Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A virtual walk through Radnor Street Cemetery - Frederick O'Conor

We continue this week's virtual walk through Radnor Street Cemetery with a look at a magnificent monument to Frederick O'Conor, paid for by railway men, members of the Mechanics' Institution.

The obelisk was a very popular monument, particularly in the early part of the 19th century when all things Egyptian were fashionable in funeral furniture.  It was an alternative to the cross, which some saw as too Catholic, and given the large number of dissenters buried here it’s not surprising to see quite a few across the cemetery.

This memorial was erected by the members of the GWR Mechanics Institution.  The New Swindon Mechanics Institution was founded in 1844 in the very early days following the GWR’s arrival in Swindon.  It was formed by the workers “for the benefit and enlightenment of those employed in the GWR” and in the beginning members met in rooms in the factory.

One of the first schemes they established was a lending library, then there came regular concerts, an annual Soiree and evening classes in the Bristol Street Schools.

Eventually the activities, by then also open to outside members, had become so numerous that a permanent home was needed.  The foundation stone for the building was laid on May 24 1854 by Lord Methuen assisted by Daniel Gooch.  Work was completed in April 1855, although activities had begun before the building was finished.  The building was further extended in 1892.

Since its closure in 1986 this building has been the subject of much debate and many newspaper articles in the local press.  Today many people can’t see what all the fuss is about, it’s an eyesore, a drain on public money, pull it down.

For those interested in the history of the town it is an iconic building.  The men who campaigned, raised funds and ran this Institution were ordinary railway men trying to make a difference.  The building had the first baths in the railway village, a room where the men could eat their meal, a market to save the women trekking across the fields to the shops in Old Swindon.  The Institute organised the annual TRIP which began as a day’s outing to Oxford and the children’s fete in the GWR Park.  They established the first library in Swindon, roughly a hundred years before the Corporation provided one.  And of course there was the Medical Fund, which later became the blue print for the NHS. The Mechanics Institution was at the very heart of the town and that’s why people feel so passionate about it.

As you can see from this monument Frederick O’Conor served on the Mechanics Institute Council for 16 years, it was actually closer to 19 as he was first elected in 1873, and he was secretary for 6½ years.

Frederick was born in Swindon in 1843 and epitomised what the Mechanics was all about.  As an 18 year old he was living with his widowed mother in a house on Cricklade Street working alongside her as a boot and shoe maker.

By 1861 he was living at 32 Oxford Street and working as a railway clerk in the GWR.  At the time of his death he was an accountant.

In a lengthy obituary the Advertiser made reference to his many other involvements – chairman of the local education committee, a member of the Wilts Archaeological Society and a prominent member of St. Mark’s Church.

Frederick died on February 19 1892 following a long illness – probably TB.  He was 48 years old, a widower with two young daughters.

The funeral at St Mark’s was attended by a large congregation.  Immediately following the hearse were members of the Mechanics Institute Council. The service at the graveside in the cemetery was concluded by the Rev. Ponsonby.  

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