In 1841 the Great Western Railway Company began construction work on a major new engineering works that would eventually become one of the largest industrial complexes in the world.
From the outset there was considerable difficulty in providing accommodation for the massive influx of employees at the new works. The solution was to build a model village on open farmland some two miles from the small hilltop market town of Swindon, using Bath stone (most probably from the cutting out of Box tunnel) and stone from the Swindon quarries.
The original conception and plan for the village belonged to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the now legendary Victorian engineer selected by the GWR to oversee the construction of the London to Bristol railway. Each road was named after the destinations of trains that passed nearby - Bristol, Bath, Taunton, London, Oxford and Reading among them - and was built in two blocks of four parallel streets, not dissimilar in appearance to passing trains.
The Mechanics' Institution, which contained the UK’s first lending library, and a Medical Fund Hospital were also built in the heart of the new village, and an inclusive health service was established a century before the birth of the NHS. After a visit to Swindon in the 1940s, Nye Bevan, ‘the father of the NHS’, said of the Medical Fund: “There it was a complete health service in Swindon. All we had to do was expand it to the whole country.”
Praise must also go to Sir John Betjeman, the poet laureate who was famous for his words inviting bombs to fall on nearby Slough. Happily, he had a much higher opinion of Swindon’s architectural merits. In fact, without his vociferous crusade to save the railway village in the 1960s it would have been demolished by Swindon Borough Council. Instead the village was given a statutory listing as being of special architectural or historical interest.
Today, to walk around the village is to step back in time some 180 years, a fascinating insight best capped by a visit to the Railway Village Museum at 34 Faringdon Road. Now managed by the Mechanics’ Institute Trust, the interior of the former cottage has been restored to show just how a large family plus lodgers would have lived circa 1900, with three bedrooms and an 1890s extension which gave the residents a kitchen.
Visitors can wander around the cottage and examine Victorian kitchen gadgets and children’s toys, take a peek at the outdoor toilet, and see the souvenirs from ‘GWR Trip’ holidays in the front parlour. Also, find out how a mangle worked or what glove stretchers and button hooks were used for.
After a visit to the cottage and a leisurely stroll around the Railway Village, it’s just a five-minute walk to two other great attractions, STEAM Museum of the Great Western Railway and the Swindon Designer Outlet, both housed in buildings that were also part of the GWR’s sprawling works from the 1840s until the closure in 1986.
The Railway Village Museum is open on selected weekends and organized tours can be also be arranged. Entry is free. For more information on opening hours and bookings contact Katie Knowles at firstname.lastname@example.org