Friday, January 6, 2017

Swindon's Heritage Assets

Council Leader David Renard stated in his column in the Advertiser this week that 'the council works very closely with heritage groups within the town' but there are many volunteers who would refute this assertion.

Cllr Renard was answering claims that Swindon Borough Council neglects heritage assets following the disastrous fire at the Coate Agricultural Museum on New Year's Eve. 

He concluded his column with the following statement: 'Unfortunately, the passage of time does not make it easy to bring these buildings back to their former glory, but that does not mean we should not try. Letting our heritage fall by the wayside is not on our agenda.' Well sadly Cllr Renard, many of us feel it is.

Save Swindon’s Heritage, a new facebook group formed following council tenant GLL’s announcement to develop part of the historic Health Hydro, a Grade II listed building, has registered more than 720 members in just 9 days.

The listing of buildings came out of a WWII measure to record important buildings in possible danger from enemy bombing, but it would appear that in Swindon it's not an aerial attack we have to worry about but something a little closer to the ground.

It was the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act that came up with the concept of a list of buildings of special historical or architectural importance. Buildings built between 1840-1914 have to meet a stringent criteria before inclusion on the list is granted.

Perhaps the greatest protection offered to a listed building is that its future fate is in the public arena. An owner must receive permission for any intended alteration and this allows for a public debate. Comments and objections must receive due consideration before planning decisions are reached.

A register of locally listed buildings is available for consultation at the council planning department and Central Library and online at Listed Buildings in Swindon.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the British Listed Building register established to protect buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest. In Swindon we have more than 650 buildings on the register with 53 scheduled monuments and three registered parks and gardens.

If you want to know more about the listing of historic buildings come along to a talk by Martin Newman at Swindon's Central Library, Tuesday January 17 at 7.15.

Lydiard House - Grade I

Central Community Centre, former Medical Fund Hospital -  Grade II

Health Hydro - Milton Road Baths - Grade II

St Mary's Church, Lydiard Park - Grade I

Coate Agricultural Museum following a fire on New Year's Eve

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Charles II and those Lydiard Park birds

Charles II celebrated his restoration to the throne by engaging in a bit of home improvements on the Tudor built St James's Palace, London and a makeover in the surrounding parkland with a new canal some 2,560 ft long and 125 ft wide.

In 1664 the Russian Ambassador to Charles gave the king a pair of pelicans to grace the new canal and 400 years later the tradition of pelicans in the park continues.

But not to be outdone Sir Walter St John also made a contribution to the monarch's new park from his country home at Lydiard with a gift of some Muscovy ducks.

Although Sir Walter had fought on the Parliamentary side in the Civil War and had been considered somewhat backward in kissing the hand of the recently restored king, you could say Sir Walter was almost 'family.'

When Charles returned to England from exile he was accompanied by his favourite (well she was then) mistress Barbara Palmer, later to be created Countess Castlemaine. Barbara was Walter's great-niece, the grand daughter of his sister Barbara Villiers, and gave birth to five of Charles' illegitimate children.

But that wasn't the only St John/Stuart connection. Charles' best friend was the naughty playwright and poet John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. John was Sir Walter's nephew, the son of his sister Anne and her second husband Henry, Earl of Rochester.

And it doesn't end there. In 1677 Charles and Barbara's daughter Charlotte Fitzroy married Edward Lee, the newly created Earl of Lichfield, and Sir Walter's great nephew, the grandson of the same sister Anne.

There's still a lot of birdlife on the lake at Lydiard Park today, including a magnificent family of eight swans. 

Lydiard House is now closed for the winter months, but look out for the return of the Behind Closed Doors series of talks and tours, which proved so popular in the 2016 close season.

Barbara, Countess of Castlemaine, whose portrait hangs in Lydiard House.

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester whose portrait hangs in Lydiard House.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Coate Agricultural Museum

This morning the Coate Agricultural Museum burned down!

The museum has been closed to the public for many years and has been neglected despite the efforts of local heritage volunteers.

This is the latest blow to Swindon's heritage in recent weeks. If you care about our town's history you might like to join a new facebook group called Save Swindon's Heritage.

You may also like to sign the petition to save the Health Hydro from development plans proposed by GLL.

And if you want to know more about our town's fascinating and understated history buy a copy of Swindon Heritage available online or from our various outlets, including Central Library and WH Smith.

