By Hannah Parry of Swindon New Mechanics’ Institution Trust
Once upon a time, in 1982, a railway sign writer named Ken White, decided to become an artist, and attended night classes at Swindon College of Art in Euclid Street.
He went on to become an internationally celebrated artist, specialising in murals. But before he was famous, he designed and painted a wide range of murals around his home town of Swindon, working with groups of young people in the design and painting process.
One of Ken’s earliest works was a mural on the Cambria Bridge wall. It was based upon the rhyme about ‘The Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly’, beginning with a fly at the short end and ending with her ‘dead, of course’ from swallowing a horse. At one end there was a pillar of concrete and the young people wanted to paint that too, so Ken helped them create a Police Call Box, as the pillar was just that shape. It did not start out as a Tardis, but came to be seen that way over the many years that the mural lasted, as ‘Doctor Who’ became a modern British favourite.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, and over time the wall was re-painted several times in creative ways, inspired by Ken’s original work.
Last year, Swindon Council noticed that the plaster on the wall was crumbling, and decided to re-plaster for safety and tidiness next to the play area. (This was originally the playground of St. Mark’s School in Maxwell Street, during the 19th Century, when the Canal flowed past just beyond the hedgerow.)
Central Ward Councillor Bob Wright (who also had worked in the Swindon Works) remembered Ken’s mural, and asked whether the Mechanics’ Institution Trust would work with the new youth group, ‘The Railway Kids’ from Central Community Centre, to create a new mural.
Everybody loved the idea, and all quickly agreed that the Tardis should re-appear. That led to the idea of a ‘Doctor Who’ Time Tunnel, with people and groups from Swindon’s past emerging from various time vortices. The group wanted to celebrate lesser-known people, as well as some well-known ones, and thought hard about how to achieve a good mix.
The three artists who designed and painted the artwork (on top of the Railway Kids’ undercoating of black paint) are known as ‘The Visual Drop’, and they were delighted when Ken White came to view the finished work; he was surprised to see himself appearing as part of the artwork, 33 years after he first painted the wall!
In the meantime, of course, Ken had become famous, in particular for his logo of ‘The Red Lady’ painted on Virgin planes seen around the world. He painted many murals for Virgin, and most importantly produced 20 large paintings illustrating many aspects of life in Swindon and its Works based upon his own recollections.
We think it is well time that Ken White was recognised locally for his art (Swindon Council have finally bought one of the 20 for the town’s modern art collection), and for his contribution to Swindon’s sense of place and its story through his many local murals!
Artists: The 3 local artists who worked with The Mechanics’ Institution Trust and The Railway Kids to produce this mural call themselves ‘The Visual Drop’. (They have real names too: Ed Russell, James Habgood and Justin Smythe!) They painted this mural on the dry days over 2 weeks in September 2015. Keep an eye out for their future work; you saw it here first…
Tardis: Everyone recognises the Tardis these days; but when the pillar was first painted, people were more familiar with Police Call Boxes, which were sited in public places in the days when red phone boxes held most people’s nearest telephone. In 1980, people still had to wait 6 months for a direct phone line to a new house just built in Toothill! Today, you are probably reading this on a ‘smartphone’…
Dedication: The Mechanics’ Institution Trust would like to thank all, especially The Railway Kids, who helped make this project so much fun, and such a wonderful link between past and present Swindon. The Trust is a registered charity, and anyone who supports the effort to restore the Institution in the Railway Village nearby, as a centre for community life in Swindon’s future, is encouraged to contact us and help in any way they can, perhaps by becoming a ‘Supporter’ and joining the mailing list: http://www.mechanics-trust.org.uk
Horse: This horse featured in Ken’s original mural, and is also a reminder that the bridge was built here in order to cross the Wilts & Berks Canal which ran under the bridge; horses towed the barges in days before engines were invented.
This canal was opened in 1810, before the GWR came to Swindon, and was key to the decision to lay the main railway line nearby on the low, level ground. It was closed and transferred to local Council ownership in 1904, and filled in by 1960. See http://www.wiltsandberkscanal.org.uk/
Efforts to re-open the canal on this alignment have failed due to the fact that there are main services buried there now, and because the Brunel Centre and Parade shops are now so close to the former alignment. That alignment is hinted at by the grey brick path beside ‘Wharf Green’ (never a wharf, and no longer ‘green’!), a name which shows how easily local history can be re-written, wrongly.
