Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Don't You Touch His Reverence!

The November speaker at the monthly Monday lunch time talk at Swindon Central Library was archivist Robert Jago from the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham.

Robert’s subject was Churchwardens’ Accounts and he described the many and varied tasks performed by the churchwarden, charting a role dating back to medieval times. The oldest surviving churchwardens’ accounts are those of St. Michael’s in Bath which date from 1349.

The main duty of the churchwarden was to keep the fabric of the church in good repair and to attend to the fixtures and fittings, although he also had to sort out any unruly sexual behaviour in the parish especially when it involved the vicar!

Pest control also took up a fair bit of the churchwardens’ time and account books list payments for song birds found to be depleting the local crops. Foxes presented a big problem as well and the accounts for Brinkworth reveal regular payment for foxes heads, a wily solution to parish enterprise where the same sorry fox was repeatedly presented until the smell betrayed this entrepreneurial activity.

Churchwardens’ accounts are useful for both family and local historians as Robert explained. For those researching the history of their house, churchwardens’ rates can sometimes provide a list of landholders and their properties.

Bell ringing appears to have been a nice little earner. The Churchwardens’ Accounts of Mere 1556-1617 reveal the ringers received 6s ‘for ringing for our Queene’ on Crownation Day November 17, the anniversary of Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne while Brinkworth churchwardens paid ringers 3s for their services on Thanks Giving Day in 1708. Craftsmen and labourers frequently appear in the churchwardens’ accounts and the Mere records reveal that John Bruar the Plumer received £3 10s for ‘his worke and stuffe.’

Even local reaction to cataclysmic national events such as the Reformation can be deduced from the churchwardens’ accounts, for example candles were no longer purchased at Candlemas in Edward VI’s reign to the replacement of rood screens in Mary’s.

Robert brought with him a selection of books including the comprehensive Churchwardens’ Accounts by J.C. Cox published in 1913 and now available on line on

Check the Swindon Borough Council website on for details of forthcoming events at Central Library.

medieval wall paintings in St Mary's Church, Lydiard Tregoze, courtesy of Duncan and Mandy Ball. Visit their website on

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A commodious family residence

With residential car parking at a premium in Old Town today, there was no such problem for the 1900 owner of 31 Wood Street. The sale catalogue of 1903 advertises a carriage entrance at the rear of the property leading from Devizes Road with a coach house, stable yard and stabling for two horses.

A Grade II listed building, 31 Wood Street dates from the late 18th century to early 19th century. Described as a 'commodious family residence' the property belonged to John Chandler, a successful local businessman.

At the time of his death in 1902 Chandler owned fourteen other properties on Eastcott Hill and stocks and shares in numerous local businesses including the Swindon United Gas Company and the Swindon Central Market. He also owned an impressive five bedroomed house, The Lime Kiln, standing in over an acre of land in Wootton Bassett, let to solicitor Harry Bevir.

Born in Pewsey, by 1841 John Chandler was already working as a draper in Swindon and in 1844 he married Susannah Hoystrop at the parish church in Wootton Bassett.

Among papers deposited by Kinneir and Company at the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives in Chippenham is a deed of co-partnership between Nehemiah Lea and John Chandler to carry on the tailoring trade in Swindon.

In 1861 John lived above his shop at 35 Wood Street where he employed a staff of 16. With his wife Susannah, their five children aged between one and eight years old, a governess and eight of his employees resident on census night, there could hardly have been room to swing a cat.

Perhaps he already had his eye on purchasing the spacious property next door but one, then owned by town surveyor William Read and the home in which Swindon architect William H. Read grew up. However, it would be over twenty years before Chandler could move in.

Swindon Advertiser founder, William Morris makes reference to the growing Chandler empire, writing how an old house in Wood Street had been 'recently pulled down for the erection of Messrs. Chandler and Sons' carpet warehouse.'

The 1903 catalogue describes this desirable town centre house as containing eight bedrooms served by no fewer than three staircases, presumably the front one for the family and the two back ones for servant access.

The ground floor accommodation consisted of dining and drawing rooms, a library, back lobby, kitchen fitted with range, dresser and cupboards, a back kitchen, wash house (with two furnaces)pantry and 'capital cellars in the basement.'

John Chandler died on August 1, 1902 aged 83. Widowed for over thirty five years he was buried in the graveyard at Christ Church with his wife Susannah and their son Charles Frederick who died in 1880 aged 22 years.

Images - a 1911 William Hooper view of Wood Street decorated for the coronation. Number 31 is on the right. The view from Bath Road shows the Chandler store on the corner of Wood Street. To view these and more historic photos of Swindon visit

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Love letters straight from the heart

As electronic communication takes over, it has to be asked - what has happened to the love letter?

When Judy Rebbeck Watten of California began investigating her family history she discovered 32 letters written by her grandfather James Knight Rebbeck to his fiancée Lili.

Born in 1848 in Lockeridge, near Marlborough, James Knight Rebbeck, the eldest of Cornelius and Caroline Rebbecks's nine children, was raised by his maternal grandparents. By 1851 two year old James was living with James and Caroline Knight in a house described in the census of that year as Near Assize Hall in Devizes.

In 1863 James, 15, was sent to his Uncle James Knight in Calcutta where he studied mechanical engineering.

James junior worked as a superintendent in the railways workshop of the Howrah Foundry in Calcutta until the beginning of the 1880s when he was seconded to Hong Kong.

By the mid 1880s James was based at the Victoria Foundry, Hong Kong, employed on the ambitious Peak Tram project, a cable railway from the summit of Victoria Peak to the commercial centre of Hong Kong.

In 1887 a business trip to Haiphong, Tonkin - modern day Vietnam - saw him supervising the delivery of a paddle wheel steamer to French businessman Jules d'Abbadie. It was here that James met Lili, who lived with her bachelor brother, acting as his hostess when he entertained.

