Brunel's Victorian vision. Swindon from village to town.
PUBLISHED: 15:55 19 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:44 20 February 2013
Brunel's decision to locate the locomotive works in the village of Swindon created the town we know today, as Jan Seymour
At the age of 27, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was made chief engineer of the Great Western Railway an appointment that would revolutionise public transport and engineering, and change forever the fortunes of a small Wiltshire community.
Brunel was a man of many talents and great vision; trains should float over the landscape with such apparent ease that passengers did not notice if they were climbing hills or fording water. To achieve this, Brunel and his team built 25 railway lines with numerous viaducts, tunnels, embankments and bridges across the countryside as the GWR expanded its western routes.
Two controversial decisions were made by Brunel: to use a broad gauge of 7ft in for the track, which he firmly believed would provide superior running, stability and comfort; and to take a route which passed north of the Marlborough Downs, an area with no significant towns but with the potential to connect to Oxford and Gloucester and thence to London following the Thames Valley.
He surveyed the entire route between London and Bristol himself, and chose to locate the Companys locomotive works at the village of Swindon, where the gradual ascent from London turned into the steeper descent to the Avon Valley at Bath.
A railway town is born
By the late 13th century Swindon had grown to a town of around 600 inhabitants with a busy weekly market, and it continued to grow, with folk coming from all over Wiltshire to sell their cattle and wares at the four annual fairs.
By 1810 the Wiltshire and Berkshire canal was built, followed by the North Wiltshire Canal in 1879, which brought increased trade into the area, and by 1831 the population had risen to 1,742.
But it was the advent of the railway that transformed Swindon from a small market town into the largest town in Wiltshire. By 1840 the GWR had reached Swindon, and two years later the engine building and maintenance works opened, and a workforce moved in from the rest of the country to provide the heavy industrial skills required to maintain and repair locomotives and rolling stock.
A mile north of Swindon town a village was created for the railway workers a self-contained, new settlement. Despite Swindons expansion, it remained physically separate from the Old Town for much of the 19th century.
By 1851, only 8% of the GWR workforce was from Wiltshire the majority of workers came from the north of England (and Scotland), many of whom had worked in the coalfields and had early expertise in railway locomotives.
In the 1860s, iron rolling mills were established and new skills were required, which led to an influx of labour from the Welsh iron industry. By 1871, over 600 Welsh-born workers were employed by GWR, and new houses were built for them in what is now Cambria Place and Cambria Bridge.
By 1881, the population was 15,000, but the two settlements,"the Old Town and the New Town, were still divided by fields.
Blueprint for the NHS?
Like most towns in the 19th century, the New Town was dirty. There were outbreaks of typhus, cholera and smallpox, and in 1864 a Board of Health was formed in the town. During 1871 a blueprint for what would become the National Health Service was founded by staff from the GWR.
With the aid of a donation from chairman Sir Daniel Gooch, the GWR hospital was set up on Faringdon Road. Decades ahead of its time, the medical fund was a community service with a pioneering approach to healthcare. Railway workers subscribing to the medical fund were given access to a dispensary, dental surgery, ophthalmic clinic, physiotherapist and chiropodist. By 1892 the fund expanded, which created a new site in Milton Road and the very first medical centre in the country. It was this innovative healthcare service in the heart of Swindon that was to typify the structure for the new National Health Service.
During the late 19th century, Swindon continued to expand with the construction of many new streets, shops and houses, but the town was still dominated by the railway works. Gradually, however, other engineering firms were attracted to the town.
The next major change to the town came in 1952 when Swindon was designated as an overspill town and around 14,000 Londoners relocated to Wiltshire.
Shortly after the Second World War, industrial estates were created at Rodbourne Cheney and Greenbridge to attract new industry, as during the late 40s more than half of the male workforce was working for the railway. The end of this era came in 1986 when the works closed.
Swindons railway heritage lives on in its museums, and in the centres and plazas which bear Brunels name. He was a most extraordinary man who, through his skills and vision, laid the foundation for a rail network still used today. Indeed each year three million passanger journeys pass through Swindon station, all on First Great Western services.