Ken White: This is an image of Ken White in 2015. His website is a great way to learn more about his work, and especially the series of 20 large paintings about Swindon and ‘The Works’. More on Ken’s website: http://www.kenwhitemurals.co.uk/home/
Swindon Viewpoint: Nowhere else in the UK has a record like ‘Swindon Viewpoint’. Its story and videos going back to 1913 reflect the best that is Swindon – the people and their efforts to make a really healthy, sociable place to live.
Originally an experiment based on an early version of cable television broadcasting (for better reception in places like Swindon, which fell between transmitters), Viewpoint reflected local life until 1991, when the cable company refused independent access. ‘On hold’ for 15 years, Swindon Viewpoint re-emerged when web-based video became possible…another Swindon ‘early adoption’ of new technology.
Today, some 90,000 people look at it monthly, many from around the world. Like Swindon, it’s unique! Check it out at http://swindonviewpoint.com
New Swindon Mechanics’ Institution: There were hundreds of these workingmen’s ‘institutes’ across the country (and the world – many in Australia, Canada and USA), founded in the early 19th Century. They were the earliest form of education for adults until the Technical Colleges of the 1890’s. But the best ones offered the widest range of cultural resources, including theatres, and (in Swindon) the Medical Fund Society which did so much to sustain the community.
Read more on http://www.mechanics-trust.org.uk
Swindon’s Mechanics’ Institution was one of the very largest and longest-lasting, and the only survivor of a railway town. Its Library was so magnificent, Swindon needed no public library until the 1940 influx of war-workers created a demand for ‘public’ provision. The Institute’s collection formed the basis of the Local Studies Collection (beautifully housed since 2005 in the modern Swindon Central Library), after the British Rail Staff Association took over the Mechanics’ premises in 1960.
Trevor Cockbill & ‘This Is Our Heritage’: Swindon owes its memory and understanding of the significance of its Mechanics’ Institution to the stalwart effort of Trevor Cockbill. Born in Dixon Street in 1930 and died in 1999, he authored several remarkable books about the town, th’institute, and Swindon’s people. It was Trevor’s work ‘This Is Our Heritage’ which earned the official (II*) heritage listing which has been the key to saving the building for the future of the towns’ people. You can read this lovely story on http://www.mechanics-trust.org.uk
His major work ‘Finest Thing Out’ recounts the first 30 years’ achievements of the Mechanics’ Institution in Swindon, and is available from local libraries.
The Hooter: The Works Hooter, which woke employees (and others!) at 5am, 6 days a week, could still be heard until the closure of the Swindon Works in March, 1986 – 30 years ago in 2016. This is another date in the timeline of Swindon which will never be forgotten; fortunately the town has the STEAM Museum to recall and celebrate the achievements of a wonderful workforce, which did not deserve to be wound up in an unnecessary closure. If only Swindon still had the Mechanics’ Institution which was built and managed by the workers from 1854 to 1986! Fortunately, this is still a future possibility, thanks to the Swindon community’s persistent campaign; you can follow the story on http://wwwmechanics-trust.org.uk, where you can also hear the Swindon Works Hooter’s last ‘hoot’.
Edith New: Edith New was rescued from anonymity recently by Swindon Heritage Magazine (http://wwwswindonheritage.com), which told the story of her role as a prominent Suffragette. As a young woman from Highworth, working in London, she was the first to chain herself to the railings of Downing Street. The Women’s Social and Political Union held off its campaign for Votes for Women during the Great War, and Edith became a schoolteacher. After the war, all women gradually gained the right to vote, from 1918 to 1928.
Besides the wonderful Swindon Heritage Magazine, many other local groups have worked to maintain social history records – in words, pictures, and buildings. The Swindon Society and Rodbourne Community History Group are among the many that attend the Swindon Library’s History Network quarterly meetings.
The Railway Kids: This name was chosen by the new youth club, and might make the original settlers wince, as well as those who today love ‘The Railway Children’ book and film. But language shifts over time; in the early days of The Mechanics’ Institution’s annual ‘Children’s Fete’ (first held in 1869 – 150 years celebrated in 2016), it was referred to as the ‘Juvenile Fete’.
