Thirty years after it closed, and after 20 years of local community persistence, a resolution to the problems that have faced Swindon’s Mechanics’ Institution could finally be approaching.
Mechanics’ Institution Trust Chair Daniel Rose – above – writes: What better way to celebrate 175 years of ‘New Swindon’ and its people’s magnificent achievements?
We believe the Mechanics’ Institution offers the most important and timely opportunity in Swindon – an opportunity for local people to come together and be empowered, within the legacy of this central premises.
With the help of our members we have developed a mixed-use, self-financing proposal, which would not only provide benefit to local people and visitors, but is wholly in-keeping with the history and heritage of the building.
Our plans are focused on creating a community-owned and managed cultural flagship for the whole town – bringing arts, culture and community together under one roof, again.
So what is the situation right now with the Mechanics’?
After many years of campaigning by the Trust, Swindon Council finally issued an Urgent Works Notice on the third owner in December 2010. The owner did not comply with this notice and as per the legal framework the council undertook the works itself to make the building safe, secure, weather tight, and to slow the deterioration of the building. These works cost in excess of £800,000.
The council took the owner to the High Court in January 2012 to recover the costs; however the owner Forefront Estates failed to attend and the company was later dissolved by the regulator, Companies House.
With the building then ownerless, it passed to the Crown Estate (the government body that administers ownerless property) where it rests today. Swindon Council still has a charge registered on the site of approximately £400,000 as a result of the Urgent Works it undertook.
Since then the Trust has been working with the council and its regeneration arm, Forward Swindon, on proposa
ls for the future, and a Mechanics’ Advisory Board was set up which includes the Trust. The advisory board has funded an options appraisal for the site and this work is nearing completion.
This piece of work has assessed the current condition of the building, and examined a range of options for its re-use and estimated the likely costs involved.
The Trust is a charity, formed by local people in 1995, and is a registered Building Preservation Trust. We believe that heritage can create unique, enjoyable places for people. We also believe passionately in Swindon; its history, heritage and culture; its future opportunity and most importantly its people. We want to recapture the pioneering spirit and character that created “New Swindon”, to inspire our town today, in its 175th anniversary. Find out more at www.mechanics-trust.org.uk
A very brief history of the Mechanics’ Institution
In 1843, the New Swindon Mechanics’ Institution was formed and constituted ‘for the benefit and enlightenment of those employed by the GWR’. Contrary to popular mythology, the institution was not set up by Brunel, nor was it paternal benevolence of the Great Western Railway.
The workers themselves set up and governed the Institution, with GWR very much in support. The successful institution, as a building and as an organisaion, is a monument to mutual improvement and cooperation.
By 1855 the institution had built a permanent home at the heart of the Railway Village and in the years that followed it continually expanded and became the focal point of Swindon life containing reading rooms, a theatre, and an impressive library which predated the first public lending library in Manchester by 9 years.
This much-loved community space served for over a century, but with the closure of Swindon Railway Works by British Rail in 1986 it finally shut its doors.
The building fell into private hands and a series of developers all failed to put forward realistic plans for its restoration, and neglected its maintenance outrageously.
The Mechanics’ Institution Trust was formed in 1995 and campaigned for the building to return to community ownership and use, urging Swindon Borough Council to take seriously its statutory duties towards Listed buildings.
Coming soon and beyond in 2016…
• The Trust will be undertaking a timely update of our proposals for usage and business plan; this will include surveying Swindon people again, for their up-to-date input.
• Summer 2016 will be the 150th anniversary of the traditional Mechanics’ Institution Children’s Fete, to be held in the GWR Park. The Trust has raised £10,000 already but is looking for further support, for some really spectacular entertainment.
Business and individual volunteers’ help would be very welcome.
• In December 2014 the Trust won its bid to manage the Railway Cottage Museum. It is due to be transferred to the Trust in 2016, and we hope to open it regularly for the first time in 15 years;
• 2016 should see the opening of a new community café in the Bakers Arms Pub. People’s Health Lottery Funding is supporting this as well as the Central Community Centre’s community development work.
Further information about the Trust’s work can be found at: www.mechanics-trust.org.uk
Finally, some Myths of the Mechanics
Myth: The building is about to fall down
Answer: Although in a bad state of repair, it has recently been found to be structurally sound. It was solidly (well) built by a skilled GWR workforce.
Myth: It’s just another old listed building – nothing special
Answer: 92% of listed buildings are Grade 2 but the Mechanics’ is Grade 2*, alongside just 6% of listed buildings. It is nationally, even internationally, important.
Myth: “The council sold it for £1”
Answer: The council have never owned the Mechanics’ although they did turn down the chance to buy it for £1 from British Rail in 1986.
Myth: It will cost too much and the council can’t afford it
Answer: The capital cost of restoring the Mechanics’ is high (upwards of £15 million), however the Trust has never suggested the council should pay. Heritage Lottery would be the most suitable funder, and their budget has actually increased in recent years. The annual cost of running the building is also key, and the Trust is focused on updating that challenge currently.
Pictured below: Emergency repairs to the Mechanics Institution in 2010