Future of Mechanics' Institute was big news of February 1998

By Barrie Hudson - 21 February 2023


The fate of what is arguably Swindon’s greatest architectural jewel was at the top of Swindon Link’s news agenda a quarter of a century ago.

“SAVE IT FOR SWINDON” was the message we plastered across the corner of a front page colour picture of the instantly-recognisable Railway Village building, which had first opened its doors in 1855.

The future of the building had been a concern of many people in the town since it was last used in the 1980s, and remains a concern to this day.

Our February 1998 edition devoted its main story to a new development in the ongoing saga.

We wrote: “Swindon’s Mechanics Institute could become the centre for the town’s arts, cultural and community life, if the dreams of a band of committed volunteers come true.

“But they need £848,000 from the people and businesses of Swindon.

“A decision on a National Lottery grant for £2.5m is due in June and local fundraising is essential to secure it.

“The local appeal by the New Mechanics Institute Preservation Trust was launched on 22 January under the slogan, ‘Get the Mechanics.’”

The organisation was run by a band of volunteers including Martha Parry, then already a respected community campaigner, who remains involved in heritage preservation.

We said of the team: “They believe [the building] can be refurbished to provide a central base for voluntary organisations, space for performance, arts workshops and exhibitions, and a cinema. Conference facilities, a social history archive and a high-tech multi-media centre are also proposed.”

Unfortunately, a series of issues including a rejected bid by a private owner earlier this century to turn the structure into a hotel, meant that the building remains unused.

However, the Railway Village is now at the heart of a Heritage Action Zone, and there are hopes of a brighter future for the Mechanics’ Institute and the area in which it stands.

Moving from the old to what was still very much the new in 1998, we carried a report from the emerging North Swindon neighbourhood of Abbey Meads.

“Church ready to claim village centre site,” ran the headline of the story centred on the Elstree Way land where the Abbey Meads Village Centre now stands.

The resolution of various building delays meant work on the planned shops and pub could begin that April.

It also meant that the Church of Christ the Servant in Abbey Meads was a step closer to having a permanent home, having been quartered initially at Church House in Hayward Close and subsequently moved to the temporary Abbey Meads Community Centre.

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