Swindon is largest town in Wiltshire with a population over 170,000. However, before 1840 Swindon was a market town serving the surrounding dairy farms with fewer than 2500 inhabitants. Its growth and population boom can be seen as a direct result of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s decision to choose Swindon as the site for the railway works of the Great Western Railway (GWR).
At its peak in the mid 20th the railway works were employing over 14, 000 and the works stretched for 2.4 km. The railways were nationalised in 1948, and GWR became British Rail Western Region and the works became part of British Rail Engineering under the 1960 Transport Act. In 1960 the Evening Star became the last steam locomotive built for British Rail. The site closed on 27th March 1986. In the 1984 the historic parts of the site were designated Grade 2* or Grade 2. There was redevelopment of the site in the 1990’s and English Heritage was the first new tenant in 1994.
An aerial view of the former Chain Testing House, Swindon - soon to be home to the BPMA
By the end of 1832, there was commercial pressure for a rail link from Bristol (and the Atlantics) to London and a committee to investigate the matter was formed of prominent Bristol merchants. The ‘Committee of Deputies’ met in July 1833 and agreed that the way forward was to form a company and obtain and Act of Parliament. However, the GWR Railway Bill took some further two years to pass due to the opposition of some local landowners on the route.
The reason why Swindon was chosen to be the heart of the mid 19th railway expansion was actually a simple matter of geography. The line passing through Swindon was seen as ideal due to the lie of the land and it was the straightest route. The railway works were located in the Vale of the White Horse to the north of the old market town. It is still often referred to as Swindon New Town.
It was Daniel Gooch, GWR’s first chief engineer and later Chairman, who was instrumental in the decision to select Swindon as the site. In 1840 Gooch wrote to Brunel suggesting Swindon as the most suitable site for the engine shed. It was agreed in 1840. Works began on the building of the site in 1841 which opened in January 1843. There were three building stages and work continued until 1849 with only minor additions to the site made thereafter.
More than just a job
Swindon had no history of heavy industrial labour, and so the workforce would need to be imported. This meant that one of the first requirements of the site was accommodation for the workforce. Brunel was responsible for the design of the railway village. Most of the terraced stone houses built to the south of the site still stand today. They are perceived as excellent early example of a model village development for an industrial workforce. They were planned as a self-contained community; the intention was to provide all the necessary facilities for what the Victorians perceived a ‘decent’ life. The Swindon Mechanics Institute, set up for the purpose of offering an educational and social outlet for the railway workers had already outgrown the use of the rooms within the factories and in 1855 the Swindon Mechanics Institution opened in the heart of the railway village.
In fact, the late 1860s and early 1870s saw many progressive actions that would help improve the lives of the workers on site including a hospital and from 1868 there was fresh drinking water from the Swindon Water Company and sewage disposal in 1872.
The BPMA in Swindon
Chain testing equipment, which will be a feature of the BPMA's new home
The Chain Testing House was built in 1873. The Testing house – or Shop 17 as it was known – tested iron, steel, copper and rope for use on the railways. At its peak in the 1950’s around 57 miles of chain and rope were being dealt with annually.
The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) is the custodian for the visual, written and physical records of 400 years of postal development. In telling the story of communication, industry, and innovation of the British postal services, many parallels can be drawn with the Great Western Railway site.