The GWR Railway Village Conservation Area

GWR Railway Village – 1841. Until 2024 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 AreaPhoto 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. The railway village stands as one Britain’s best-preserved and architecturally most ambitious railway settlements.

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.

John Betjeman –

An extract from Secret Swindon:

‘ … Betjeman was a lover of, and passionate advocate for, Victorian architecture. Thank goodness for that. Otherwise the nation and the world would have lost the glory that is Gilbert Scott Thomas’ St Pancras station in London and other edifices saved by Betjemen. We also have him to thank for the continued existence of our Railway Village. As a 2017 article from the Swindon Advertiser points out, the 1960s saw plans to raze the area. Only a campaign by Betjeman saved it. ..’

From the Historic England listing entry for Park House

Brunel’s 1840 layout drawings show a grid layout similar to the final plan of twelve terraces, in six blocks, on either side of the High Street. From 1893 the High Street became Emlyn Square.

Construction began in 1842 with most of the buildings finished by 1855. Brunel himself designed only the first block.

The contractors, JD & C Rigby, assigned the job of building the 300 cottages fell into financial difficulties. Thus they only completed 130. That problem put back the village’s completion to the 1850s.

First to hit the finish line, 1842-1843, were the cottages to the west of Emlyn Square. Those in the east came between 1845 and 1847. 1845-1847 saw the end blocks towards Emlyn Square built, while the remainder, mostly end blocks on the outer ends of the streets were built in 1853-1855.

In 1966, the local authority acquired the cottages from British Rail and restored them. 

From the Mechanics’ Institution Trust – The origins of the Railway Village

In 1841 the Great Western Railway Company began construction work on a major new engineering works which would become, in their heyday, one of the largest industrial complexes in the world. The chosen location was open farmland some two miles from the small hilltop market town of Swindon. The lack of existing housing in the vicinity of the works meant that it quickly became necessary to provide accommodation for the influx of workers. More on that here.

The railway village now?

The Mechanics’ Institution Trust has a keen interest in the Railway Village community today. They’ve undertaken a range of activities and projects in the area. They’r a key stakeholder for both those living there and the physical environment of the Conservation Area.

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