A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 9. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1970.
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No evidence exists on which to base an account of the social life of Swindon before the arrival of the railway. Record of two pastimes only has survived. These were bull-baiting and backsword-playing, both of which took place in the Market Square. (fn. 1) Bull-baiting was dying out by the beginning of the 19th century, but experienced a brief revival when the opening of the Wilts. and Berks. Canal brought new life to the town. (fn. 2) The last bull-baiting was, however, in c. 1810. (fn. 3) Swindon, according to Morris, was renowned for its backsword-playing, a sport hardly less ferocious than bull-baiting. (fn. 4) The last great bout was fought in 1841 on a stage erected in the fields at the foot of Eastcott Hill. The contestants were the brothers, James and Thomas Edwards, who fought to celebrate the opening of the G.W.R. line to Swindon and their own success in a lawsuit. (fn. 5) Of the gentler pursuits of the inhabitants no evidence has survived, although Morris writes at some length about the mummers who, early in the 19th century, visited the villages and towns of north Wiltshire. (fn. 6)
The social amenities of Old Swindon could not possibly provide for the needs of the new town, so suddenly planted on its outskirts. But the immigrants, who formed the first railway colony, were without common social traditions and lacked the means to organize such amenities for themselves. It fell, therefore, to the G.W.R. Company to provide the first facilities for social life and welfare in the new town. Within five years of the erection of the first workmen's cottages, a school and a church had been built, largely with funds from the G.W.R. (fn. 7) In 1847 the G.W.R. Medical Fund Society was started. (fn. 8) Its foundation was largely due to Daniel (later Sir Daniel) Gooch, locomotive superintendent at Paddington, who was in complete charge in Swindon, although he never lived in the town. The original object of the society was to provide medicine and attendance for the men employed in the G.W.R. works and their families. Archibald Sturrock, manager of the Swindon works, was the society's first president. In the early days the society offered little more than the services of the company's salaried surgeon. But over the years it acquired practically all the facilities needed for a general health service, so that by 1948 its hospital, outpatient departments, and clinics could deal with most of the medical needs of about 40,000 Swindon people.
The first sign of a wish for some form of cultural amenity in the new town seems to have come in 1843 when a few G.W.R. employees started a very modest library among themselves. (fn. 9) The following year, with the approval of the G.W.R. Company, a Mechanics' Institution was established with the object of 'disseminating useful knowledge and encouraging rational amusement'. Membership in the early months was 15 and the library contained 150 books. Gooch was the institute's first president. All activities took place in the works; part of 'O' shop in the locomotive department was used for theatricals, and dancing and other amusements were held in one of the paint shops. By the end of the first year membership was 129 and the library had 522 books, with a circulation of 80 volumes a week. In 1851 there were 500 members, over 2,000 books, and 60 pupils attending educational classes. Two years later the New Swindon Improvement Company was formed to build a centre which would include not only a library and lecture rooms, but also baths, refreshment rooms, and, at the rear of the building, a covered market and a few shops. (fn. 10) A site in the middle of the G.W.R's housing estate was leased by the company at a nominal rent, and the company agreed to subscribe £100 a year towards the improvement company's activities. The building was completed by 1855.
When the baths were moved in 1864, and the refreshment rooms in 1890, the extra space thus gained was used by the Mechanics' Institute for its educational classes, and in 1890, by which time the market and shops had outgrown their usefulness, the property was transferred from the improvement company to the Mechanics' Institute. Between 1890 and 1893 the buildings were much enlarged. After 1891 the institute no longer had responsibility for providing technical education, (fn. 11) but it continued as a cultural and recreational centre. Until 1943 its library, which that year had branches at Rodbourne and Gorse Hill, and held over 30,000 books, was the only public library in Swindon. In 1930 the centre of the building was badly damaged by fire and was rebuilt to provide a theatre, known as the Playhouse, with a dance hall below. After the nationalization of the railways British Railways continued to support the Mechanics' Institute, (fn. 12) but with the social and economic changes of the postwar period its importance in the life of the town declined markedly. In 1959 the building was adapted to accommodate the British Rail Staff Association. (fn. 13) The library was closed in 1961. (fn. 14)
The original building erected in Emlyn Square for the Mechanics' Institute was designed in a Tudor style by Edward Roberts and was built of Swindon stone with Bath stone dressings. (fn. 15) The main block was of two stories although externally giving the appearance of a single great hall with buttressed sides of eight bays. At its north end was an arcaded porch flanked by octagonal and embattled turrets. This part of the building, altered internally, survived in 1965. To the south was a two-storied cross-wing containing the reading room. The upper stories were altered and rebuilt after the fire of 1930. Beyond the wing was the low octagonal market, surmounted by a conical roof and spired turret. The additions of 1890–3, which extended over the site of the market, are built of darker stone and are designed in a more sophisticated Tudor style.
