Even though I’m a regular user of Swindon railway station for my frequent Surrey schlep to the grandchildren I tend to forget half of Brunel’s original station remains. My memory on this point isn’t helped by the modern station frontage with Signal Point behind it. Surely the only redeeming feature of that building is the large, red Network Rail logo it bears?*
*I’m not, as a rule, in favour of demolishing buildings – the greenest building is the existing building and all that. But you could persuade me to make an exception for that one. Anyway …

… the screenshot below taken from a YouTube history of Swindon’s railway stations shows you how the entrance to Swindon station once looked.

Swindon Railway Station 1842
Swindon Railway Station as it was before demolition and the building of Signal Point

And how it looks today:

The modern frontage of Swindon station
The modern frontage of Swindon station – I like the font … that’s about it … thanks Chris Eley for the image.

Now here’s an aerial shot that shows Signal Point (you can make out the Network Rail logo on the right-hand corner) and the remaining station building behind it – sadly blocked from view from the town side by Signal Point. Thanks Jack Hayward for this one.

Aerial view showing Signal Point and the remaining part of Brunel's Swindon station behind it

And a close-up of the remaining station building viewed from the platform 4 side.

Swindon Railway Station 1842 - the remaining section views from the platform 4 side
Swindon Railway Station 1842 – viewed from the platform 4 side. This is all that remains of Brunel’s masterpiece.
Referred to by the London Gazette in 1845 as to be, ‘second to none in the Kingdom, and the hotel accommodation is of the most elegant and splendid description.
They communicate with each other by a covered passage way over the Railway.’

Swindon – this is Swindon – Swindon is your next station stop

The Historic England list entry about the station describes the remaining Grade II listed station building as a: ‘Two-storey classical building on the island platform at Swindon Station, opened in 1842, truncated by five bays at the eastern end c.1880s. With attached canopies c.1880s.

Side view of Swindon Railway Station
Side view of Swindon Railway Station – courtesy of Chris Eley.

Reasons for designation

Opened in 1842 to the designs of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the station forms part of the pioneering phase of the Great Western Railway.

Architectural interest: Despite some not inconsiderable alteration to the 1842 building and the loss of its southern partner, architectural interest remains. The surviving building ‘has a strong classical styling with characterful Swindon masonry and maintains an architectural presence of a scale uncommon amongst GWR railway stations.

Historic interest: Then of course, Swindon is of real importance to the GWR’s history. Thus the station has significance as the hub connecting east and west with Swindon’s railway works.

Group value: there’s an inter-visible relationship with the Grade II-listed former drawing offices to the west and the Grade II-listed workshops to the south-west, and an architectural resonance with many of the surviving and listed railway and related buildings nearby.

A purpose – or three

Swindon’s station had three specific purposes:

  1. To act as an interchange for the line to Gloucester, which opened in that year
  2. To provide refreshment rooms for passengers travelling between London and Bristol whilst trains were stopped to swap locomotives
  3. And to provide hotel accommodation for passengers.

Brunel’s solution was a station with two island platforms. Each platform had an identical two-storey building with attached timber canopies, linked together by an iron footbridge.

Extract from the Illustrated London News 1845 showing Swindon station in its entirety with the linking footbridge.
Extract from the Illustrated London News 1845 showing Swindon station in its entirety with the linking footbridge.

Bourne in his ‘History’ describes the layout of these buildings in some detail. They had refreshment rooms on the ground floor in an ‘Arabesque’ style. Biddle suggests that the architect Francis Thompson may have been consulted on their design. The upper floors contained a hotel. The now lost southern building contained the public rooms and the surviving northern block the bedrooms. Bourne describes a basement which contained the kitchens and other service areas.

Deal or no deal

The Great Western Railway struck a deal with the contractors, JD and C Rigby to build Swindon’s railway station. But at their own expense. In return for footing that bill they were to keep the profits from the refreshment rooms and hotel business that would be carried out there.

To sweeten the deal, the GWR agreed to stop all trains at Swindon station for ten minutes so that the passengers could take refreshments.

Such facilities were vital. At that time it took approx four hours to get from Paddington to Bristol. And for the first few years locomotives had to be changed at Swindon. So the ten-minute stop also coincided with the GWR’s operational needs. And Swindon was the only station between Paddington and Bristol where travellers could slake their thirsts.

Thus, I’m sure you can see what’s coming, Rigby’s could look forward to a monopoly. A situation made even more attractive by the ninety-nine year rental lease of the refreshment rooms for an annual rental of one penny!

The STEAM museum website tells us that, as per Brunel’s own specifications, the station boasted large and beautifully ornate First Class refreshment rooms comparable to the décor found in a first rate hotel.  

Sadly, it wasn’t long before poor service, poor quality and high prices gave the refreshment rooms a bad reputation. All of which somewhat foreshadows the infamous, and now embedded in popular culture, British Rail sandwich.

Even IKB himself wrote that the coffee was inferior and tasted as if it were made from roasted corn. He signed off the letter in which he made that comment by saying: ‘I have long ceased to make complaints at Swindon. I avoid taking anything there when I can help it.

Swindon network rail signage

See also:

Born Again Swindonian Logo

Sign up to receive awesome Swindon content in your inbox, every week.