Photograph of Coate Agricultural Museum published courtesy of Mike Pringle

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Tales from the cemetery: Little Freddy Whitby

There are 33,000 stories in Radnor Street Cemetery, all waiting to be told. Every death touched someone; a husband, a wife, a friend, a lover - even a stranger. These are the imagined stories of that unknown witness.

'My grandfather always lingered awhile at the corner of Clarence Street opposite the site of the old Empire Theatre. He would grip my hand tightly and recall the tale of little Freddy Whitby.

I know the story well as he never failed to mention it. It was only much later that I full understood; well you don’t as a child, do you? It was one of Pop’s stories, like the ones about the war, stories you heard all the time as a child and yet could only recall in fragments as an adult. How many times have you wished you’d asked about this or that, wished you had listened more carefully?

The Empire Theatre has long gone and there are traffic lights at the busy junction now, so as I wait for the traffic to come to a halt, I too think of little Freddy Whitby.

Freddy Whitby was 10 years and 10 months old on that fateful Friday in June 1911. He was on his way to school from his home in Swindon Road. At the corner of Clarence Street Freddy stepped off the pavement as if to cross, but then he hesitated before breaking into a run.

A witness said when he saw the car so near him Freddy appeared scared and dazed, and knowing not what to do stood absolutely still.

The driver of the car was racehorse trainer Mr W.T. Robinson from Broome Manor who was on his way to the GWR Station to catch the nine o’clock express train to London.

Mr Robinson told the inquest how he had been blowing the whistle all down the street from the tramlines and how, realising the danger the boy was in, he slammed on his brakes. The left headlamp clipped young Freddy, knocking him off balance and under the front wheel of the car.

Mr Finn, a butcher, was on his way to work when he too saw the accident. He ran across the street and picked up the boy, carrying him to Dr Lavery’ surgery just round the corner in Regent Circus.

The children on their way to Clarence Street School gathered round.

“Who is it?” they asked one another, but nobody seemed to know the boy.

Complaining of pain in his stomach Freddy was transferred to the Victoria Hospital where he was subsequently operated on for an internal haemorrhage.

The operation had proved successful and Freddy was showing signs of recovery when he died suddenly on Saturday morning. A post mortem revealed that the injuries had been slight and it was believed that Freddy had died from shock.

“I never even knew him,” Pop used to say, which always struck me as odd. Why, half a century later, did he still grieve for the boy knocked down on the corner of Clarence Street that he never knew?

But perhaps that was why? Nobody had known Freddy Whitby. Had he been walking to school with a group of boys, or even just one friend, that accident might never have happened? I think my Pop believed that had he been that one friend, Freddy Whitby would have lived. Throughout his long life my Pop somehow felt responsible for the death of Freddy Whitby…’

At the inquest Freddy’s father described his son as being a very nervous boy who had poor eyesight and wore glasses. The family had previously been living in Liverpool, Freddy had only been in Swindon since Tuesday of the previous week and the streets were new to him, he told the court.
The Advertiser reported that ‘the accident again calls attention to the danger of children crossing the streets on going to school when motor cars are frequently passing.’

The Deputy Chief Constable suggested that in future motorists travelling from Old Town to the GWR station should proceed by way of Drove Road to avoid the Clarence Street schools area.

Freddy’s funeral took place on June 14, 1911. He is buried in plot B2238 in a grave he shares with three other children; Herbert Mark Keen who died in July 1894 aged 12 months; Oswald Hall who also died in July 1894 aged two years and an eight week old baby George Henry Clifford who died a month after Freddy in 1911.

The grave is marked by a memorial to Freddy, a cross toppled off long ago and lies in the grass. The inscription reads: In Loving Memory of Little Freddy the beloved and only son of F. and E. Whitby aged 10 years and 10 mths Accidentally killed by motor car June 10th 1911.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

..dreaming of a White Christmas..

If you are dreaming of a White Christmas, spare a thought for the folk of 1881. In January 1881 Britain witnessed hitherto unparalleled weather conditions and The Times reported 'a walk across London suddenly assumed the dimensions of an Alpine adventure.'

After several days of intense cold and black frost, blizzard conditions swept across southern regions of the country during the evening of Monday January 18. The storm raged for thirty six hours, at the end of which the death toll numbered twenty people within a 20 mile radius of Swindon.

One casualty was George Cook, a farm labourer at Walcot Farm. George had brought a consignment of milk from the farm for despatch from Swindon junction. Returning home via Old Swindon, he stopped off to collect medicine for one of his children who was unwell.