175: 2016 is considered to be the 175th anniversary of ‘Swindon Works’, the largest and finest engineering establishment in the world at its peak. The existing market town of ‘Swindon’ was not even visible over the hilltop, so the new Village designed by Brunel became the basis for a place called ‘New Swindon’, which expanded until it ran into ‘Old Swindon’; the 2 towns were united in 1900 by Queen Victoria under her last Town Charter as ‘Swindon’.
Some people think it might have been better if ‘New Swindon’ had held onto its name, as it was the source of new-found local prosperity, shared with the market town. But the original Swindon had its roots in pre-history; and Romans, Anglo-Saxons, armies, and an ancient market had put Swindon onto the map well before the Domesday Book in 1086, so age won over Victorian industry, despite the wonderful motto ‘Salubritas et Industria’; ‘Health and Industriousness’ implied that if you have your health and work hard in Swindon, you will be alright).
Swindonians worked hard and protected their health by setting up their own Medical Fund Society, with an Accident and Emergency Hospital in the Railway Village, and doctors, Dispensary and Baths in Milton Road (both still standing near this mural). The Society was 100 years old in 1948, when the NHS took over its role in Swindon; in 2016 it would be 169 years old – almost as old as ‘New Swindon’!
King George V: This most-beloved of Swindon engines, named for the reigning King, travelled on the deck of a steamship to the USA in 19267, for the 100th anniversary of the Boston & Ohio Railroad. Swindon’s engine outclassed every other one on exhibition, in speed and beauty. It is expected to be on welcomed back to Swindon from the National Railway Museum in York, as part of the 175th year celebrations. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GWR_6000_Class_6000_King_George_V
Gooch: Sir Daniel Gooch was only 21 years old when Brunel hired him to manage the locomotives for the new GWR. The first ones that Brunel had ordered were not good enough, and Gooch designed much better ones, and oversaw the subsequent growth of the Locomotive Works here. He used Brunel’s steamship ‘The Great Eastern’ to lay the first Atlantic Cable, for telegraphy, and then returned to be the Chairman of the GWR until retirement.
He remained the Honourary Chair of the Swindon Mechanics’ Institution, giving out the annual prizes, until the year he died 1889. He has been dubbed ‘The Father of New Swindon’, because he recommended to Brunel that the Works be sited here, a recommendation that Brunel accepted and passed on to the GWR Directors. Their decision in October 1840 led to the start of construction in early 1841, 175 years ago in 2016.
Brunel: Isambard Kingdom Brunel is recognisable even without his hat; his 200th birthday in 2006 was celebrated all across the area of the Great Western Railway, especially from Paddington Station in London to Temple Meads Station in Bristol.
But how many people know that ‘Kingdom’ was his English mother’s maiden name, that his engineer father was French, and that IKB studied engineering in France? That could explain all those ‘fleurs de lys’ finials on many iron railings around the early buildings he designed in Swindon (some relocated; for instance, at the base of the Water Tower in Bristol Street, and at the front of the Health Hydro in Faringdon Road).
Among many stunning engineering successes (and a couple of failures), he was responsible for recommending the alignment of the railway through Swindon, and supporting Gooch’s recommendation to site a Locomotive Works here.
Octobus: For 25 years Swindon’s Octobus thrilled local children and young people by turning up in their neighbourhoods with a double-decker bus full of games, arts, crafts, and photography! A registered charity, it was a Swindon initiative that thrived, but needed the Council funding it received alongside other small grants, in order to employ qualified youth workers. When this was withdrawn, an era ended, alongside other local innovations such as the Western Area Summer Playscheme (WASPS), and the Well-Woman Centre. All were of their time, and benefitted many people. Many other efforts by local people still carry on this tradition, including SMASH (Swindon Mentoring & Self-Help)
Billie Piper: Born and raised locally, Billie Piper featured as Doctor Who’s ‘companion’, Rose Tyler, since 2005, so she was chosen as a nice balance (with Ken White as Swindon’s ‘next incarnation of Dr Who’), and also as a symbol of Swindon’s creative young people, who still benefit from the investment first made in their future at the Mechanics’ Institution’s Playhouse, where acting, dancing and playing music first became central (alongside books, learning, and health care) to Swindon’s cultural life.