With the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Swindon Crematorium approaching in April, a retired gas engineer from Haydon Wick has revealed his unique claim to being the first person to ignite the ovens.
Peter Beckett, now 85, was the gas board fitter who worked on the fuel pipeline to the new facility at Kingsdown and installed the regulator which set the pressure for the gas fed into the crematorium. But he had to come to the rescue a few days before it was due to open.
Peter explained: “The mayor and councillors and building contractors were there for a test run before opening day and I came out with my boss. The first thing that went wrong was the trial coffin slid off the rails as it went into the cremator. Me and my assistant Gordon Skuse used the long bar we had in our van to lever it back into place so it didn’t block the gas jets that came from below.
“Once the coffin was in place one of the officials pressed the button to ignite the gas and nothing happened. There was a kerfuffle with all the officials and building contractors looking at each other asking what had gone wrong. Voices started to get louder, but it was obvious to me that the gas fitting inside the crematorium hadn’t been set up correctly by whoever the building contractor had used. I told my boss and he went over to the group to explain the problem. They did’n’t want to accept what he said, but after some more finger pointing they asked me to have a look at it.
“Me and Gordon took the regulator off the wall and opened it up in our mobile workshop and made some improvements and had it back in place quite quickly.
“I just said let’s see if this works and pressed the ignition button and it fired up very nicely. Maybe I should have asked if a VIP wanted to do the honour but by then I was in work mode and wanted to get the job done properly.”
Bereavement services officer Zoe Fuller said the fiftieth anniversary is significant for the people of the town. “Before Swindon Crematorium was built in the grounds of the recently demolished Kingsdown House, families had to travel to Oxford or Cheltenham for cremations, a long and a stressful journey I’m sure.
“We’ve been trying to find out more about the house that stood in the grounds but there isn’t a great deal of material. The first ever cremation in Swindon took place on 25 April 1966 and on Saturday 23 April 2016, we’re inviting residents to visit us to talk to crematorium staff, learn about the 50 years of operations and take tours behind the scenes. There won’t be any cremations taking place on the day.
“There will be funeral directors, florists and stonemasons available to discuss funeral plans, and a remembrance service will be held in memory of all who have been cremated at Kingsdown, many of whom are remembered in our garden of remembrance.”
There will also be a local history display including an article written by Rev Dr Fred Fuller in the now defunct Stratton Outlook magazine in October 1989 about burial grounds and church yards in Stratton St Margaret, which seems to be the only account of the site. He described the moated Elizabethan manor house which itself was probably built on the foundations of a medieval dwelling. There is still evidence of the moat ditch by a hedgeline in front of the crematorium. The Elizabethan era house was replaced by a more modern property in 1810 which was eventually demolished in the early 1960s.
Zoe added that over the last 50 years Swindon Crematorium had been refurbished three times to modernise the facilities. “There were four cremators when it was first built but after the last rebuild a couple of years ago we now have three to accommodate larger coffins and also to provide space for high specification filtration systems to meet present day air pollution standards.
“In the future we’re looking at offering audio-visual presentation facilities and perhaps the possibility of web cams which could broadcast services to relations and friends unable to attend a commitment.”
Peter was made redundant by the gas board in April 1987 and went on to drive mini-busses and then to become a chauffeur. He had learnt to drive HGV during national service in the early 1950s and rose to become an Army driving instructor before rejoining the gas board where he had served his apprenticeship after leaving school. In the late 1980s he used this experience as a recovery driver for Greenmeadow garage until he retired in 1996.
Top, Peter Beckett with bereavement services officer Zoe Fennell in front of one of the three cremators. Below, with Rev Geoffrey Gleed whose father trained Peter as an apprentice in the 1950s. Bottom, Peter in the gas regulator house in which he installed the original equipment in early 1966, with crematorium technician Eddy Cook