Travelling down the precipitous hill on Cricklade Street, George passed Christ Church where he suddenly plummeted into a snowdrift and became trapped. Fortunately residents in nearby Belle Vue Road heard his cries for help and managed to dig him out. It was reported that he called in at a cottage near the Gas Works in Drove Road where he told of his close call. That was the last time George was seen alive.

When he failed to return home a search party followed the route he would have taken back to Walcot. Despite digging through snowdrifts and searching the fields, it took them three days to find his body.

George had succumbed to the weather conditions just 200 yards from Walcot Farm house and was two fields away from his own cottage. He left a widow and seven children.

Another victim of the weather was George Head aged 22, who died walking home to Hackpen Cottage from Barbary Farm while Wootton Bassett postman Robert Strange had a lucky escape. Cut off while on his rural postal round, Strange put up for the night at a house in Bushton.

As Britain anxiously waited for the thaw, The Times reported how the regions had been affected.

SWINDON: "Weather in this neighbourhood unprecedentedly severe, and owing to snowdrifts, which in some cases are ten feet deep, the roads for many miles around are impassable. There has been no through communication between London and Swindon since the arrival of the 3 pm express from Paddington yesterday, trains being blocked. A man named Edmond Butler, 70, was frozen to death while driving from Shrivenham to Highworth on Tuesday night."

Images of the 1908 snowfall taken by William Hooper and published here courtesy of Paul Williams - for more of Hooper's work visit the Swindon Local Collection on

Town Gardens

Town Gardens

The Lawn

Monday, December 19, 2016

Ghostly happenings in Lydiard House

What better subject for a 'nearly' Christmas post than tales of ghostly happenings in Lydiard House. Like any self respecting ancient property Lydiard House boasts a spectral presence or two.  But like a thing of beauty, could the Lydiard House phantoms be just an imaginative figment in the eye of the beholder.

There have been the occasional sighting of a 17th century gentleman roaming the grounds and giving directions to lost visitors, supposedly Sir John St John, first baronet, who died in 1648. Sir John is depicted in portraits in the house and in St Mary's Church he can be seen recumbent on the magnificent Bedstead Monument and portrayed in the St John polyptych he commissioned in memory to his parents.

Now I'm not saying that Sir John wasn't a thoroughly nice man, but my feelings are that he would be more likely to point a musket at visitors wandering about his estate rather than give them a guided tour.

In 1996 Margaret North contributed an article to The Friends of Lydiard Tregoz annual report recalling her time living at the Rectory on Hay Lane when her father Rev William Henry Willetts was Rector at St Mary's.  In February 1940 Lady Bolingbroke lay close to death in the crumbling mansion.  Margaret was a young student nurse training at the Victoria Hospital, Swindon and visiting her parents when Lady Bolingbroke's condition deteriorated.

"I was at home for a few days and Doctor Oakley Brown who was the Bolingbroke's doctor, called at the Rectory to see if I would spend a night at the mansion as Lady Bolingbroke had had a stroke.  I agreed to do so and went to see Lady Bolingbroke with Doctor Oakley Brown.  He told Lord Bolingbroke and Mr Hiscock that I would be there all night and as I was young and would need feeding in the night.  I did what I could for Lady Bolingbroke, at midnight Lord Bolingbroke came to tell me some supper was ready.  I joined the two men in the sitting room.  The house was lit by oil lamps and candles and some how the conversation got around to hauntings and queer happenings.  I was so scared I did not know how to get up from the table and return to Lady Bolingbroke's room. At last I forced myself to get up and walk up the eerie staircase.  Half way up the staircase was a model of a knight in armour and I was supposed to see a hand covered in blood on the wall quite near him, where a murdered man fell and his hand struck the wall.  From that day the imprint of the blood stained hand is supposed to be seen.  My heart was beating with fear by the time I reached Lady Bolingbroke's room, I closed the door behind me and remained in that room until morning.  Lady Bolingbroke died during the following day.  I do not think Lord Bolingbroke and Mr Hiscock realised how frightened I really was."

By the 1950s the house and parkland had been purchased by Swindon Corporation and the St John family long departed - or had they?

Joyce Vincent formerly Gough , the daughter of the first caretaker at Lydiard House recalled how - "On another occasion, my sister and I were taking a small party of ten around a tour of the house.  It was a late summer's evening and the light was just beginning to fade.  Two members of the party were Americans, one was most inquisitive and had to open every door and drawer that he saw, particularly in the library.  In the meantime my mother had come in through the back way, with two other people who wanted to join the party.  As the nosy American opened the next door in the library, what should he see but the unexpected figure of my mother framed in the doorway, with her snowy white hair and clothed in a pale grey dress! His hands flew up into the air, he gave forth an almighty yell, then collapsed in a heap on the floor, in a deep faint.  To add insult to injury, our terrier dog did not take kindly to anyone dancing or running or falling about and proceeded to bite the poor fellow on the rear.  I often wonder if this cured him of his nosiness."

