Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Reviews

Over the coming weeks I shall be reviewing some books of local interest, all available on the shelves of Swindon Central Library.

As the Swindon Society celebrates its 40th anniversary this year what better place to begin than with their superb selection of six publications.  The Swindon Society was founded by the late Eric Arman following a series of lectures given at the WEA.  Members meet every second Wednesday from September through to May at the Broad Green Centre, Salisbury Street, for more information visit the website on Published during the 1980s/90s these popular books are available to view in the Swindon Local Studies Collection.

One book I return to again and again is Studies in the History of Swindon.  Published by Swindon Borough Council in 1950 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the incorporation of Swindon as a borough, this unassuming book begins with a look at the Prehistory of the Swindon area written by L.V. Grinsell.

H.S. Tallamy writes a chapter entitled The People of Swindon Before the Railway Age while H.B. Wells charts Swindon in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman appraises the town's architecture and writes his famous quote: 'There is very little architecture in Swindon and a great deal of building.'

The scholarly Victoria County History series, a publishing project founded in 1899, continues to expand.  Last year saw the publication of Volume XVIII in the Wiltshire series which includes the local histories of Lydiard Millicent, Purton and other villages in the Cricklade area.  Volume IX published in 1970 covers the Kingsbridge Hundred and Swindon.

For a very subjective view of the town in the mid 19th century flip through the pages of Swindon Reminiscences, Notes & Relics of Ye Old Wiltshire Towne by Swindon Advertiser founder, William Morris.    Here you can read about The Troublesome Times of 1830 when the agricultural labourer revolted in the face of increasing industrialisation and new farming methods.  And in 1841 the entrepreneurial Edwards brothers James and Thomas held a Bout of Backswording to celebrate their acquisition of large tracts of land in the Regent Street and Bridge Street area. Morris gives a blow by blow account of Backswording, a brutal 19th century sport which slipped into obscurity in the 1860s.

Somewhat frustratingly Morris never indexed his book, but help is at hand.  Ask at the Local Collection enquiry desk for the library's own index.

Swindon Local Studies Collection can be found on the 2nd floor at Central Library, Regent Circus.  The library is open 9.30 - 7.00 Monday to Friday; 9.30 - 4 Saturday and 11 - 3 Sunday.  Telephone 01793 463238 for more information or visit the Swindon Borough Council website on

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


A big thank you to followers and history fans as Swindon in the Past Lane notches up 15,000 page views.

So what has everyone been reading?  Top views include a post about Swindon Central Library when their online photographic archive topped two million views back in January.  If you haven't taken a walk down memory lane yet visit this website on

Swindon firm Garrard has also proved to be a popular post.  The precision engineering manufacturer moved to the town in 1919 and for the first time since the 1840s Swindon was no longer dependent on the railway works for employment.

With dramatic photographs taken at the scene by William Hooper, the 1906 Tram Disaster also ranks with some of the most visited posts on Swindon in the Past Lane.

And the Looking Down on ... series continues to grab the imagination with 1950s aerial photographs of Park South and Walcot getting regular views.  Keep looking as there are still a few more posts to come.

Anne Leighton, one of the Ladies who lived at Lydiard Park received so many visits there has been a spin off!  For all things Lydiard Park themed visit Status, Scandal and Subterfuge.  But if you would like to know more about the aristocratic St John family pay a call on Good Gentlewoman.

Swindon's Suffragette, schoolteacher Edith New, continues to receive regular visits.  Born in 1877 at 24 North Street, Swindon, Edith joined the Pankhurst led Women's Social and Political Union in 1908.  She was imprisoned on several occasions and a miniature pair of stockings knitted from fibres she unpicked from her prison uniform in Holloway Gaol are held by the Museum of London.  Edith continues to be a work in progress.

As Swindon in the Past Lane passes 15,000 page views read again about the great and the good, beautiful buildings and brave women.

Lesley-Ann Skeete - double Olympian

In 2001 Swindon Borough Council named a new housing project in Park South - Lesley-Ann Skeete Court in recognition of Swindon’s own double Olympian.

Born in Sydenham in 1967, Lesley-Ann grew up in Swindon.  During the mid 1980s she attended Millfield School in Street, Somerset, well known for its sporting achievements. Former OM Olympians include, along with Lesley-Ann, swimmers Duncan Goodhew and Mark Foster and long jump Gold Medalist Mary Rand.  Millfield has eight former pupils confirmed for the upcoming London Olympics. 

a young Lesley-Ann Skeete
Lesley-Ann first competed as a 60 metre hurdler, but was tipped for the top when she retained the senior girls' 100 metres hurdles title, beating the 1.37 record set by Sue Homstrom in 1974 with her 13.5 time. Lesley-Ann went on to win a raft of awards including the UK Championship 100 metre hurdles title in 1987 winning it again in 1991. And in 1990 she won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand coming in just .19 of a second behind Sally Gunnell.

In 1988 Lesley-Ann was a member of Team GB in the Seoul Olympics and she took part again in the 100 metre hurdles in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

Lesley-Ann retired from competitive athletics in 1993, but continued to be involved with Swindon Harriers.  She still lives in the local area and last month was guest at the Swindon Walcot and Parks Community Group Jubilee celebrations where she presented prizes in the beat the clock to erect a tent event.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Gertrude Martin - master mosaicist

Perhaps it's my choice of TV viewing but lately my thoughts have been turning to my childhood spent in Brixton, South London.  A tour of the area courtesy of google maps shows a very different Brixton to the one where I grew up, still pockmarked by WWII bombsites in the early 1960s.

Clicking on the little yellow man I attempted to recreate the walk I used to make from St John's Crescent to my friend Susan's home on Loughborough Road.  First I crossed Wiltshire Road then I walked along Angell Park Gardens behind the church into Angell Road.  I then snaked through the blocks of flats and through to Loughborough Road from where it was a relatively short hop to Elmore House.  A longish walk for a little girl under ten years of age pushing a dolls pram, but the streets were safer then, or so we like to think.

Susan never came to my house - my mum worked from home and didn't encourage playmates - and we had a snappy corgi dog which Susan didn't care for - and neither did I!  Susan's mum also worked but we were supervised by her elder sister Joyce who I secretly wished was my elder sister too.

Susan's family was among the first to be rehoused in modern post war council accommodation, her old home in St James's Crescent had already been bulldozed and redeveloped by the late 1950s.  Our other friends Christine, Jane and Julia lived there in the early 1960s in blocks of high rise housing.

Records for the ancient manor of Lambeth Wick date back to the 12th century when it was granted to Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury.  In the mid 17th century the manor was divided into twenty small parcels of land comprising approximately 230 acres.  At the beginning of the 19th century this prime building land was let to Richard Vassall 3rd Baron Holland and development took off in 1829.  Henry Currey, architect and surveyor, planned the layout for St James's Road (now called St James's Crescent), Millbrook Road and Barrington Road and building lots came on the market in 1843.

In 1911 number 24 St James's Crescent was occupied by George Martin, a retired Insurance Brokers Clerk, and his wife Harriett.  At home on census night were sons Alban 26; Garth 25; George 22 and Laurence 20 who were all employed as clerks.  Fifteen year old Patrick was presumably still in education.  Two of the couples five daughters were also at home, Agnes 34 and Gertrude 29 a painter.  Her father adds in parenthesis 'artist' to clear up any misconception that Gertrude might be painting walls for a living.  In fact Gertrude went on to become one of an elite group of women master mosaicists.

Gertrude was born at 6 Belle Vue Park, Thornton Heath, the fourth of George and Harriett's ten children.  She was baptised at St Peter's Church, Dulwich on January 18, 1882 and spent her childhood at various addresses in Croydon.

Along with her sisters Margaret and Dora, Gertrude was apprenticed to George Bridge, an artist and worker in mosaics, who had a business premise in Mitcham Park and a studio in Oxford Street.

In 1902 George and his 26 women mosaicists began an extended period of work in Westminster Cathedral. Gertrude is pictured here in 1913 working on the prophet Isaiah mosaic.

Gertrude studied mosaics in Ravenna, Milan and Venice, and along with her sister Margaret was employed on some prestigious commissions.  In the 1920s the sisters worked on two arched panels in the Central Lobby in the Houses of Parliament.  Designed by Robert Anning-Bell the mosaic depicting St Andrew was completed in 1923 and St Patrick in 1924.  Between 1928-1932 Gertrude and Margaret worked at St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, designing and producing mosaics in the Baptistry, the Chapel of Holy Spirit, the tympanum above the West Doors and the mural of St Patrick above the entrance to the Chapel of the Holy Spirit.

The photograph of the five sisters held at the Lambeth Archives and published with thanks to Jenny Bedson and Rosie Pearce, was taken in the back garden of No 24 c1910.  The rear of the houses are similar to others in Brixton still standing during my childhood.

Gertrude died at her home in St James's Crescent in February 1952, two years before my parents moved into neighbouring St John's Crescent.  Sadly by the time I was trotting round to play at Susan's house in the early 1960's the houses had long gone as well.

For more images of Brixton visit Landmark Lambeth on