After a whirlwind romance, James returned to Hong Kong an engaged man and so began the couple's correspondence. James sent Lili a photograph of himself and asked her to keep it next to her when she wrote to him.

"Ours is indeed a sweet and sacred love story," wrote the 39 year old bachelor who once thought love and marriage had passed him by. "It seems as if it were ordered for us, a kind of ordination, a link in that life we are designed to run, one of those chances which seem so mysterious for which we shall be thankful always."

Nine months and 32 letters later James and Lili were married in Hong Kong on May 21, 1888. They made their first home in Macao where their eldest two children were born. A son, Brian d'Abbadie Rebbeck, was born in Devizes in 1891, but only lived two months. Another daughter and Judy's father James Waller d'Abbadie Rebbeck were born in Canada.

James died on September 1, 1910 in Victoria, Vancouver Island. Lili survived him by near 25 years, dying on February 12, 1935.

The letters James wrote to his future bride remained hidden until 1993 when their granddaughter Judy Rebbeck Watton discovered them in a decorated satin folder among some old papers belonging to her father.

Photographs courtesy of Judy Rebbeck Watton - James and Lili on their wedding day and James at work in the Victoria Foundry, Hong Kong

Daisy Eleanor Tuckey

'She found the wide open prairies a big change and was very afraid of the howling coyotes,' writes Pat Psooy, a Canadian Swindon Advertiser reader.

A far cry from Park Ground Farm in Wootton Bassett, part of the extensive Meux Estate sold in 1906, where Pat's grandmother, Daisy Eleanor Tuckey spent most of her childhood.

Reading Remember When articles about Robert Ernest Plummer Tuckey who set sail for Australia in 1877 and the Rev. Henry Edward Tuckey who took his bride to New Zealand in 1859 set Pat wondering if these adventurous Tuckeys might be connected to her own Canadian explorers.

The prosperous Tuckey family arrived in Swindon from Gloucestershire in the mid 17th century and figured prominently in local affairs. Through carefully negotiated marriages and shrewd property deals the family held considerable influence in the small market town.

Robert Thomas John Bailey Tuckey, Daisy's father, born in 1856 at Shaw House in the former parish of Lydiard Millicent, boasted the names of several of his wealthy forebears. However, by the end of the 19th century Tuckey family fortunes were on the slide.

Born at Cotmarsh Farm, Broad Town on February 15, 1883, the eldest daughter of Robert and his wife Emma, a life of leisure was not an option for young Daisy.

One of her jobs was in a cheese factory, which saw her travelling to cheese markets in London and by 1901 she was working as a domestic servant for sisters Maria and Louisa Douglas in St. Giles, Oxford.

But it was Daisy's cousin Clayton Freeman who proved to be the catalyst for her great big adventure.

The son of Daisy's father's sister Sarah, Clayton had worked briefly in the GWR Works and decided a job 'inside' was not for him. When an elder brother returned to take his place on the family farm, Clayton left for a new life in Canada.

He was obviously taken by the Canadian lifestyle, encouraging not only Daisy but three other cousins to join him there as well.

Daisy arrived at Moose Jaw, a former Cree fur trader's camp, in Saskatchewan in 1911, the first stopping off point for all five Tuckey immigrants.

Perhaps she had second thoughts about settling in this vast country, but a trip back to England in 1913 left her feeling closed in, says Pat, and she never returned.

Daisy married William Brander in 1916. The couple settled in a farming community south of Moose Jaw where they had four children, Phyllis (Pat's mother), Jane, Archibald and James.

Today the travelling Tuckey's are still on the move. 'One of Daisy's grandsons works in Oman,' says Pat, 'and three of her great grandsons have lived in Mexico, Australia and Korea.'

Pat's Canadian branch of the Tuckey family is connected to both Rev. Henry Edward and road building Robert Ernest Plummer Tuckey through a common 18th century ancestor, Richard Tuckey and his wife Joanna Phelps of Lower Shaw Farm.

Images - a picture postcard view of Moose Jaw taken around the time Daisy emigrated in 1911
Lower Shaw Farm where Daisy's wealthy family lived in the 18th century

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Tuckey Family History Research 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Swindon Wharf and an elegant villa called Fairholm

Today the infamous Magic Roundabout is probably one of the busiest junctions in Swindon. At the beginning of the 19th century a different method of transport stopped close by at the site of the Swindon wharf, although this traffic was considerably slower.

In 1826 William Cobbett, 19th century radical politician, travelled through Swindon on one of his famous fact finding journeys across Britain. Surveying the Wilts and Berks Canal, Cobbett remarked on the 'gentleman's house, with coach house, stables, walled in garden, paddock, and the rest of those things, which, all together, make up a villa,' and supposed that the canal earned prodigious profits.

In fact the canal was never particularly successful and was at its busiest, somewhat ironically, during the 1830s when it conveyed vast quantities of materials to build the Great Western Railway.

The GWR itself once considered buying the canal for £20,000. In 1894 the United Commercial Syndicate was another possible purchaser. However, with transport reduced from barges of 35 tons to those of 18 tons and an estimated dredging cost of £6,000, the sale fell through.

Building on the Wilts and Berks Canal was under way by 1796, taking fifteen years to complete. William Dunsford was appointed canal manager in 1817 and the 1841 census records the Dunsford family living at the Canal House, also known as Fairholm.

After William's death in 1845 his son Henry, a civil engineer, took over William's job and the family home. Henry and his wife Susannah with their family of six sons continued to live at Fairholm for more than 25 years.

At the time of the 1881 census a fleet of servants were holding the fort while the resident family was away and by 1891 William A. Harford 'gentleman JP' was the occupier.

