Having covered a good chunk of Swindon’s fabulous GWR Railway Village in my Swindon in 50 Buildings book, I’m making up for the omission of the GWR barracks there – here. If you’re with me.
I sometimes think this fine building is a bit of a stone-work lost soul. It started life as accommodation for single railway men. It didn’t work well as that so became a chapel. Then later it housed Swindon’s railway museum before STEAM opened up by the Outlet Centre. And now, as The Platform, it’s used for education and performance – but not that much it appears?
The building as a lodging house
Grade II listed by Historic England, this building came into being as a communal lodging house for single men working on the GWR, drawn from across the country.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself drew up plans for an extensive, three-storey building in a Tudor-Gothic style. Construction began in 1847. But a recession between 1847 and 1849 forced abandonment of the building with only the ground-floor started on. As finances picked up work began again on the lodging house but to revised plans. In 1853-1855 the still Gothic style was intended to to match the shop blocks in the railway village surroundings.
Large corner towers and smaller windows than those proposed by Brunel, put a more institutional look on the building. And thus perhaps gave rise t its local name of the Barracks. The lodgings had over 100 rooms each with a bed, chest of drawers and chair. There were also kitchens, a bakery and day rooms with day and night porters overseeing proceedings. But it was never popular and the men preferred to lodge with a family even though that meant cramped conditions and hot-bedding. When the day shift went to work the night shift return and get into their still warm beds.
The listing entry on the Historic England website tells us that the building seems to have remained more or less empty until 1861. That year saw it converted into two and three room units to house ironworkers arriving from Wales. They came to Swindon to staff the new rolling mills at the GWR works.
At length, the barracks became overcrowded and insanitary. Thus, in 1863, a new development of cottages arose on Cambria Place.
Related: see this post about the Cambria Bridge mural
Condemned as living space
By 1856 the building was condemned as a living space. And, in 1867, the Wesleyan Chapel trustees bought it for £1,600 to convert into a methodist chapel. It was in use as such until 1959 and saw the wedding of many a railway worker there is no doubt.
NB: I featured the Cambria Bridge chapel in Swindon in 50 Buildings
From 1962 onwards
In 1962, the chapel became converted into the GWR museum by removing the gallery and laying the chapel with rail tracks to get locomotives in and out. Large glazed openings created in the south elevation gave access.
The millennium saw the museum moved to its current incarnation as STEAM and location within the former railway works.
Reasons for listing designation
Taken from the Historic England entry:
1. For its origins as a relatively rare building type as a communal lodging house for workers at the GWR railway works.
2. For the recognisable GWR house style of the original west range, reflecting the style of the rows of workers’ family houses and cottages. And also the taller corner buildings which punctuate the streets of the railway village.
1. For its evolution through several significant phases from lodging house to chapel to railway museum. In that it reflects the changing needs of the railway company and its staff.
2. As an integral component in the extensive provision of accommodation, leisure and health and welfare facilities for workers at the GWR Works from the 1840s to the later C20.
The Heritage Action Zone
The railway village conservation area is a Historic England heritage action zone – and that’s a fabulous thing.
Even more fabulous is the awarding of £19.5 million for regeneration projects a chunk of which will go to HAZ projects. Even more fabulous!