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

Outlining the town’s services and facilities, it focused on the dispensary and the baths, rather than the cottage hospital. Because they better fitted new ideas about the importance of wellbeing and prevention. In Swindon it found something special, something unique:

‘it will be seen that the society provides for its members’ needs from cradle to grave’. In the words of a distinguished medical visitor, ‘The Medical Fund Society is the only current example in this country of an attempt to provide a comprehensive health service for its beneficiaries.’

The Secret Swindon book then goes on to detail a timeline of events that led to the formation of the medical fund society. Note this from 1860:

‘In modern times we take the provision in our homes of baths and showers for granted. Back then though, the adage of cleanliness being next to Godliness was not so well entrenched as it later became. So, all the more credit to the MFS for inaugurating the first baths. The 1860 minutes record the granting of permission to put ‘the shower and slipper bath’ in the bath room at the Mechanics’ Institution.

A year later came a project of much greater ambition: Turkish baths on ground behind the Mechanics’ Institute. Three years on, in 1864, the baths got moved to the yard of the barracks … now The Platform, a youth music venue.’

Swindon’s first hospital

From there we do some Dr Who-esque wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey stuff and fast forward to 1872. That’s when the hospital, now central community centre in the GWR railway village, opened. The medical staff increased to two surgeons, Messrs Swinhoe and Howse, and two assistants.

The rules stated the hospital was for accidents only – not general diseases – and was to be free to all society members. Other servants of the GWR ‘shall be charged a fair and reasonable sum for their maintenance as may be decided by the committee’.

Now, jump back in to the TARDIS for a leap to 1892 – a most significant year for health and leisure provision in Swindon. For this year saw the opening of a new consulting room waiting halls and dispensary. All this along with two new swimming baths – one small and one large. By 1899 the Milton Road site sees the addition of new washing, Turkish and Russian Baths. The Turkish baths are going strong still and are now the oldest extant example of their kind in the world.

This building, the HQ of the GWR Medical Fund Society sits on Milton Road in Swindon. Now known as the Health Hydro it’s often still referred to as the baths, Milton Road baths or the old health centre.

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

Of course, Swindon wasn’t the only place to have a Victorian swimming bath. I grew up in a mining area on the Derbyshire/Notts border and have vivid memories of going to the baths in a nearby village. We never went swimming – we went to the baths. Cresswell baths were a smaller version of what Swindon has in Milton Road. Right down to the changing cubicles round the pool, the glazed bricks and the viewing balcony and even the slipper baths.

We kids learned to swim there just as generations of older Swindonians learned to swim in the small pool at Milton Road. Whenever I walk into the Health Hydro I’m transported back to childhood and school swimming lessons and getting my ‘learner’s certificate’ and a red stripe to sew onto my swimming costume.

The prevalence of Victorian swimming pools around the country was no accident though. Their 1846 Baths and Wash House Act kickstarted almost a century of municipal pool design. As this article about nine spectacular public swimming pools in the UK observes, The UK has the largest stock of historic swimming pools in the world. Although only fifty-two of Britain’s 116 listed bathhouses are still operational today. And Swindon’s Milton Road Baths is one of them.

Swindon’s health care moves into the 20th century

With the twentieth century, other services came along. In the period between WWI and the mid-1940s eight further consulting rooms came into use at Milton Road. Along with a dental surgery, a psychological clinic, a dispensary, an ophthalmic practice, a chiropodist, a physiotherapist, a paediatric clinic, a skin clinic and a masseur.

Swindon’s Medical Fund Society, conceived by the men, for the men (and their families) and run by the men (via elected representatives), was a pioneering venture well ahead of its time. One that played a significant role on both local and national stages. A thing of beauty and breadth, the society was 101 years old when the NHS took it over. Digest that fact do! 101 years of health provision before the NHS took it over.

But, as we’ve seen the MFS offering included swimming and Turkish and Russian baths. If not viewed as leisure then – such things are now.

The rise of civic sport and leisure centres

What the Victorians began, modern British society continued. As this blog about the growth of pools and leisure centres points out.

During the post-war period, and in the 1960s in particular, this country saw, with government support, a big rise in the building of civic sport and leisure centres. As the article states, many such early leisure centres had amenities that remain popular today – swimming pools and ice rinks. Though they of course opened long before the advent of high-tech gym equipment or the steam rooms and spas that we’re familiar with now.

Even so, these 1960s pioneering leisure centres offered a range of opportunities for health and recreation. The Milton Road baths of their day.

These facilities came at a time when Britain was still recovering from the ravages of WWII and the austerity of the 1950s. The country built bright new homes. And these leisure centres formed part of optimistic plans for healthier environments and improved recreational opportunities for ordinary people.

The 1980s and a new breed appears

By the time we get to the 1980s in our leisure pool time travel it’s all changed again. During this period, according to the Sports Leisure Legacy, a new variety of leisure pools appeared. ‘…proved attractive, notably in Swindon, Minehead (Butlins) and Torquay.

Indeed, Thamesdown Council’s Link Centre at Swindon, with its ice rink, theatre and pool attached to the public library galvanised thinking on the part of local authorities across the south west of England. A fully integrated leisure service, including sports and leisure centres, under Director Denys Hodson helped Thamesdown’s reputation.’

Swindon is ahead of the curve once more

But here again Swindon was ahead of the curve. The Link Centre opened in the mid-1980s. But almost a decade before that, on New Year’s Day in 1976, the town opened the Oasis leisure centre.

The complex was completed in Swindon, Wiltshire, in 1975 by Gillinson Barnet & Partners and is described in the RIBA Guide to Modern Architecture as a ‘fantasy structure, its half-submerged dome resembling a flying saucer’. More on the pleasure dome here.

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

Research at the Swindon & Wiltshire history centre in Chippenham unearthed some wonderful documents from the time of the Oasis being planned. And, if you’re so inclined, there’s more of that here.

And now is the point in this article where I have to mention that controversy is raging over the Oasis as it’s under threat.

But to illustrate the vision in Swindon’s civic minds at the time, here’s an extract from an email sent to the Save the Oasis campaign by John Stevens who opened the facility. Powerful and moving words methinks.

‘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!

And whatever happened to swimming for FUN? I’m not the only one asking that question.

Back in 2013 The Guardian wrote in praise of leisure pools. The author writes: ‘… But after a summer of getting wet with my children, in the sea as well as pools, I’ve become cross about the way swimming for fun – as in playing games, jumping in, doing handstands, diving for locker keys, racing each other – has been squeezed out of public pools.’

‘With the rise of lane swimming, kids preferring to do handstands have been washed into a corner of the municipal facility. What became of the council-run places dedicated to splashing about?’

Well if you’re in Swindon a Faustian pact with a property developer is the answer to that question!

The Oasis is the only place for MILES for some wet, wet, wet family fun!

To follow the Save the Oasis campaign: