Today, some 140 years after Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s death, Swindon is still benefiting from this great man’s legacy.
Before Brunel Swindon was known as the ‘town on the hill’ or ‘down of swine’, and though it was a small town it had been granted the right to hold a weekly market and even an annual Mop Fair.
In 1831 the census reported that there were some 350 houses in Swindon and its population was 1,734 based around agriculture. The hill is made up of Portland stone so quarrying was also an important income to the town.
The Industrial Revolution had certainly bypassed this quaint rural backwater, but all that was about to change as Swindon embraced the opportunity of enterprise and innovation. Brunel could have put the railway through Hungerford, Devizes and Bradford-on Avon. Had he done that then Devizes may have been the ‘Swindon’ of the GWR world ….. now there’s a thought to conjure with.
Old Town dominated the hill and down below was the railway, buzzing with the ‘new incomers,’ people talking with strange dialects, accents and even languages from every corner of the British Isles.
Swindon become a town of two halves Old and New town. Some people in Old Town were reluctant to take in lodgers from this new ‘uncouth workforce’ and Old Townies were also thankful that the green fields and pastures between the two settlements acted like a green zone keeping a respectable distance between them. Maybe the New Townies felt the same about the snobs up the hill.
Swindon today is much changed. Gone are the pigs and the railway works, along with the long tree lined country track that was Drove Road where cattle meandered their way to market on the hoof.
The green zone buffer has well and truly been swallowed up by a burgeoning population of around 195,000 with plans to expand to the east beyond the A419 as well as developments currently under way in North Swindon and South Swindon (Wichelstowe). It is projected that over 250,000 will live here by 2035, when it will be GWR 200.
Swindon’s ‘works’ survived only a few months after the GWR 150 celebrations in 1985 were cancelled because of the impending closure.
In this 175th year since the birth of GWR, Swindon and its railway heritage is now represented by STEAM, the Museum of the Great Western Railway. It lives on in a GWR tradition touching the future by holding onto the past.
In its grasp is a knowledge and appreciation of the great people, machines and community that underpinned the Great in the Great Western Railway.
• Steam has announced a programme of celebrations starting in March. See details at www.swindon.gov.uk/steam