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.