Swindon railway workshops, now a railway museum and shopping centre
Swindon’s first facility, the locomotive repair shed, was completed in 1841, then multi-storeyed Swindon Junction station was quickly completed and opened only one year later. Both of these facilities made sense since every train, in either direction, stopped for at least 10 minutes to change locomotives. As a result, Swindon station hosted the first recorded railway refreshment rooms. It must have been a rather fancy railway station since there were refreshment rooms on the ground floor for hasty access, and the more leisurely station hotel and lounge were available upstairs.
The boiler and tender making shops opened in Swindon in 1875, necessary to produce parts for locomotives, and marine engines for the GWR's fleet of ships and barges. These workshops were critically important for the Company, but I am more interested in the workers’ needs.
New Swindon, workers’ cottages
The Great Western Railway built a small village to house some of its workers, 1.5 ks north of Swindon town. These railway workers’ cottages in New Swindon were built in limestone by one firm, based on a single model. The cottages may have been small, but they were considered to be of a good standard.
Later in the 1860s iron rolling mills were established at the works, so a new type of skilled worker was required; this resulted in an influx of men from Wales and its iron industry. Only when hundreds of these new railway workers flooded into Swindon looking for permanent work did overcrowding and poor sanitation become problematic. In 1864 New Swindon saw its first gas street lights installed and in 1868 the workers gained a fresh water supply, piped to the cottages.
This was a remarkable project, set up to look after the needs of workers and their families – partially to be Christian and charitable, but mainly to maximise the workers’ productivity. Since Swindon had few services before the railways arrived, the entire town benefited from the new educational and health facilities.
I suppose that for the workers, the top priority was for education. Firstly they built and staffed a good primary school for the workers’ children. And within a couple of years, in 1843, Swindon College was founded as a technical school for railway families.
Swindon Mechanics’ Institute, opened in 1855 and extended 1892
The Mechanics' Institute, probably started in 1855, was the critical service that helped workers towards self-improvement and created well educated manual workers. And another educative component was even more impressive – Swindon had the nation's first lending library.
Health care was also critical. Important community services within the 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. In 1878 the fund began providing artificial limbs made by craftsmen from the carriage and wagon works, and nine years later opened its first fully equipped dental service.
GWR Medical Fund Hospital, Swindon, opened 1872
Even retired railway workers continued to receive medical attention from the doctors of GWR Medical Society Fund, which the Institute had played a role in establishing and funding. This responsive and extensive provision of health care services apparently provided a model for the NHS in the next century. Decades later, in the 1890s, the health centre housing clinics, a pharmacy, laundries, a pool and some baths opened Near Park House.
The Steam Railway Museum and English Heritage, including the National Monuments Record, now occupy part of the old works. They are worth seeing.
A useful book to read is The English Urban Landscape by Philip J. Waller. Waller concluded that New Swindon was not a workers' paradise. Although the health and educational facilities provided excellent services to workers and their families, life in a company town could be difficult. If the GWR was doing badly, and staff were laid off, the entire family would lose its cottage in New Swindon, its income and any ability to argue with the railway authorities. Air pollution was endemic and noise was constant throughout the day and night. Nonetheless New Swindon was altogether rather impressive for workers in the mid Victorian era.
Museum of the Great Western Railway, today
The Brunel Shopping Centre was first built in the old, disused railway workshops in 1978. Later it was revamped and turned into Brunel Arcade and Brunel Plaza (in the 1990s).