But stories of a ghostly presence continued and Joyce adds -  "I did not ever see the ghost - but my mother did on many occasions, but only my mother.  She said he was very small, dressed in what appeared to be a dark brown cloak.  She saw him entering the gun room, sometimes half way up the back staircase in the room that was our kitchen.  She said he always seemed to be mischievous."

Sir John St John, 1st Bt

The Rectory - photo courtesy of Roger Ogle

Lady Mary Bolingbroke

Friday, December 16, 2016

St Mary's Church, Lydiard Park

St. Mary’s Church Lydiard Tregoze, which lies on the western edge of Swindon in historic Lydiard Park, has received initial support* from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to conserve its gorgeous interiors.

The project aims include conserving the buildings extensive medieval wall paintings, 17th Century monuments like the famous Golden Cavalier, ancient carved woodwork and star spangled ceiling.

The grant of £131,700 towards this £186,700 phase will enable the church to complete its development plans and progress to applying for a full grant of £746,700 in 2017/18. The project aims to rescue the church from deteriorating further and improve public access, re-open the hidden south porch and create a welcoming interpretation and activity area. The church plans a wide range of educational activities and events as well as offering training and volunteer opportunities for local people, families, school children and higher education students. These will include hands on conservation workshops and skills training. St. Mary’s stands behind the gracious mansion of Lydiard House and is famous for the richness of its monuments to the St. John family who lived at Lydiard for over 500 years.

It currently attracts over 8,000 visitors a year from both this country and abroad and is well used by local schools researching heritage on their doorstep and visitors to the adjacent house and park.
Recently Swindon College students honed their drawing skills in the building as part of the national Big Draw event.

Rt. Reverend Dr Lee Rayfield, Bishop of Swindon said: ‘We are delighted that Heritage Lottery Fund has given us this support. St. Mary’s is a national treasure and preserving its unique features will benefit both local people and the nation’s heritage.’

'It is wonderful news and we are immensely grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund and very excited about taking our plans forward, especially working with the many organisations from across the town – The Friends of Lydiard Park, schools, colleges, NADFAS groups, Swindon Festival of Literature, Prime Theatre, Swindon Heritage and many more – that have enthusiastically supported the project and pledged their support and involvement,’ said Project Manager Hilary Gardner.

‘We have successfully raised the match funded of £55,000 needed for this stage of the project and thank the Heritage Lottery Fund whole heartedly for making this crucial award. We are looking forward to beginning this new and exciting phase early in the New Year,' added Paul Gardner, Chairman of the Fund Raising Campaign.

Nerys Watts, Head of HLF South West said: “At the heart of Swindon’s Lydiard Park, St Mary’s is an important part of the town’s history and home to a unique and nationally significant collection of medieval wall paintings. Thanks to National Lottery players we’re delighted to support this vital first step towards securing the future of the collection and its historic Grade I Listed home and enabling even more people to enjoy the stories they hold.”

St. Mary’s Church belongs to the Church of England and is a member of a Partnership of churches in West Swindon. It is a vibrant working church with a dedicated vicar and regular Sunday services.

Among the treasures you can see inside the church are the medieval wallpaintings which include the risen Jesus on the Pillar (dating from around 1450) and a rare example of the Martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket and the spectacular polyptych recording the St John family tree, complete with family portrait of John St John 1st Baronet, his parents, wife and six sisters.

Lydiard Park’s 18th Century landscape was restored in 2004-7 in a £5.3 million project which was also supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

This Christmas join the congregation for Open Air Carols by lantern light in front of Lydiard House, Wednesday December 21, 6.30 pm.

Christmas services include the Family Crib Service at 4 pm Christmas Eve and the First Communion of Christmas at 11 pm Christmas Eve. The Christmas Day Family Service with Communion takes place at 10 am.

*Heritage Grant applications are assessed in two rounds. A first-round pass is given when HLF has endorsed outline proposals and earmarked funding. A first-round pass may also include an immediate award to fund the development of the project. Detailed proposals are then considered by HLF at second-round and as long as plans have progressed satisfactorily and according to the original proposal, an award for the project is confirmed.