From the GWR Medical Fund Society to the Oasis

A Swindon Health and Leisure History
Swindon possesses an important slice of social history. One that shows how health and leisure provision have changed throughout the years. And how important that is to people’s welfare. Both physical and mental. It began with the GWR Medical Fund Society and comes right up to date and feeds into the current Oasis saga.

Central community centre in the GWR railway village as drawn by Dona Bradley - Healthcare history and swindon - A Swindon Health & Leisure History
Central community centre – one time GWR Medical Fund Society hospital – drawn by Dona Bradley

Always at the forefront

Swindon’s now demolished *Princess Margaret Hospital was the first new hospital built in Britain following WWII. And, what’s more, the first hospital built under the NHS. And its current GWH (Great Western Hospital) came in the first wave of the controversial private finance initiative scheme.

*This BBC article, Then and Now: a hospital’s story gives a fascinating insight into patient life in a 1950s Swindon hospital.

Yet Swindon was at the cutting edge of health and leisure provision way before that. In fact, you could go so far as to say Swindon invented the concept. And it began with the GWR medical fund society.

In my first Swindon-related publication, Secret Swindon, I recounted in some detail a history of Swindon’s Mechanics’ Institution and its achievements. But for the purposes of this article I’ll fast forward to this extract from the book:

1847–1947: A Century of Medical Provision from the GWR Medical Fund Society

Just as there were other Mechanics’ Institutions in the country there were other medical funds too. Notably in Tredegar in Wales, the birthplace of one Aneurin Bevan, the godfather of the NHS. The Tredegar Medical Aid Society, though, was newer, founded in 1890, and not as extensive as Swindon’s model. What made Swindon’s MFS so special was its breadth and its scope. The Swindon model took a modern and holistic healthcare approach symbolised by the dispensary and baths at Milton Road.

From cradle to grave

‘From cradle to grave’ is an expression synonymous with the NHS. Yet Swindon can lay claim to offering that level of care decades before Britain got its NHS. The GWR Medical Fund Society gave an inclusive health service for 101 years before the NHS came into being. It was healthcare ahead of its time. So much so that when Nye Bevan visited Swindon to see the health provision the MFS provided he commented: ‘There it was. A complete health service in Swindon. All we had to do was expand it to the whole country.’

The notion of a national health service was tabled even before WWII victory. A 1945 parliamentary white paper sketched the plan out. Yet, as Graham Carter wrote in Swindon Heritage magazine, records unearthed at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre reveal involvement by the committee of the GWR Medical Fund. Then, February 1946 saw the convening of an English and Welsh Medical Alliances conference. And they chose Swindon to host, in what we now call the Health Hydro – though it remains known and well-loved among older Swindonians as the Baths.

As Graham went on to explain, it appears that representatives from that famous medical journal The Lancet were in attendance. At least if the mention of the Swindon’s health service in its May 1946 edition is anything to go by.

The Health Hydro plaque - one of the blue plaques in swindon
Blue Plaque on Milton Road Baths

The dispensary and the baths

Swindon’s first hospital

Milton Road Baths The health hydro in Swindon - A Swindon Health and Leisure History
Milton Road Baths – aka The Health Hydro

The Victorian love affair with communal bathing

Swindon’s health care moves into the 20th century

The rise of civic sport and leisure centres

The 1980s and a new breed appears

Swindon is ahead of the curve once more

Oasis reflections from the 1970s - One of the hand drawn plans of the Oasis
One of the hand drawn plans of the Oasis

The Letter from John Stevens

‘I had the pleasure and privilege of opening the Oasis, on New Year’s Day 1976, but never thought that I would see the day it could be closed – a very sad day indeed.

It was back in 1968 when the Borough Council discussed that, with the rapid expansion of the Town and the surrounding areas, we consider the building of a state-of-the-art leisure centre.

I had the good fortune of being on the Arts and Recreation Committee where we discussed and debated as to whether we could afford this kind of building and design.

We were aware that we were opening a very fine building, one of the best in the country, with this type of pleasure dome and provide the finest leisure activities in the country. Despite the financial restraints of the times we were committed to the people of Swindon and the surrounding area, to provide a fine and exciting building for the use and enjoyment of the community.

Let us not lose what was achieved for the people of Swindon, which is still enjoyed today by many of our residents, who look to the opportunities to keep fit and also relax. ‘

So much more than a building

This wonderful article in the Architect’s Journal will tell you how important the Oasis dome structure is in architectural terms.

That’s only one of many compelling reasons why we shouldn’t demolish this building and why we mustn’t lose this facility. If you go here you’ll find some wonderful videos made by Swindon Viewpoint explaining all that.

But of course, it’s also a 20th Century link in the long and noble chain of Swindon’s health and leisure offering. And it’s an important piece of social history. And as such it deserves honouring and preserving.

Just as generations of older Swindonians remember learning to swim at Milton Road baths and going to events there – younger Swindonians remember learning to swim at the Oasis. They remember having their childhood birthday parties there. They went to concerts there. And oh so very much more!

It’s played as big role in the lives of modern Swindonians as did Milton Road baths back in its day.

Swimming for fun!

Save Oasis Campaign Send out an SOS
Photo by Stuart Harrison –

To follow the Save the Oasis campaign:

Poster by Swindon artist ken white - you don't know what you've got till it's gone
Poster by Swindon Artist Ken White

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