The GWR Railway Village Conservation Area

GWR Railway Village – 1841. Now a heritage action zone in conjunction with Historic England.

The below I’ve extracted from Swindon in 50 Buildings.

It began when civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and mechanical engineer Daniel Gooch put their railway works at the foot of Swindon Hill. Without that, Swindon as we know it wouldn’t exist.

The GWR Railway Village Conservation Area Swindon
The GWR Railway Village Conservation Area – Photo credit Martin Parry

Brunel’s design

On 19 March 1842, Brunel presented to the directors of the GWR, plans and drawings for the first 300 cottages. These were to sit parallel to the main line. Separated by open ground from the main line and the new workshops, these first dwellings were visible to passing trains. Thus, Brunel dressed them to impress passengers, with Elizabethan and Jacobean motifs on the stone-built façades. Think now of the aphorism ‘all fur coat and no knickers’. For the cottage’s dashing exteriors belied humble dwellings with rudimentary accommodation, no water and cesspits in the yards.

Basically, Brunel blew the budget on the Jacobethan dressings, thus forcing him to economise elsewhere.

Model by name but not by nature

A model village in name, the settlement was far from model in other aspects.

Thanks to overcrowding and suspect sanitation, a workers’ utopia it was not. Yet, squalid living conditions aside, the GWR built houses of notable architectural dignity and planning sophistication. Superior to most contemporary artisans’ dwellings, they set a standard for later Swindon estates. They never offered the back-to-backs familiar in other British industrial settlements.

By November 1845 the need for more housing became acute. Gooch stated in correspondence that ‘ten or twelve people were living in two rooms. And, when the night men got up the day men went to bed…’ You’ve heard of hot-desking? Well, it was ‘hot-bedding’ here!

Today it remains the last, and best, example of nineteenth-century railway workers’ housing. It’s celebrated among other model workers’ settlements nationwide in a new promotional partnership.

In 2018, the GWR Railway Village Conservation Area achieved the accolade of being voted England’s favourite. That arose from a competition organised by the national civic voice movement.