The town that inspired the NHS: In defence of Swindon

The Mechanics’ Institute, Swindon. Image: DickBauch/Wikimedia Commons.

On Bristol Street, a short walk from Swindon train station, lies a Victorian warehouse, marking the northern edge of the former railway village. Or rather: there lies the façade of a Victorian warehouse. It now acts as the entrance to one of many car parks serving the town’s railway museum.

This building, surrounded by many others like it, is emblematic of the journey the town has taken over the last 200 years – proudly celebrating its past, yet undermining it by adopting a way of life almost antithetical to the one it pioneered in the 19th century.

Swindon now finds itself powered by cars, rather than trains, and a long way from the style of living set by the railway villages which preceeded the town. Yet it remains an important model for urbanism through its pioneering use of social housing, education and the NHS. Swindon is often maligned, particularly in its current state – but the town serves as a reminder the radical change that urban centres can generate.

Swindon’s new town was born during the industrial revolution: a period of rapid growth was launched by the construction of the Wilts & Berks Canal in 1810, followed by the arrival of the Great Western Railway (GWR) and the industries required to support it in the early 1840s. In recognition of the need for decent housing for its workers, the early GWR developed the railway village it built alongside the old market town to an unusually high standard.

The workers here developed some important ideas. A number began the widespread sharing of books with their colleagues, forming the first circulating library system – predating the first ever public library. Later, the GWR recognised the business-sense of this system, helping its employees to form a the Mechanics’ Institute, funded via subscription.

This was still the Victorian era, of course, and it would be foolish to expect  utopian: the work was harsh, and diseases like tuberculosis were widespread. So the Institute also offered health services.  The authorities also established a Swindon medical fund, pooling some of the workers’ salaries to pay for comprehensive healthcare, dentistry, swimming pools, even Turkish baths.

Nye Bevan later paid homage to the policy: “There was a complete health service in Swindon. All we had to do was expand it to the country.” Fittingly, the medical centre was later replaced by the first NHS-built hospital, the Princess Margaret.

At the start of the 20th century, trams were introduced to service the growing town, maintaining good links between the new and old towns and charging a reduced rate to the railway workers. This new public transport system helped the development of a new, more leisurely lifestyle, allowing for frequent visits to the new ice rinks and cinemas.

So, along with the rapid industrialisation of Swindon came radical social policies and town planning opportunities. The railway village shares many qualities, library and health centre included, with planned communities like Bournville, in south Birmingham.

What, then, happened to pave the way for the Swindon of today? The Mechanics’ Institute is now disused, the Wilts & Berks canal has been tarmacked over in the town centre, and the trams lasted only 25 years, thanks to the introduction of buses.

The story is familiar to many towns and cities: the collapse of industry led the railway, in this instance, to become a less important employer. At the same time, the outbreak of the Second World War curtailed investment in public transport, even as Swindon continued growing, with several factories opening on its outskirts to contribute to the war effort.

These changes, along with a post-war population boom, led to council-sanctioned slum clearances and a sprawl into the suburbs, with expansions into residential areas like Penhill, Dorcan and Park North.

As the railway business collapsed, new firms moved in: WH Smiths, Nationwide, a number of car manufacturers. The one thing which links these businesses is that they lie in industrial estates around the city, far from the new town in the centre.

The post-war period also brought many of town’s more infamous projects, such as the magic roundabout and Swindon bus station, described by Douglas Adams as the place most ‘inimical to life’ in the world. In the 1960s, the railway village was even earmarked for demolition: like London’s St. Pancras station it was saved, in part, by John Betjeman.

Ooooh. The famous magic roundabout. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This is not to say that all is lost – far from it. There has been a recent expansion of the bus lines, leading to competition between competitors on who can run the most buses, and a total reconstruction of the bus station is underway.

The town centre has a handful of commercial development plans going on at any one time through Forward Swindon. One of the most recent was the conversion of the Great Western Works into a digital hub – which, infuriatingly, calls itself the ‘Shoreditch of Swindon’. Here, Swindon seems to be taking its cues, if not from Shoreditch, at least from other successful urban ventures across the UK, such as the TramShed in Cardiff.

The development is more characteristic of a new Swindon than the railway façades are of its recent past. Fittingly, the digital hub will be located right next door, in one of the old railway buildings on Bristol Street.

Swindon may be working towards a new style of town, and a new reputation, by learning lessons from other cities – but through its trailblazing work in education, health and housing, Swindon taught Britain how to build its most treasured institutions.


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