Sunday, 24 June 2007

GWR Swindon.

Still moored at Bath top lock.
438 locks, 564½ miles, 17 Tunnels, 18 swing bridges and 9 lift bridges since Nov 2006

Today we ventured off the water to Swindon via First Great Western (Railway) We left Bath at 10.05 and were in Swindon 30 minutes later. After a 15 minute walk we arrived at our destination, STEAM the museum of the Great Western Railway. The museum is in part of what used to be the biggest railway workshops in the world. Other buildings on the site are used by other businesses and one section is just the outer façade facing onto the mainline held up by steel frames. What was a workshop is now a car park.

Before Isambard Kingdom Brunel chose Swindon as his central location for the GWR (1841) Swindon was a mere village of 2500 people. By 1935 the population was 65000 and at its peak the workshops were employing 14000 personnel and covered a massive 320 something acres of land. Everything from building and repairing loco’s, carriages and goods rolling stock to office furniture and station equipment were made there. They even had there own clockmakers workshop which made and repaired anything from a station masters pocket watch to the station foyer clocks because train timetables had to be met.

The Swindon railway village as it became known was built to plans and designs done by draughtsman employed by the GWR. The blueprints are on display in the museum and the Village Museum now has one of the railway houses open to the public to show how well off the workers were considered to be in those early days. The house was considered to be part of the workers salary and whoa betide any worker not pulling his weight. For being 20 minutes late to work could cost a worker the loss of half a day’s pay and persistent tardiness could lose him the roof over his head.
The GWR not only provided housing but schools, hospital with its own medical staff and the mechanics institute hall (1855) which was to become the cultural centre of the town with a theatre, library and meeting rooms. Sadly this building is dilapidated and vandalized but there are moves afoot to restore it. In 1847 the GW Medical Fund was set up to provide a doctor for the site which was paid for the company and the workers on a 50/50 split. The fund grew to become a cradle to grave benefit with the fund having its own building which included 2 swimming pools and a Turkish bath.
When the works closed for 2 weeks in July everybody went on holiday by train supplied by the company. These trains were boarded in the works sidings, not at the station as there were as many as 23 different trains to transport up to 25,000 people to places such as Barry Island, Weymouth, Exeter or Weston Super Mare. There was no such thing as holiday pay in those days so workers had to save for it during the year. Some could only afford to go away for a day or 2.
The displays in the museum have all been restored and with assistance from Madam Tussauds, many dioramas have been set up depicting life in the works.

Video displays in various sections tell stories as told by ex workers on various aspects of the impact the workshops had on their lives.
One of the most recent acquisitions is a carriage from Queen Victoria’s royal train. The carriage was found on a cliff top caravan park in Wales being used as a holiday carriage. Luckily it had a roof built over the top of it which must have helped to keep it in reasonable condition. The outside has been repainted in original colours and the inside will be restored as funds become available.
All in all it was well worth the visit and for any GWR or railway buffs I would recommend they put it on the visiting wish list.

When we got back to the boat I was greeted with the news that a live steam train had passed through Bath this morning. It turned out to be the Southern Railway express loco “Lord Nelson” which only returned to active duty last year after an 8 year overhaul by volunteers at the now closed Eastleigh railway workshops where it was originally built. I no sooner was given this info when I heard a train whistle. I climbed onto a vantage point just in time to see it pull out of the station and snort past us up the gradient on its return journey.

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