But perhaps the most notable owner of the property was George Jackson Churchward,Superintendent at the GWR Works, although his ownership was a relatively short one. Churchward bought Fairholm in 1895 and seven years later it was on the market again.

Sold at auction by Bishop and Pritchett at the Goddard Arms Hotel on August 25, 1902 the seven bedroomed property stood in five acres with 'Stabling for 8 horses, outbuildings, pleasure grounds, capital kitchen garden and paddock.'

The ground floor accommodation was described as containing 'Entrance Porch, Vestibule, Hall, Dining Room 17' 3" by 14' 9" with Bay, Small Sitting Room with Casement opening onto a flower garden, Smoke Room 15' by 14' with Safe ...'

The property was sold for £2,000 to Mr Gilling and Swindon Wharf soon became known as Gillings Wharf.

The canal itself was abandoned under an Act of Closure in 1914 and eventually filled in. The foundations of the elegant villa called Fairholm lie beneath the Drove Road Fire Station.

Photographs - 1905 Dorothy Gilling pushing her brother Lionel in a pram in the gardens of Fairholm. Drove Road bridge, now the site of the Magic Roundabout. See these and many more on

Friday, November 25, 2011

Getting the party started!

1912 William Hooper photograph of United Gathering of Band of Hope at GWR Park
With the party season getting into gear, no doubt few people will be paying much heed to their recommended units of alcohol consumption, despite the continued warnings of health experts.

Mid 19th century social reformers also attempted to tackle the problem as concern grew over alcohol and its effects upon the working class.While the drinking habits of the middle class were largely a private affair, those of the working class tended to be more public.

With the cost of picking up the financial pieces falling upon rate paying businessmen and traders, it is hardly surprising that the temperance movement was initially led by middle class social reformers and philanthropists.

The original tenet of the movement was that alcohol in moderation was acceptable and members continued to imbibe wine and beer, abstaining only from spirits. Out of the early temperance movement evolved the hard line teetotalism where members pledged to abstain from all alcohol for life.

The Band of Hope was a temperance organisation for working class children. Children over the age of six could join and meetings consisted of music, slide shows, competitions and lectures on the importance of total abstinence.

The non-conformist churches were particularly active in the temperance movement, most notably the Salvation Army founded in the East End of London in 1865. Surveys taken during the 1880s revealed that 1,000 of the 1,900 Baptist ministers were total abstainers as were 2,500 out of 3,000 Congregationalist ministers and by 1900 approximately one tenth of the total adult population of Britain were non drinkers.

Late 19th century industrial Swindon numbered some 18 temperance organisations, among them the GWR Temperance Union with around 3,000 members.

The Swindon Temperance Cavaliers met weekly at the Central Dining Rooms in Regent Street while the more sombre sounding Sons of Temperance, "The True Friendship" division held their meetings at the Liberal Rooms in Commercial Road on alternate Thursdays at 8 pm.

One family particularly active in Swindon's temperance movement was the Pressey family. Born in Hungerford, George was master at Westcott School and Vice President of the Swindon and District United Temperance Council. His Swindon born wife Sarah, daughter of John Bell, a wheel fitter at the GWR Works, was treasurer of the Swindon branch of the British Women's Temperance Association.

In the 1890s Swindon membership of the women's association numbered 250 with Miss Ellis President in 1899. The women held a monthly public meeting at the Liberal Hall while members met more frequently.

Temperance hotels and public houses also became popular and a local trade directory dated 1895 lists Mrs Annie Thomas as proprietor of the Temperance Hotel in Bath Road while Ernest Chappell Richards ran the Wellington Temperance & Commercial Hotel at 13 Gloucester Street. According tot he advertisement the Wellington was 'close to station' with 'commercial, smoking and writing rooms, ladies coffee room, boots meets all trains.'

The temperance movement continued to be active into the 20th century while legislation was introduced during the First World War to restrict drinking.

for more old views of Swindon visit

Thursday, November 24, 2011

19th Century Scandal at Lower Shaw Farm

Story telling is an integral part of both summer and winter events at Lower Shaw Farm. Whether seated beneath a star lit sky or gathered around the coal burning stove in the former calving sheds, the farm provides an evocative setting for tales of days gone by.

However the 18th century farm, former home of the Tuckey family, could tell a yarn or two of its own, including a love story that ended up in the courts.

Mary Ann, daughter of labourer James Weston, was employed by Mary Tuckey as a farm servant at Lower Shaw Farm in the early 1850s. Her lover, Charles Ody was the youngest of Noah Ody's ten children.

The Ody family was well known in the close knit agricultural community of the two Lydiard parishes. Noah farmed land at Braydon and Hayes Knoll in Purton as well as the 206 acre Flaxlands Farm owned by Lord Bolingbroke of Lydiard Park.

Perhaps Mary Ann had marriage in mind? Several of the wealthy Ody sons married daughters of farm labourers. Mary Ann was a few years older than twenty one year old Charles but was this a tale of Cider with Rosie or Tess of the D'Urbervilles?

In 1855 Mary Ann gave birth to a baby girl, but by then the relationship had obviously ended. She applied to the courts for maintenance for her child and Charles was served with a bastardy order.

Giving evidence, the unmarried Mary Ann told how Charles had made occasional payments of 1s 6d (7p worth about £47 today) since his daughter was fifteen weeks old, often using a go between named Jane Hughes.

Jane also gave evidence and told how she had seen Mr Ody give Mary a sovereign at the Fox and Hounds public house at Coped Hall. "They had been talking about the child and he said he'd pay 1s 6d a week and he said he'd pay that money to the child," said Jane. The court awarded an order for this amount.

Little Elizabeth Weston wasn't the only illegitimate Ody child, but she does seem to be the most unfortunate.

Sarah Ody's daughter Matilda was raised by grandparents Noah and Sarah and Elizabeth Russell had a son William at the time of her marriage to Walter Ody, while John Ody's illegitimate son Robert Saunders received an inheritance in his Uncle Noah's will.

