, the upper floors housing the station hotel and lounge. Regrettably the building was demolished in 1972, and replaced by an office building with a single-storey modern station under it.
The town’s railway works were completed in 1842. The GWR built a small railway ‘village’ to house some of its workers. People still live in those houses and several of the buildings that made up the railway works remain. The Steam Railway Museum and English Heritage, including the National Monuments Record, now occupy part of the old works.
In the railway village were the GWR Medical Fund Clinic at Park House and its hospital. From 1871, GWR workers had a small amount deducted from their weekly pay and put into a healthcare fund – its doctors could prescribe them or their family members free medicines or send them for medical treatment. In 1878 the fund began providing artificial limbs made by craftsmen from the carriage and wagon works, and nine years later opened its first dental surgery. In his first few months in post the dentist extracted more than 2000 teeth. From the opening in 1892 of the Health Centre, a doctor could also prescribe a haircut or even a bath. The cradle-to-grave extent of this service was later used as a blueprint for the NHS.
The Mechanics’ Institute, formed in 1844, moved into a building looking rather like a church and included a covered market, on 1 May 1855. The New Swindon Improvement Company, a co-operative, raised the funds for this path self-improvement, and paid the GWR £40 a year for its new home on a site at the heart of the railway village. It was a groundbreaking organisation that transformed the railway’s workforce into some of the country’s best-educated manual workers.
It had the UK’s first lending library, and a range of improving lectures, access to a theatre and a range of activiies from ambulance classes to xylophone lessons. A former Institute secretary formed the New Swindon Co-operative Society in 1853, which, after a schism in the society’s membership, spawned the New Swindon Industrial Society that ran a retail business from a stall in the market at the Institute. The Institute also nurtured pioneering trades unionists and encouraged local democracy.
During the second half of the 19th century Swindon New Town grew around the main line between London and Bristol. In 1900 Old Swindon, the original market town, merged with its newer neighbour at the bottom of the hill to become a single Swindon place.
During the first half of the 20th century the railway works was the town’s largest employer and one of the biggest in the country, employing more than 14,500 workers. The works’ decline started in 1960, when it rolled out Evening Star, the last steam engine to be built in the UK. The works lost its loco building role and took on rolling stock maintenance for British Rail. In the late 1970s much of the works closed, and the rest followed in 1986.
Things to do and see
Music and Entertainment
The town has a live music scene, venues such as The Beehive, Riffs Bar, The 12 Bar and The Victoria attract local acts as well as touring national acts and host Swindon’s annual music festival the Swindon Shuffle The Oasis Leisure Centre and the County Ground are also used for some of the more major events.
The Arts Centre, located in Old Town, is a 212 seater theatre which features music, professional and amateur theatre, nationally-recognised comedians, films, children’s events, and one-man shows.
The Wyvern Theatre features events in film, comedy, and music.
McArthur Glen Designer Outlet, is a shopping complex built within the disused Swindon railway engine works
The Brunel Centre and the Parade are shopping areas in the town centre, built along the line of the filled-in Wilts and Berks Canal (where a canal milepost can still be seen).
Swindon Tented Market located in the Town Centre, close to the Brunel Centre, was built in 1994. It reopened in October 2009, having been closed for several years.
Craft shops within Studley Grange Craft Village, inside Blooms Garden Centre, just off junction 16 of the M4 motorway. Small specialist shops within BSS House in Cheney Manor Industrial Park and Basepoint Business Centre.
Shaw Community Forest is being developed on the site of a former landfill site in West Swindon.
Other Places of Interest
- The National Monuments Record Centre, the public archive of English Heritage is based in Swindon.
- Artsite Ltd. The Post Modern gallery.Contemporary art organisation providing affordable studio space, exhibitions, workshops, education and support for creative people.
- National Museum of Science & Industry, Wroughton.
- Railway Village Museum.
- Richard Jefferies Museum, dedicated to the memory of one of England’s most individual writers on nature and the countryside.
- Steam Railway Museum.