One of the earliest privileges offered to members of the Mechanics' Institute was a day excursion to Oxford in the summer of 1849. Each member was allowed to take a companion with him on the outing and on this occasion 500 people travelled in the special train. (fn. 16) This was the beginning of an annual event in Swindon known as 'Trip'. Until 1913 it was a day excursion, but that year the holiday, which was unpaid, was extended to one week. (fn. 17) Weymouth was a popular resort for the 'Trip' holiday-makers at this period, and it was reckoned that some 25,000 travelled somewhere on the free 'Trip' trains. (fn. 18) For weeks before money was saved for the holiday. (fn. 19) In 1939 27,000 people left Swindon for the holiday in 30 special trains. (fn. 20) In 1946 the holiday was extended to two weeks' paid holiday. (fn. 21) The 'Trip' holiday takes place during the first two weeks in July and, so long as the G.W.R. was virtually the only employer of labour in the town, it meant that almost the whole of Swindon was on holiday during this time. With the arrival of other industries with different holiday arrangements, the 'Trip' holiday period lost some of its importance.
Another annual event connected with the Mechanics' Institute was the juvenile fête. This was held annually, except during the war years, between 1868 and 1939 in the Park. (fn. 22)
The amenities of the Mechanics' Institute, backed by the resources of the G.W.R., presumably tended to outshine the social activities of the old town. But no doubt the usual activities of a small country town continued, regardless of any new attractions which the railway town might have to offer. In the 1860s weekly Penny Readings were held in the Town Hall with A. L. Goddard as their patron. (fn. 23) The talent, according to Frederick Large, was almost entirely local, and proceeds went to local good causes. (fn. 24) Large also writes of numerous dramatic and other popular forms of entertainment held in the Corn Exchange in the old town. (fn. 25)
The G.W.R. Company, as has been shown, catered for some of the most important social and cultural needs of its first employees in Swindon, but organizations, not connected in any way with the works, quickly began to establish themselves. The various churches and chapels, which grew up as the town developed, obviously played an extremely important part in creating a sense of community and providing centres for social gatherings. The Friendly Society movement seems to have appeared in the town as early as 1840, just before the railway works were established. (fn. 26) That year a few members of the Oddfellows came to Swindon from other parts of Wiltshire to prospect. The first lodge to be opened in Swindon was the Mackies Good Intent Lodge which had nine members. A second lodge was opened in 1842 and the Ancient Order of Foresters was established in the town by 1843. From these beginnings the movement grew quickly in Swindon and by the early 20th century, besides the Oddfellows and Foresters, well over a dozen societies were active. By 1920 the Oddfellows had 19 lodges and the Foresters about the same number of courts and some 22 other societies were represented in the town. (fn. 27)
A Swindon Co-operative Society was founded in 1850 with a small shop specializing in the sale of bread. (fn. 28) Twelve years later the New Swindon Industrial Co-operative Society was formed by a group that was dissatisfied with the original society, and in 1880 a third society was formed called the Kingshill Co-operative Society. (fn. 29) In 1965 only the New Swindon Industrial Co-operative Society survived.