By the time of the 1861 census Charles was farming at Minety where he lived with his wife Emma and their two young sons William and Thomas.

Meanwhile Mary Ann was living with her father and brother at Coped Hall. The census returns reveal that unmarried Mary had two daughters, Elizabeth 5 and one year old Mary Jane.

Lower Shaw Farm offers weekend breaks, events and courses for adults and for families. If you are looking for a relaxing break, a stimulating weekend of new experiences, or wanting to learn a new skill, visit their website for further details.

He's Behind You!

Panto season in Swindon gets off to a swinging start with Keith Chegwin starring as Buttons in the Wyvern Theatre's production of Cinderella, opening on December 10th.

But more than fifty years ago Mollie Tanner's dance troupe was left waiting in the wings when a production of Aladdin at the Empire Theatre was blighted by a wage dispute and eventually cancelled. Let's hope the current financial climate doesn't cast a malevolent shadow over this year's festive season.

With a seating capacity of over 1,000, the new Queen's Theatre on the corner of Groundwell Road and Clarence Street opened on Monday February 7, 1898 with a production of Dick Whittington and his Cat.

In 1906 the theatre changed its name to the Empire. One of the characters closely associated with the Empire was rag and bone man James 'Raggy' Powell. During the First World War Raggy organised free shows and refreshments for the families of men in the armed forces. His philanthropic work was recognised by Swindon Corporation when he was made one of the first Freemen of the Borough in 1920.

Acts appearing during the interwar years included the Kellys and the Cohens. In a revue advertised as containing "Good Singing, Good Dancing, Comedy all the way" audiences were warned "If Laughing Hurts - Don't Come!"

During the 1930s and 40s the Empire fought off opposition from the talkies by showing films along with its staple diet of variety shows and, of course, the annual pantomime.

Robinson Crusoe opened to rave reviews on Boxing Day 1954. Popular comedy actor Leslie Sarony topped the bill as Billy Crusoe in a performance described as "a warm, friendly show" by the Advertiser reviewer. Although the writer did voice some disappointment to find the role of Dame, traditionally played by a man, had gone to Joyce Golding. Dorothy Black was principal boy in the title role with the villainous Will Atkins played by an actor called Afrique.

The run was due to end in mid January when the production moved on to a sister theatre in Folkestone, exchanging venues with Aladdin which was due to come to Swindon. But by then the actors and management were embroiled in a dispute over wages and both shows were suspended.

This proved to be the death knell for the Empire which closed its doors for good on Saturday January 22, 1955. It stood empty for several years before being demolished in 1959. Today the name lives on in the 1960s former office block built on the same site.

Former Swindon librarian Roger Trayhurn is currently working on the definitive history of The Empire Theatre.

Images - 1905 postcard of the new Queen's Theatre pictured shortly before it's change of name and a 1960s view of Empire House.

Silk invitation to the grand opening of the threatre, courtesy of Roger Trayhurn.

Visit the Swindon Local Collection on to view these and other images associated with The Empire Theatre.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Carfax Street

The seventeen acre site around Carfax Street hit the headlines in January 2009 when Swindon Borough Council confirmed that redevelopment would go ahead, despite the gloomy economic climate.

The importance of this prime town centre location was recognised early in Swindon's 19th century development when the Oxford Building and Investment Co. Ltd., built 108 houses on this same site.

The new properties were built on a parcel of land called Brierly Close between the canal and an orchard, part of Lower Eastcott Farm which then belonged to the extensive Rolleston Estate.

Named after Oxford city centre locations, construction began in Merton Street in 1873 followed by Turl Street in 1874, Carfax Street in 1875 and Oriel Street in 1876. On July 6, 1876 Frederick Skuse, an enterprising 23 year old bricklayer, bought lot 14 in south Carfax Street for £40.

Frederick's newly acquired plot measured 82ft (26 metres approx) north to south on the east side and 80ft (24 metres approx) on the west side with a frontage of 17ft 9ins (5 metres approx).

On December 1, 1876 he applied for a mortgage of £150 for "the newly built Messuage lately erected and built thereon by the said Frederick Skuse and now known as 14 Carfax Street, New Swindon."

In the summer of 1878 Frederick married Sarah West and the 1881 census shows the young couple living at the renumbered 20 Carfax Street with their two year old son Willie and 8 month old daughter Ellen.

Living next door at the overcrowded number 21 was George Kinch with his wife, daughter, grandson, brother and two lodgers, Albert Cove, a railway labourer and his wife, George Linkhorn, a stoker striker and his wife, John Williams, a railway labourer with his wife, William Watkins, another railway labourer with his wife and three children and finally labourer William Hibberd.

But the family was soon on the move and on March 22, 1883 Frederick sold the property for £235 to Samuel Rogers, a fitter employed at the railway works.

By 1892 the house was on the market again, sold to Thomas Whittaker, a tinsmith who lived just around the corner at 41 Oriel Street.

In 2009 the site was at the centre of the ambitious renamed Union Square - a complex of flats, offices, leisure facilities and a 200 bed hotel with building scheduled to begin immediately but in 2017 the site is still a wasteland.

Swindon Borough Council was criticised for spending £130,000 on a 'temporary' park opened in October 2011 on the site of the old Post Office on Fleming Way. Originally with just a three year life span, the park is still there.

The 1970s photographs of the demolition of the Turl, Carfax, Merton and Oriel Street area are courtesy of Mr J. Ensten and can be viewed on

Monday, November 21, 2011

Apprentice Registers of the Wiltshire Society

The Apprentice Registers of the Wiltshire Society 1817-1922 will be of particular interest to local researchers, especially if your Swindon ancestors moved to London.

