Mind, Body and Soul:
An investigation into the architectural and ideological functions of the Great Western Railway’s Swindon Railway Village
Author's own photograph, 2021.
First established in 1841, the Swindon Railway Village (SRV) was a residential and social hub for Swindon and its Great Western Railway (GWR) locomotive and carriage works. It was an iterative project that was extended and redesigned to serve the GWR’s changing needs. At the height of its building, in 1891, it comprised of: around 287 houses, a large mechanics’ institute, a market with capacity for ‘thirty-two shops and standings for thirty stalls,’ a cottage hospital, an expansive company park, an Anglican church, a Methodist chapel, swimming baths and a medical dispensary. Due to its visibility, as Swindon’s New Town, SRV cemented the GWR’s material and symbolic place at the heart of Swindon. The village also reflected the company’s ideology, and its mix of functional architectures produced a lasting societal impact. Aneurin Bevan praised its Medical Fund for inspiring the National Health Service's creation. He said of the village: “There it was, a complete health service […] all we had to do was to expand it to embrace the whole country!”
On the 30th of July 1833, a meeting of leading Bristol businessmen decided to form a company that would establish ‘railway communication between Bristol and London.’ Their act of incorporation received royal assent on the 31st of August, 1835. In 1851 the GWR operated 272 miles of track. However, by 1891 the network had reached 2,405 miles of track, having grown to cover the entire south-west, parts of the west midlands, and much of south Wales. Being home to the company’s Locomotive and Carriage works, Swindon blossomed with the company. In 1831 Swindon’s population was 1,742, but by 1891 it had ballooned to 33,001. The company was Swindon’s revolutionary catalyst.
My report explores the SRV’s architectural and ideological significance. After disambiguating the company’s ideology for analytic purposes, I approach the buildings through the divisions of housing, body, and mind. This enabled me to isolate and dissect a range of the settlement’s most important built forms, helping to answer my central research question: what were the architectural and ideological functions of the SRV?
Ideology is a body of ideas characteristic of a particular social group that help to legitimate a dominant political power. Viewing the GWR’s Swindon workforce as the social group in question and the GWR leadership as the dominant political power, this chapter will answer the question: what ideas and convictions formed GWR ideology, in the second half of the nineteenth century?
The company’s economic success created a novel class of privileged railway workers who earned between ‘50 to 100 percent’ more than the average unskilled labourer in the early-Victorian era. With this affluence came a system of shared ideas and experiences held by Swindon's railway workers. This blended ideology was embedded into the buildings which this dissertation study invetsigates. And, in turn, these embedded ideals would inform the beliefs of the railwaymen who lived in and used the SRV. It is therefore essential to explore this further. The ideals of a late-nineteenth-century Swindon railway worker stretched beyond a desire to work hard for the company. Their complex ideology mixed worker radicalism, self- help, religiosity, conservativism, and localism.
After establishing the Railway works in 1840, Brunel and Gooch set about creating workers housing on the main railway line's opposite side. In around fifteen years, sporadic building had transformed the area. Before construction, Richard Jefferies called the area: ‘the poorest in the neighbourhood, low-lying, shallow soil on top of an endless depth of stiff clay, worthless for arable purposes, of small value for pasture, covered with furze, rushes and rowen [sic].’ Nevertheless, in just a few years, the company had created a new village with 287 houses. Its influence is hard to understate. The people of Old Swindon— located a mile away atop the Swindon hill— termed the railway village New Swindon. In many ways, the SRV was new; its regimented streets, centralised facilities and migrant population would have been genuinely novel.
This chapter investigates SRV's housing provision. I answer the questions: Why did the GWR build housing in SRV? How was it built? How was it used, and how did this use build into the company’s ideology?
In 1854 GWR employees watched as their grand Mechanics’ Institution rose in the middle of SRV. The New Swindon Improvement Company had planned the Institution the previous year. Once completed, it would become the SRV's educational and social hub for almost 150 years. The Institution's leisure, educational and social programmes enriched the local citizenry as it became one of the country's most successful mechanics’ institutes. At the beginning of this report's focus, in 1841, SRV residents had few options for entertainment, but by 1891, Swindonians had enviable opportunities. Through the Mechanics’ Institution, they could learn technical drawing skills, attend lectures, join the gardening club, and watch an opera. Additionally, the railwaymen democratically ran the Institution for thirteen years before the second Representation of the People Act gave them the national vote. Within this period, the Mechanics’ Institution came to redefine the SRV.
This chapter considers the opportunities provided by the SRV’s Mechanics’ Institution. To explore this, I answer the following questions. Why did the GWR support the building of the Mechanics’ Institution? How was it built? And how was it used, and how did this build into the company’s ideology?
In 1892, the Great Western Railway’s Medical Fund Society (MFS) opened its architecturally notable “Swimming Baths and Medical Dispensary.” In 1847, with the GWR’s support, the MFS opened to mitigate the widespread injuries sustained in the dangerous railway works. In 1948 the NHS took over the MFS's responsibilities. Today, the building is called the ‘Health Hydro’ and is Britain’s longest continuously open Turkish Baths. The building's civic and GWR pride can still be felt today because many of its period features remain despite several extensions.
This chapter investigates the healthcare provided by the MFS's Swimming Baths and Medical Dispensary. To explore this, I answer the following questions. Why did the GWR support the swimming baths and dispensary's establishment? How was it built? Moreover, how was it used, and how did this use build into company ideology?
This report establishes SRV as a rich and complex Victorian productive community that deserves renewed study. Its long-term economic success, its diversified power, and its reliance on a specialised industry have created a one-of-a-kind historic area, despite the fact it has been left underfunded and underexposed.
This study offers the provisional conclusion that the SRV was a complex and multifunctional Social and Residential hub during the GWR’s prime that supported the railway workforce and acted as a catalysing genesis for a regional market-town. Although I only look at three architectural forms, I place SRV in its broader academic landscape and tarmac a road for its further study. With the ideological foundations I lay out, it would be easy to hone and extend this study to the SRV’s other buildings, including its barracks, its public houses, and its trailblazing hospital, which warrants a separate study.
Copyright of image: © Harry Lewis