By Graham Carter of Swindon Heritage magazine
Swindon Heritage has been awarded a £9,700 grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund to throw the spotlight on a newly discovered local treasure.
Known as The Dixon-Attwell Collection, it was donated to the Local Studies department of Swindon Central Library last year, and is made up of around 7,000 documents, photos and ephemera.
The collection was donated by Mike Attwell and relates to three generations of the Swindon-based Dixon and Attwell families, and in particular Mike’s grandfather, Jack Dixon (1899-1984), who lived in George Street, near the GWR Park in Faringdon Road.
What members of the family all had in common was: they never seemed to throw anything away. So the collection paints a picture of everyday life in Swindon for most of the 20th century.
“When my parents died, I was left with a house full of papers and others items,” said Mike Attwell. “Few items were of any real monetary value, but I recognised they had priceless interest for Swindon historians and, indeed, anybody interested in the town’s past, so it was important to find them a good home.”
A few of the items have been deposited at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham, but the majority will be added to the Local Studies archive at the Central Library.
Although the Dixons were a relatively ‘ordinary’ family, they were very active in the community, so were involved in a wide range of aspects of Swindon life, from trade unions to St John Ambulance.
Jack also served in the fledgling Royal Air Force at the end of the First World War, managed a fund to provide books to Royal Navy sailors after the Second World War, and even ran a mail order catalogue for fellow railwaymen in the 1950s.
In each case there is a detailed record of his activities, since he always kept documents, squirreling them away in folders and boxes.
What he preserved also reveals the lifestyle of Swindon folk in general since it relates to other subjects as diverse as Swindon Town Football Club, shopping at the Co-op, gardening, foreign penfriends and crazes for phrenology and pressing wild flowers, as well as much more.
The family were also accomplished photographers at a time when it wasn’t a common hobby, so they have left behind thousands of high quality pictures, covering several decades, including views of Swindon not previously published.
The grant will pay for the publication of a book about the collection, plus an exhibition, talks and packs for schools, all planned for the autumn. And, of course, the project will be featured in future editions of Swindon Heritage, which is published quarterly.
First, however, some of the money is earmarked for professional Local Studies staff to tackle the challenge of cataloguing and digitising a large proportion of the items in the collection, not only preserving them for future generations, but also making them more accessible for today’s local and family historians.
It is also hoped the project will draw attention to the rest of the Local Studies collection, which continues to grow.
“We receive so many wonderful donations for our collection,” said Local Studies team leader, Darryl Moody, “but the Dixon-Attwell Collection stands out as the most detailed and comprehensive we have ever seen, providing a unique insight into life in 20th century Swindon.”
Swindon’s heritage keeps on surprising even us with its breadth and depth, and this astonishing collection makes us wonder what other surprises may be around the corner as other collections and archives come to light.
The town’s Local Studies collection is already one of the best of its kind in the whole of Britain, is brilliantly managed by library staff, and is something to treasure at a time when library services and the town’s heritage are otherwise under threat.