Established in 1654, the Wiltshire Feast was a county organisation of merchants, traders and gentry who annually convened to London for some 17th century networking. The visit included the placing of children of the deserving poor with Wiltshire links in apprenticeships to city traders and concluded with a feast, hence the name.

The society can be traced to around 1776 when it appears to have experienced a hiatus. However work began again in 1817 when it was remarketed at 'a public meeting of Noblemen and Gentlemen of Wiltshire' held at the Albion Tavern, Aldersgate Street in the City of London.

The registers, published by the Wiltshire Record Society in 1995 include entries such as that of Frederick Newcombe and his sister Phillipa, two orphans living in London whose mother was from Swindon.

Frederick was placed with William Lakeman, a hatter of 44 High Street, Shadwell to begin a seven year apprenticeship in 1844. Two years later Phillipa was placed with Elizabeth Hunt, a straw hat manufacturer of 102 Great Russell Street.

Closer to home, widow Mary Nash from Chiseldon applied to the Society on behalf of her 13 year old son Thomas. The records show that the £20 apprenticeship fee was paid on April 5, 1873 when Thomas entered into a seven year apprenticeship with 'George Wiltshire, mason etc. of Bath Road.'

George had first appeared in Swindon on the 1861 census when he employed seven masons, four labourers and two boys.

An entry in Astill's Swindon Almanac of 1867 describes him as a marble and stonemason, lime burner, carpenter, joiner and builder of The Sands, Bath Road and at the Quarries. By 1887 George Wiltshire is described as a Master Builder employing 140 hands with his son Simeon acting as his manager.

During the 1870s and 80s George Wiltshire as building contractor on a number of Swindon projects designed by local architect W H Read, including a cheese factory for Aylesbury Dairy, the Vale of White Horse Repository and the County of Gloucester Bank in Fleet Street.

During the busy 1870s George took on another apprentice through the Wiltshire Society, Arthur Smith, one of Jeremiah and Sarah Ann Smith's five children.

While Thomas Nash finished hsi apprenticeship as a bricklayer, Arthur became a carpenter and the 1881 census records him living with his widowed mother and sister Kate at a house in North Street.

The original Wiltshire Society apprenticeship registers are held at the Wiltshire and Swindon History centre, Cocklebury Road, Chippenham. The Wiltshire Record Society's publication Volume 51 is available for consultation in the Local Studies section at Swindon Central Library. The Broad Town apprenticing charity records 1714-1909 are also held at the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives, ref 700/61 and 765/2,3.

images include a stonemason with traditional tools; Work by Ford Maddox Brown

Baptist Tabernacle

If your family worshipped at either the Baptist Tabernacle or the Cambria Place Chapel you stand a good chance of finding them in one of the church's Year Books. Those for 1895-1938 are held at Swindon Central Library and contain a fascinating amount of information.

With just 24 members, the Swindon Baptist community had their beginnings in Prospect Place under the ministry of Rev. Richard Breeze, but by 1849 the congregation had moved into a new chapel in Fleet Street. In little over 35 years this also proved too small for the growing Baptist following and Swindon architect W H Read was commissioned to design a new chapel.

Built to classical proportions, the Tabernacle certainly made a statement and soon became a focal point of Regent Circus, originally destined to be named Trafalgar Square. More than 1,000 people attended a tea party at the official opening and twenty years later membership stood at 780.

Each Year Book contains a list of church members, among them those who had died in the previous year. The 1925 edition included the names of the Elders, Deacons, Trustees, Lady Visitors and non resident members.

In 1895 Sunday services were at 10.45 am and 6 pm with a short prayer meeting following the evening service. Week day services included an evening prayer meeting every Monday and Saturday and a sermon preached by the Pastor on Wednesday evening. On Friday the Pastor was 'at home from 7 pm - 9pm to see enquirers.'

Members of the congregation paid for their seats. The cost of a seat in the main body of the building was 3s for three months, with those under the gallery costing 2s 6d. Front row gallery seats raised between 2s and 2s 6d a quarter with the second row raising 1s 6d and the third 1s. These charges along with collections and fund raising events such as 'Our 20th Century Fund' launched in 1899, saw the £6,000 building debt cleared within 20 years of the Tabernacle opening.

Published in the church magazine dated 1927 is a list of fifteen men from the congregation who died serving in the First World War. Among them were brothers Archie and Alfred Richman, sons of David and Sarah Richman, grocers at 7 Devizes Road.

A yearbook had been published since the earliest history of the Baptist church in Swindon. However, when church secretary F.E. Lovesey prepared to write a church history to celebrate its Jubilee in 1936, the earliest he was able to find was that of 1895.

The Tabernacle was demolished in 1978 and today the Pilgrim Centre, built in 1990, stands on the site it once occupied. The magnificent stone facade of the building returned to Swindon in 2008 with plans for its reconstruction in Swindon's regenerated town centre. Unfortunately this has yet to take place.

1971 view of the Baptist Tabernacle courtesy of Swindon Advertiser; internal views taken in 1905 and 1910 by William Hooper courtesy of Paul Williams. Visit


Demolition taking place in 1978

During the 1978 demotion - published courtesy of Mr J Ensten

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Swindon's Cenotaph

"All the approaches to the Town Hall were densely packed with people," reported the Swindon Advertiser at the unveiling of the cenotaph on Saturday October 30, 1920.

"Especially touching was the scene when the relatives of the fallen came forward to deposit their floral tributes at the base of the memorial," the front-page account continued.

In his dedicatory speech, Alderman S.E. Walter, Mayor of Swindon, spoke of how "upwards of 6,000 men went out from their homes in Swindon to fight for what they believed to be the liberty and salvation of the world."

Anxious to create a lasting memorial to those men, Swindon dignitaries perhaps failed to appreciate the post war hardships families continued to endure.

An ambitious scheme launched by the then Mayor, Alderman C.A. Plaister in May 1919 was for a memorial hall.

