By Graham Carter of Swindon Heritage magazine
Swindon’s heritage has been taking a bashing in recent weeks, but for those who care about the legacy the past has left us, the picture is even bleaker than we might have realised.
Thanks to GLL’s scheme to turn the Health Hydro into flats and councillors’ refusal to rule out such cultural vandalism in the future, plus the Borough’s hamfisted handling of the aftermath of the fire at the former Agricultural Museum at Coate, another issue has slipped under the radar.
Just before Christmas it was announced that 1-3 Faringdon Road are to be sold off.
Many people will remember these buildings as the one-time home of the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, but since 2012 they have been boarded up and neglected, while awaiting their fate at the hands of Forward Swindon.
This unaccountable arm of Swindon Borough Council seems to have been charged with making key decisions about historic buildings in the town, and in the case of 1-3 Faringdon Road their plan to sell them to the highest bidders as shops and flats carries the same hallmarks as the Health Hydro controversy.
The remnants of an old advertisement can still be seen on the face of the corner building, and if you look closely you will also see the initials ‘WGL’ and the date 1892 - ironically the same year that the Health Hydro opened.
The initials stand for WG Little, a true visionary with an extraordinary story, which we will be telling in detail in the spring edition of Swindon Heritage when it is published at the end of February.
A highly successful draper and milliner, Little was also a leading councillor, and saw his duty to the community as something that should continue even beyond the grave.
So he ensured the great wealth he amassed during his lifetime could be used to benefit the people of Swindon for generations after his death, and in particular he was anxious his legacy should help young people.
So a trust fund was established, which still exists, and since his death in 1927 it has paid out well over £1million, targeting needy Swindon children and putting up money to promote his other passion: music.
WG Little’s only error, it seems, was to assume that also leaving his properties in trust to councillors meant they would always be kept for the good of the community, as he intended, rather than being flogged off.
The fund, we hope, is safe, but in the usual absence of any public consultation, the best hope for preventing the buildings from being lost to the community forever is a petition, and that seems to have been overlooked, amid desperate battles to protect other, higher-profile attacks on our heritage.
You’ll find it here - www.change.org/p/swindon-borough-council-save-swindon-s-heritage-1-3-faringdon-road
Even worse than the loss of the buildings is the way in which everything WG Little stood for is being forgotten.
He came from a time when Swindon was home to people of true vision, who felt a genuine duty to the community.
He was the embodiment of a spirit of philanthropy that defined the town, and a caring instinct that is still evident in the fantastic work of warm-hearted and caring volunteers and organisations in Swindon today.
Turning his buildings into yet more flats tells us much about the prevailing attitude to Swindon’s rich historic legacies, but we should think carefully about what is left before allowing councillors or their proxies to make irreversible decisions about them.
At a time when local heritage groups would love to be concentrating on various positive projects to celebrate our heritage and boost the tattered image of the town, 2017 already seems certain to be another year consigned to trying to defend it.
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