As far as is known, the first workingmen's club in Swindon was the Bridge Street Club which was established in 1880. (fn. 30) By 1904 this club had a membership of 1,600. Soon after the formation of the Bridge Street Club similar clubs were started at Gorse Hill and Even Swindon and by the beginning of the 20th century there were 21 clubs affiliated to the Swindon and District Branch of the London Club and Institute Union. Most of these clubs offered some sort of social security such as sickness benefit as well as the usual kinds of recreational facilities. In 1948 there were still 27 workingmen's clubs, many of which dated from the end of the 19th century. (fn. 31) In 1965 there were at least 20 clubs in the town. (fn. 32) By 1910 Swindon seems to have been fairly well supplied with those recreational and sporting clubs usual in a working-class community. The Swindon Town Football Club was formed in 1881 and the Swindon Rugby Club in 1895. (fn. 33) There was a town cricket club by the middle of the 19th century. (fn. 34) In 1910 there were also 11 cycling clubs, 2 gymnastic societies, a swimming club, and 4 brass bands. (fn. 35)
Soon after its formation in 1903 the Swindon Education Committee arranged for university extension lectures to be held in the town. (fn. 36) They were organized in conjunction with Oxford University and, in conjunction with Bristol University, were still part of the programme of adult cultural activities in 1966. A branch of the Workers' Educational Association was formed in 1908 after a visit from Albert Mansbridge. (fn. 37) The first classes were held by R. V. Lennard, of Wadham College, Oxford, in the Higher Elementary School in Euclid Street. (fn. 38) For these 26 members enrolled (fn. 39) but by 1930 membership of the W.E.A. in Swindon was 500. (fn. 40)
The early success of both the university extension lectures and the W.E.A. was very largely due to the enthusiasm of Reuben George (d. 1936). (fn. 41) George came to Swindon from Gloucester as a young man and worked there as agent for the Wesleyan and General Insurance Company for the rest of his life. His main interest, however, lay in social and political work. The formation of the Swindon Labour Party in 1916 owed much to him and he was one of the first three Labour candidates to stand for Parliamentary election in Wiltshire. He was a member of the Swindon Town Council from the time of the borough's incorporation and was mayor in 1921–2. (fn. 42) Alfred Owen Williams (1877–1930), the poet and writer, who lived and died at South Marston, was also a member of the Swindon branch of the W.E.A. (fn. 43)
A theatre for Swindon was built in 1898 at the corner of Groundwell Road and Clarence Street. Its architects were Messrs. Drake and Pizey of Bristol. (fn. 44) It was called at first the Queen's Theatre, could accommodate 1,600, and opened with a performance of 'Dick Whittington'. (fn. 45) The theatre's name was later changed to the Empire and between 1929 and 1947 it was used as a cinema. (fn. 46) It was demolished in 1959. (fn. 47) The first cinema in Swindon was the County Electric, built in 1910. Four other cinemas were opened within the next five years. Three were built between the two World Wars. (fn. 48) Only two remained open in 1966. (fn. 49)
Swindon's first newspaper appeared in 1854. (fn. 50) Its founder was William Morris (d. 1891), who was educated in the town and became its first historian. His paper, the Swindon Advertiser and Monthly Record, was at first issued monthly. The first number contained four pages. It became a weekly paper in 1855 when the stamp duty on newspapers was repealed. In the early issues about half the space was devoted to advertising. The remainder was said to be confined to reports which 'do not partake of a political, party, or personal character'. The paper, however, consistently advocated a progressive policy and in the course of its career was involved in several libel actions. It was said that if there was anything approaching a Liberal party in Swindon it came into being with the foundation of the Advertiser. In 1870 it was re-named the Swindon Advertiser and Wiltshire, Berkshire and Gloucestershire Chronicle. It was last issued as a weekly newspaper in December 1925 and thereafter became an evening paper called the Evening Advertiser. (fn. 51) After the death of William Morris the paper was conducted by his sons for some years. (fn. 52) In 1920 it was acquired by the Swindon Press Ltd. and in 1956 by Wiltshire Newspapers Ltd. (fn. 53) The Swindon Press, however, remained the general printing company and both companies came under the ownership of the Westminster Press and Provincial Newspapers Ltd.
Another newspaper, the North Wilts. Herald, with a more conservative viewpoint, was started in Swindon in 1861. (fn. 54) It was designed to cater more for the surrounding countryside than did the Advertiser, and between 1866 and 1879 absorbed three small local papers. (fn. 55) In 1882 it produced a daily evening edition, and between 1865 and 1881 there was also a market edition. (fn. 56) In 1922 control of the Herald passed from the Piper family, who had held it since 1865, to the Swindon Press Ltd. In January 1942 the name of the North Wilts. Herald was changed to the North Wilts. Herald and Advertiser, and in April 1950 became the Wiltshire Herald and Advertiser. Since October 1956 it has appeared weekly as the Wiltshire Gazette and Herald.
A third newspaper, the New Swindon Express, had a short career from 1876 to 1880, (fn. 57) and the Borough Press, a Saturday evening sheet, reporting football news, was issued between 1904 and 1930. A weekly paper, the Swindon Echo, published by E. H. Perkins and Son, and printed by Papers and Publications (Printers), Ltd., was first issued in 1962. It ceased publication in 1966. (fn. 58)
As has been shown above, after about the middle of the 19th century there were two Swindons— the old market town and the new town created during the 1840s by the G.W.R. Company. Since roughly the middle of the 20th century a third Swindon may be said to have been created with the building of the suburban estates in the north and east. (fn. 59) Here, as was the case in New Swindon a hundred years earlier, the new community was largely made up of people who came from other parts of the country. Between the passing of the Town Development Act of 1952 and 1965 some 14,000 people came to Swindon from London alone, while considerable numbers came from other parts on their own initiative. (fn. 60)