A public appeal was announced and a donation of £100 was made by both Alfred Manners and Major F.P. Goddard to get the ball rolling. Fund raising limped along to £400 "when the fount of donations apparently ran dry," reported the Advertiser.

Alternative suggestions were invited and at a meeting held on December 4, 1919 the newly appointed Mayor, Alderman Walters revealed a decision had been made "to lay out the old canal site as a pleasure ground and to erect a cenotaph." The estimated cost of the cenotaph was £6,000 while the council would bear the cost of "beautifying the canal site."

Quite what happened to that plan is not known but by July of the following year the cost of the cenotaph had been revised at £1,000. However donations still failed to follow.

Then the Swindon Advertiser came to the rescue launching an imaginative new appeal more in keeping with the average persons's pocket with the "shilling fund," raising 10,882 shillings in the first fortnight.

Money continued to roll in throughout the summer of 1920. As workmen removed the fountain near the Town Hall in preparation for work to begin, the fund topped 19,000 shillings.

Fund raising Swindonians included Walter Hook, manager at the Arcadia Picture House whose contribution totalled 334 shillings by the means of children's collecting cards.

The fund eventually closed at the end of September having raised 22,158 shillings, exceeding the target of £1,000 by over £132.

Messrs. John Daymond & Son of Vauxhall Bridge Road, London, who completed the work in less than two months, erected the 20ft high Portland stone memorial.

At the unveiling in time for the Armistice Day commemorations the memorial remained unfinished with the words 'To the memory of the men of this Borough who fell in the Great War 1914-1918' yet to be carved. In 2002 it was agreed to add the words 'all wars and conflicts since 1945.'

William Hooper photograph courtesy of Paul Williams visit

90th Anniversary of the end of WWI

As local and national plans to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War are discussed, here is a look back at how Swindon marked the 90th anniversary of the end of the Great War, a war to end all wars.

More than 3,000 people visited the BBC Wartime Discovery Day at Swindon's STEAM museum on Saturday November 8, 2008.

With more experts under one roof then you could shake a stick at, there was plenty of advice on what records are currently available and how to access them.

One of the highlights of the day was a talk given by local historian Mark Sutton who has set himself the task of commemorating the men of Swindon who fought in the First World War.

Mark, who grew up in Redcliffe Street, has a breathtaking knowledge of his subject and quoted facts and figures with effortless ease.

"The BBC have asked me if I would talk for about half an hour but I've got enough here for three hours," he joked.

With a wealth of personal detail, the slideshow presentation was more like looking through a family photograph album. There was even some audience participation as Mark recalled various town shops and businesses long since gone.

Mark's talk gave the photographs of those young, uniformed servicemen in studio poses more than just a name and number but an identity, a personality, a history. These men came vividly to life with such commonplace information as an address and a peace time occupation.

For example Private Jesse Bray from Gorse Hill, who served with both the 4th Battalion Wiltshire Regiment and was attached to the signal service Royal Engineers. Jesse returned home to run, according to popular opinion, 'the best fish and chip shop in Swindon.'

In his book 'Tell Them of Us' Mark has reproduced Jesse's own personal war diary from his enlistment on April 24, 1915 to his final discharge on April 1, 1920.

Among other Swindonians featured were Richard and James Slade, two of five brothers who all served in WWI. Richard and James both joined the navy with Richard serving on board the dreadnought HMS Ramillies. Both brothers survived the war with James going on to serve in the Second World War. He died when his ship, the Glorious, was sunk in 1940.

Another brother, Albert Slade, served with the Royal Garrison Artillery and returned to Swindon to run the family butchers shop in Hythe Road.

The wounded who returned often faced a lifetime of not only pain but mental anguish as well. Dennis John Neabard who joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry under age at just 17 years old ended his days at Roundway Psychiatric Hospital in Devizes.

More than 5,000 Swindon men fought in the Great War. A Roll of Honour of those who made the ultimate sacrifice hangs in the Town Hall. Visitors to STEAM and Swindon's Outlet Village will also see memorials to the men who worked in the various railway factory workshops.

photograph of brothers Ernest and William Leggett - read their story in Tell Them of Us by Mark Sutton.

For more photographs of the Wartime Discovery Day visit the BBC website

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Swindon Fire Brigade

Formed when the wartime National Fire Service was denationalised, 2008 marked the 60th anniversary of the Wiltshire Fire Brigade. Today the county fire service has around 600 fire fighters on roll, a far cry from when a Volunteer Brigade was formed in Swindon in 1879.

With William E. Morris, son of the Swindon Advertiser founder, as Captain, A.H. Meadows Deputy Captain and William Affleck, engineer, the total force numbered just 14.

In 1864 Old Swindon's horse drawn Shand Mason manual pump was housed in Newport Street. Keys to the building were kept at the police station with another set at the Wood Street home of Swindon surveyor William Read.

Meanwhile in New Swindon the GWR Company made their steam pump, used in the works, available for any incidents in the railway village.

However by the 1870s with the old fire engine in a poor state of repair, fire fighting provisions were woefully inadequate.

A proposal to institute a fire fighting force was made at a meeting of the Old Swindon Local Board on May 8, 1879. Mr Reynolds proposed and Mr Edmonds seconded 'That the Board through the Chairman call a Public Meeting at the Town Hall on Wednesday the 21st inst to consider the desireability of forming a Fire Brigade and providing a Fire Escape for the Town.'

A committee of Local Board members was voted in to ascertain the cost of repairing the engine and providing additional hose.

By September things were moving on apace. The committee reported that the fire engine was repaired and in working order and the Royal Society for the Protection of Life confirmed they were ready to provide a fire escape.

The Local Board Clerk was instructed to apply to Messrs Arkell & Son, brewers at Kingsdown, for a piece of land at the end of Victoria Street to be used as a station.

However, this may have been merely a temporary arrangement as less than a year later the Fire Brigade committee recommended a site in the Sands at the entrance to the Quarries for a Fire Engine and Fire Escape Station. Old Swindon Board was asked to contribute £40 towards the cost and an application was made to the New Swindon Board for the same amount.

In 1901 Fire Brigade volunteers were paid 1s (5p) for each drill they attended up to a maximum of 15 drills a year. Horses to pull the fire appliance were hired from the GWR Hotel at a cost of 2s 6d per horse per hour.

In 1907 the Captain at the Cromwell Street Station was John N. Jefferies. His deputy was R.W. Grubb with E.R. Bowering engineer and secretary. W. Eden was the 2nd engineer, G. Selby the foreman and there were 16 firemen.

Records from August 1920 to January 1922 reveal the Brigade had been called out to 16 incidents and seven false alarms. In 2007 Wiltshire Fire Service dealt with over 14,000 emergencies, attending 1,971 fires, 725 road traffic accidents and 370 flooding incidents.

Fire Crew at Cromwell Road dated c1890 and the Drove Road Fire Station pictured in the 1970s courtesy of

The Hermitage

Nestled up against the Goddard family's secluded parkland, the Hermitage was an apt name for Charles Anthony Wheeler's house. Along with neighbouring Redville the entrepreneurial Wheeler built both properties in the early 1840s.

Documents indicate that Bank Manager William Brewer Wearing lived there in 1859 and for the next thirty years the Victorian tenants came and went as revealed in census returns throughout the 19th century.

By the 1890s the Kinneir family owned the property, but it was with the death of J. L. Calderwood in February 1960 that the house passed out of private ownership and into the public sector.

Among documents held at the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives in Chippenham is a schedule drawn up by Swindon Corporation on August 30, 1960 concerning The Hermitage and three cottages in Dammas Lane.

A stone and brick building with slated roof, The Hermitage contained five bedrooms and four attic rooms with extensive cellar space in the basement. Rooms on the ground floor included a hall, dining room, drawing room and study while the domestic quarters incorporated a large kitchen, Butler's pantry, scullery, larder and china pantry. The secluded grounds included a partly walled garden with carriage drive, coach house and garage.

The condition was described as 'sound structurally, but redecoration is required.' The District Valuer & Valuation Officer declared: 'I estimate the life of the buildings, if properly maintained, at not less than sixty years.' Town Clerk David Murray John stamped his signature and the sale was completed the following month.

Scheduled for a nursing home, new tenants the Theobalds, wardens at the recently closed Kingsdown House, signed a fifteen year lease. However there were problems from the outset and by October 1963 the couple had vacated the property and emigrated to America.

A 1960 application to use the building as office accommodation was reconsidered but rejected. Then Donald A. Cameron, director of the Cheriton Nursing Home in Westlecot Road was approached to take it on, but he also declined.

One proposal was for a Maternity Unit, another a Y.W.C.A. hostel. Conversion into a teachers' or students' hostel was also considered.

Eventually, in a letter dated May 4, 1964 Murray John confirmed that The Hermitage had been let to the Trustees of the Mayors' Helping Hand Fund at a rent of £340 for use as a short stay care home for the elderly.

But in 1972 The Hermitage was in trouble again and Wiltshire County Council officials were concerned about empty beds and under occupancy.

The beginning of the 1990s saw the elegant neo Tudor house closed and boarded up. Despite a local campaign to save it, the fate of the dilapidated building was sealed and it was demolished in 1993.

Before building work began in 1993 an archaeological excavation was made on the site of the proposed new doctor's surgery. The excavations revealed a sunken floored building dating to the Saxon period and evidence of a medieval building. Among the finds made were fragments of clay pipes, the earliest dating from 1640 and scattered human bones identified as being that of a man aged about 30.

The following year Wessex Archaeology continued the excavations on what was known to be a Saxon settlement on the east side of the High Street. Two incomplete infant burials thought to be Roman were discovered.

photographs courtesy of

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bowly's Brewery

Cirencester draper's son Richard Bowly set up business in the High Street, Old Swindon sometime in the late 1850s.

The census of 1861 reveals he headed a large establishment employing three assistants, an apprentice and three house servants to look after his young family, but this was only the beginning of his empire building.

Less than ten years later he would own the spacious Italinate villa at the top of Kingshill, parcels of land across Old Swindon and a brewery.

Pigot's Directory of 1842 lists three Swindon brewers, William Butler in Newport Street, William Farmer in High Street and John Sheppard & Son also in the High Street.

Early records suggest that the North Wilts Brewery, established around 1765, was associated with the Sheppard family in 1830. However the connection probably dates back much further as John Harding Sheppard described himself as a wine merchant at the baptism of his son at Holy Rood Church in 1813.

However it would appear that according to William Read's 1844 Terrier of Lands and Houses in Swindon, Sheppard was only the tenant, with Edward John Ewer the proprietor of a 'House, Brewery, Stables, Malt House and Close occupied by John Harding Sheppard.'

After Sheppard's death in 1868 the brewery came on the market and an indenture made between Edward John Ewer, his wife Mary and Richard Bowly confirms that Sheppard never actually owned the brewery.

'In consideration of Two thousand pounds therein expressed to be paid by the said Richard Bowly to the said Edward John Ewer All that Messuage ort enement situate in the High Street in Swindon aforesaid with the Outbuildings Brewery Malthouse Barn Stable Yard garden and appurtenances thereunto adjoining and belonging and a small close of land in the rear extending to the public road or street called Short Hedge as the same premises have been for many eyars past in the occupation of John Harding Sheppard and Henry Sheppard.'

Under its new ownership the brewery was modernised and extended to the design of London architect Arthur Kinder and Swindon building, Phillips who also worked on the building and layout of Radnor Street Cemetery in 1881.

Bowly's son Robert Brewin Bowly took over the brewery, making it a limited company in 1900. He died on September 13, 1939 from injuries sustained in a car accident the previous day. His widow continued to run the business until her death in 1944 when Simonds of Reading bought the brewery.

Used as a bottling department and then a depot for Courage's, the site was later demolished, ending over 150 years history of brewing on the old town centre site.

photograph courtesy of Neil Lover - for more photographs of Bowly's Brewery visit Neil's website Swindon's Other Railway on

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Vilett House

In the mid 19th century Cricklade Street was still referred to by its older name of Brock Hill. Once so steep extra horses were added to carts and carriages to pull heavy loads up to Old Swindon

The magnificent 18th century town house on the east side of Cricklade Street, known locally as the Vilett House, is today the focal point of a new housing development by Ward Homes.

Built about 1729 and once the home of Old Swindon aristocracy Thomas Vilett and his wife, the former Mary Goddard, it is thought the first occupier was local landowner William Harding. In 1770 another member of the family, wealthy Robert Harding was living there.

A memorial in the old parish church of Holy Rood records that Robert was the husband of Mary, daughter of John Tubb, formerly of Goosey in Berkshire, Armiger (a person entitled to bear heraldic arms). Mary died in 1759 and when Robert made his will in 1770 he was 'under a Treaty of Marriage' to Miss Philippa Hughes.

Built on the site of a former inn, there is an elaborate system of brick vaulted cellars beneath the house at number 42. Not coal cellars or even wine cellars, but an intriguing network of passages once believed to run to other parts of the town.

William Morris, founder of the Swindon Advertiser, was convinced these cellars were used for smuggling, dating back to the time of Harding's occupancy or possibly before.

Smuggling is usually associated with coastal communities but Morris tells how even in the late 18th century there were villages in the North Wiltshire downs 'not very far distant from Swindon' where smuggling provided a steady source of income.

Tales of Swindon's smuggling past abound and Morris writes that the town and neighbourhood were once 'the very home and stronghold of a band of smugglers ... called Moonrakers.'

The legend of the Moonrakers tells how a group of simple country folk were one night observed by an excise man trying to rake the shadow of the moon out of a brook. When questioned they told him they had believed it to be a round of cheese. However, a lot less simple then they appeared, they were actually fishing up some kegs of concealed spirits, the story was just for the benefit of the excise man.

When Robert Harding died in November 1770, he left a tidy little nest egg including a Gold Watch and Jewels, and £100 (worth today over £10,600) to hs grieving fiancee - all legally acquired and above board, presumably!

By the 1840s the building had become a commercial enterprise, the offices of solicitors Crowdy, Townsend and Ormond. In 1950 John Betjeman described 42 Cricklade Street as 'one of the most distinguished town houses in Wiltshire.'

Townsend's long occupancy continued through to the beginning of the 21st century but by 2005 the Vilett House was boarded up and in a sorry state.

Today, central to Swindon Borough Council's Old Town Conservation area, the Vilett House has been sensitively restored and converted into apartments. Features preserved in the modern conversion of the Grade II* listed property include the grotesque masks in the window keystones, steps up to the Corinthian door case and bow windows on the side added around 1800.

Images of grotesques courtesy of Brian Robert Marshall

St Mary's Church, Lydiard Tregoze

The historical and architectural importance of St Mary's, Lydiard Tregoze was recognised in Simon Jenkin's book 'England's Thousand Best Churches,' published in 1999.

A church has stood on the site since 1100 and the medieval hollow way, a 12th century road along which parishioners made their way to worship runs through the parkland and across the fields.

The nave, part of the north aisle and the font date from the 13th century while building in the 15th century added the tower, the south aisle, the chancel, chapel and a new roof.

Wall paintings dating from 1400-1450 were rediscovered during restoration work in 1901.

Although the St John's brought their babies to be baptised at the 13th century font and were buried in the family vault beneath the south chapel, they invariably chose to marry elsewhere.

However the parish church has solemnized a good few weddings - over 1000 and that's only between 1666 and 1840.

It was Henry VIII's right hand man Thomas Cromwell, Vicar General, who issued a 1538 edict in the wake of the dissolution of the monasteries that the clergy keep records of all baptisms, marriages and burials. Few of these earliest registers survive but those at St. Mary's date from 1666 with the first recorded marriage between Richard Herringe and Elizabeth Holloway on February 9.

The number of marriages in the small rural parish fluctuated during this period. In 1682 there were 20 while in 1712 there was just one.

October was by far the most popular month for marriages during this time with around 180 weddings, seven in 1680 alone. With the Michaelmas tenancies secured and the harvest out the way, this apears to have been a favourite month to wed.

The summer months of June and July notched up just 128, presumably everyone was too preoccupied during this busy time in the agricultural calendar. Just 56 couples married in January during the 174 year period between 1666 and 1840.

In the mid 19th century one local family celebrated seven weddings, two of them on May 4, 1841.

Jonas Clarke, tenant at Wick Farm, married Alice Pinnel in 1853. The couple had lived together for more than thirty years but had to wait for the death of Jonas' first wife before they could marry.

The first of Jonas and Alice's five daughters to tie the knot was Alice with John Wyatt a farmer from Wootton Bassett in 1839.

The double wedding in 1841 was between two more Clarke daughters, Sarah who married Thomas Hall, a farmer from Broad Blunsdon and Jane who married Francis Carey, also from Broad Blunsdon.

Mary Clarke married William Knapp, a Swindon grocer, on May 4, 1847 and youngest daughter Anne married Walter London, a draper from Aldershot while son Jonas married widow Elizabeth Bathe Humphries in 1859.

The Village Wedding by Sir Samuel Luke Fildes (1883)

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