February 2021

Or – to give this site its full title: the WHSmith Distribution Centre and UK Support Centre

The WH Smith Offices - overview of the whole complex from Richard Wintle - Calyx picture agency
©Calyx Pictures ARCHIVE.

I’d had no particular thought about including the WH Smith offices in this series of Swindon in 50 More Buildings. But then, as is so often the way, I saw something on Twitter that piqued my interest and persuaded me that I should. What I saw was this article from the 20th century society about getting the building – what’s left of it – listed.

Erected in 1966-1967, this HQ turns out to be more important than one might imagine. HF Bailey (chief architect of WH Smith’s Estate Department) designed the buildings together with the consulting architects Johns, Slater & Haward. Johns, Slater & Haward, an important post-war architects’ practice.

Thus the Twentieth Century Society has joined Swindon’s Conservation Officer Liz Smith-Gibbons in objecting to plans to demolish the WH Smith warehouse, office block and carpark which it describes as of ‘outstanding national significance.’

The society have submitted the listing application in response to plans to redevelop the site into a large housing estate.

Two sites in one

The WHSmith site at Greenbridge is in fact two sites in one.

Firstly the Swindon Distribution Centre is one of three hubs in England, supplying their over 600 stores and online customers. So, if we’re going to get proper about it, it’s not a warehouse. That’s because it’s part of a wider supply chain. And their UK Support Centre – based in the tower block is home to the High Street trading teams and also forms the base for their Group head office.

Architectural Interest

It appears that the significant architectural interest lies the influence of the Silberkuhl system in the design. That being the brainchild of the German engineer Wilhelm J Silbkuhl (1912-1984). The arched roof comprises three 150 ft wide and 525 ft long curved spans of steel truss girders and reinforced concrete roofing supported on twelve columns. This provided 250,000 sq ft of unobstructed floor space.

The complex also included a six-storey office building.Its design intended to hold administration areas as well as restaurants, welfare and recreation rooms. Not forgetting service equipment areas and an air-conditioned, double-glazed computer and data processing rooms.
‘The office is steel-framed and when built, the exterior was clad in exposed aggregate panels that matched those on the warehouse. Bands of cladding alternate with windows. An off-centre tower counterbalances their horizontal lines.

So now you know!

Greenbridge served also as the location of a number of other industrial buildings designed and constructed by leading architectural practices. These included a small Reliance factory by Team Four (1966-7) and the Torrington Factory by Marcel Breuer & Robert F Gtaje (1966-7).

Pevsner describes the WH Smith warehouse as the “most striking building” on the estate.

The ISBN story

Legend has it that, in 1966, WH Smith created a particular standard book number. This number consisted of a nine-digit code, adopted in 1970 as the international standard number. And that, at length, that become the International Standard Book Number – ISBN – in 1974.

The creation of the ISBN system is attributed to WH Smith’s relocation to Greenbridge. Thus adding historic significance to the site.

But …. the plot thickens … according to someone I know that once worked there, that story is a tad apocryphal. In that WH Smith were using an SBN system as early as 1964 – three years before this building opened. That system became the ISBN system in 1974.

But here’s a nice little factoid for you: the Greenbridge building saw the processing of the first ever UK Internet sale. The order may not have been placed there but certainly the servers in the building recorded it. It’s thought that the order in question was for a copy of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth!

See more posts in this series here.

A WH Smith history

For a brief history of WH Smith: https://www.whsmithplc.co.uk/about-us/history-heritage

WHSmith PLC (also known as WHS or colloquially as Smith’s, and formerly W. H. Smith & Son) is a British retailer headquartered, as we know, in Swindon.

Henry Walton Smith and his wife Anna formed the company in 1792 as a London news vendor. The business remained under Smith family ownership for many years. It saw a large-scale expansion during the 1970s and can lay claim to being the world’s first retail chain.

All the photographs below are courtesy of Swindon photo journalist legend Richard Wintle.
Read about his latest book here:

The Kinetic Pencils

A rather funky public art piece once stood outside the WH Smith offices called Kinetic Pencils, by Peter Logan – installed in 1991. Sadly they’re long gone but below, for your delectation and edification, are some wonderful archive photos of the kinetic pencils from Richard Wintle.

Kinetic pencils by Peter Logan
©Calyx Pencil sculpture outside WHSmiths at Greenbridge

And now a small number showing construction of the part of this distribution centre that is gone already – referred to by some ex-employees as the peppermint palace: