FolkestoneJack's Tracks

The library at the heart of a railway empire

Posted in England, Swindon by folkestonejack on July 19, 2015

Beyond the obvious attractions in Didcot and Swindon, it is worth wandering around the conservation area of the Railway Works and Railway Village at Swindon to see just how much the railway dominated life here in its day. One of the most extraordinary buildings in the area is the Mechanics’ Institution, whose boarded up state belies its national importance.

The Mechanics Institute, Swindon

The Mechanics Institute, Swindon

Founded in 1844, the New Swindon Mechanics’ Institution was a groundbreaking community enterprise intended ‘for the benefit and enlightenment of those employed by the G.W.R’ which had its roots in the establishment of a circulating library in the GWR workshops during 1843. It could be argued that this was one of the UK’s first lending libraries, pre-dating the first public lending library by nine years.

Whichever way you look at it, the library was certainly a success and at the heart of the permanent Institution building which opened in 1855. By this time the Library’s collection amounted to 2,542 volumes and was lending out an average of 1,566 books every month! It is striking to consider that it took another hundred years before an independent public library was opened in the town.

The Mechanics’ Institution was much more than the library and in its time included facilities such as baths, games rooms, a lecture hall/stage and refreshment rooms. Alongside this, the Mechanics’ Institution helped set up and run a Medical Society Fund which gave ex GWR employees access to railway doctors (a set up later praised by Aneurin Bevan as a model for the NHS that he wanted to provide for the country).

Today, the Mechanics’ Institution Trust continues to campaign to secure a future fitting for a building with such a significant history. Their website includes a history of the building, with a fascinating feature on the development of the library.

Further information on the Mechanics Institution can be found on the websites of Swindon Web (The Mechanics’ Institute Swindon’s most important – and misunderstood – building? and The Far Reach Of The Mechanics make interesting reading), the Victorian Society (Mechanics Institute, Swindon: ‘Birthplace’ of the NHS in a sorry state) and The Theatres Trust.

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Great Western

Posted in Didcot, England, Swindon by folkestonejack on July 19, 2015

Our trip to RIAT had brought us to Swindon, a railway town if ever there was one, so it seemed worth finding out more about the story of the Great Western Railway. This is easily achieved by dropping in to two attractions that are just fifteen minutes apart by train – Didcot Railway Centre and Steam: Museum of the Great Western Railway at Swindon itself.

The original GWR engine shed (1932) at the Didcot Railway Centre

The original GWR engine shed (1932) at the Didcot Railway Centre

The name of the Great Western Railway (or God’s Wonderful Railway as it was often known) evokes images of the railways at their peak and still carries an incredible cachet to this day. Indeed, First Group will be rebranding their services in the western region as GWR before the start of the new franchise in September.

The history behind the name is wonderfully explained at Steam: Museum of the Great Western Railway with a walkthrough of the old works building and the story of locomotive construction on the site. It does a good job of talking you through the stages from the foundry to the boiler shop, before presenting the finished product in the form of ‘Caerphilly Castle’ which was constructed at Swindon Works in 1923.

I found it particularly fascinating to learn that the works closed for 10 days each year and that all the employees and their families were transported by train to their chosen holiday destinations. The logistical nightmare of moving around 25,000 people overnight must have caused many a headache for the planners – even today that would be the equivalent of the heaviest metropolitan morning rush hour outside of Birmingham and London. It was said that the volume of visitors to Weymouth was so great that it became known as Swindon by the sea!

Throughout 2015 the museum is displaying a variety of additional exhibits to illustrate the role of the GWR and its employees during the First World War, ranging from the establishment of units formed largely of GWR men to the construction of 256 specialist carriages for ambulance trains. Added poignancy can be found in the many war memorials displayed on the walls, including one with a personal connection. The war memorial for 19 and 20 shops (of the Locomotive and Carriage Department) included one T. W. Bailey, my great grandfather’s cousin, who died at the Somme aged 42 on 13th March 1917.

All engines must stop...

A sign preserved at Didcot Railway Centre

Our second stop for the day, Didcot Railway Centre, has helped preserve a little of the everyday infrastructure that has disappeared from across the GWR network. At the heart of the site is the original GWR engine shed (1932) which houses a collection of GWR locomotives. It is a delightful complex with a couple of short running lines that allow visitors to see locomotives or railcars in motion.

On the day we visited the locomotives rostered for duty were GWR 0-6-0 Pannier Tank 3650 and GWR 2-6-2 Prairie Tank 4144, with the latter giving us some great morning freight movements before switching to passenger carrying duties. Other fascinating exhibits include a prototype gas turbine locomotive, one of only three diesel GWR railcars to survive into preservation and a Steam Railmotor.

Both museums do a terrific job of telling the Great Western story in a compelling fashion, ably assisted by enthusiastic teams of staff and volunteers. I can’t recommend a visit highly enough!

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