British Pathé newsreels exposed Swindon to the wider world for more than 70 years

By Roger Ogle - 1 February 2019

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Archive film available in a fascinating online collection

Princess Elizabeth image kindly provided by STEAM - Museum of the Great Western Railway. Open Mon-Sat. 10am to 5pm; Sun. 11am to 4pm. For information about STEAM events and exhibitions, call 01793 466637

Between 1910 and 1968 British Pathé was an important part of the experience of going to the cinema in Swindon and across the country. No visit would be complete without a ten minute newsreel before the main feature.

Each showing contained concise reports on royal visits, political developments, unrest and cultural events in the Empire as well as the rest of the globe. They usually finished with a short film featuring the curious hobbies and eccentric lives of ordinary people across the United Kingdom.

As the theatre lights went down a crowing cockerel introduced the news segment, giving it a Gallic flavour as the company was originally set up by the renowned French filmmaker Charles Pathé who brought the newsreel innovation to the British cinema-going public.

Before the advent of television, the organisation was the benchmark for cinematic journalism, blending information and entertainment with unparalleled success which influenced the outlook of generations of Britons. But Pathé’s importance started to diminish as the scope of TV news widened and became more immediate, whilst cinema attendances declined and entertainment became more housebound as the cost of TVs dropped.

With a treasure trove of 85,000 films covering major events, famous personalities, fashion trends, travel, science and culture, the British Pathé newsreel archive is now considered the finest collection in the world. And all reports are now available to view online. 

A search for Swindon reveals 22 specific films, with a number of other related references. The earliest item is dated 1914 to 1918 and features Canadian soldiers encamped nearby, resting from the trenches of World War I, taking part in sports to mark Empire Day.

Films of royal visits and the railways are strongly represented. The first shows a tour of the Great Western Railway locomotive building and repair workshops by King Amanullah Khan of Afghanistan in 1921, in Britain to sign a treaty. There are shots of the VIPs watching a railway worker wearing a mask spray painting a railway wagon and walking past the locomotive turntable still in place outside the Pattern Store. Some of the film is quite dark, but it illustrates the vastness of the works.

In 1924 King George V and Queen Mary were welcomed by respectful crowds dressed in their Sunday best at the Cenotaph when they laid a wreath to those who fell in the Great War, before entering the old town hall. It’s a silent film but you can see the excitement when the royal party emerges to cheers which rippled all the way down Regent Street as they drove past huge crowds.

The most informative royal film was made on a dull day in November 1950, described in the clear, distinctive tones that were a hallmark of Pathé commentaries. Princess Elizabeth is shown being met at the railway station by leaders of Swindon Corporation as well as a young Murray John, the famous town clerk behind the town’s post-war economic growth.

The motorcade drives up Regent Street to Queen’s Park where the princess dedicates the Garden of Remembrance to those who served and died during World War II. Many former service men and women are shown proudly wearing their medals. She then opens Moredon Playing Fields which was thronged with well-wishers, including Girl Guides and Scouts from across north Wiltshire. Many will recognise relations who were there all those years ago.

The princess is then escorted into the railway works where she sees her name being cast in bronze before watching a locomotive on the static test bed. The engine appears to be going full pelt, the noise must have been incredible, but there is no evidence of ear protection. At the end of the tour the princess climbs a dias to pull a ribbon to unveil the Castle Class engine ‘Swindon.' Her departure takes place in the cab of the Castle Class loco Princess Elizabeth, which she drove the short distance from the works erecting shop where engines were built to Swindon station.

There is also a silent version of this report which includes offcuts and scenes omitted from the final edit shown in cinemas, including a very brief shot of the princess entering a house which could be in Pinehurst.

Other railway reports show the King Class 6000 King Henry VII after it was fitted with a streamlined bullet nose to improve speed. The works also appears in ‘Queer Jobs,’ a 1934 description of the strangely named tasks that workmen ‘inside’ were employed to do. There are shots of a worker without any protection coating a locomotive with heat proof plaster which looks like asbestos, found many years later to be toxic and the cause of many deaths from mesothelioma.

Swindon’s most famous locomotive King George V is shown on the way to restoration by cider maker Bulmers in 1968, hauled with ropes out of storage by hundreds of men and boys, urged on the mayor Alderman Alf Bown.

Being a news organisation Pathé never shied away from showing sad news and a film crew were soon on the scene after the January 1936 crash at South Marston when the Penzance to London express smashed into wagons that had become detached from a goods train travelling earlier on the line. Two people died at the scene.

The darker side of the town’s railway heritage is found in a 1936 film called ‘Lost Locos’ which shows obsolete steam locomotives being broken up in the Con Yard, followed by a short 1938 film called ‘Railway Graveyard.’ The volume of redundant rolling stock and the huge piles of metal illustrates the amount of the Earth’s resources consumed by it's premier industry.

The population has risen ever since the Great Western Railway established itself here and the coy commentary in the 1947 Pathé film ‘Baby Boom Town’ described Swindon as ‘stork town.’ It featured expectant mothers arriving at Victoria Hospital in Old Town and the busy mid-wives caring for them and their babies, as well as several businesses benefitting from the fecundity of local couples.

Newer technology is shown when Vickers at South Marston unveiled a passenger carrying hovercraft, as well as an experimental hover Land Rover. RAF Lyneham appears in several films, as the wounded military personnel arrive back from the war in Korea and the Communist insurgency in Malaya. Two films show the introduction of the Comet jet to RAF Transport Command and later the C140 Hercules.

On a lighter note Swindon inventor William Ratcliffe is filmed demonstrating his new-fangled water cycle at Lechlade, whilst the head gardener at Queens Park plants up a crocodile designed with mesh. And of course Swindon Town FC’s famous victory against Arsenal in the 1969 League Cup Final with team members mobbing goal scorer Don Rogers was of national importance.

A tour of the British Pathé archive is a fascinating, informative experience, whether you focus on Swindon or explore the vast collection of reports from the middle of the 20th Century.


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