Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Sands

At the time of the 1841 census, Bath Road, then known as The Sands, consisted of just eleven middle class homes.  It took the coming of the railways to kick start the property boom in Old Swindon but by 1851 little had changed.

It would be the death of local landowner John Harding Sheppard in 1868 and the sale of his extensive estate that eventually saw development take off along Bath Road.

Richard Bowly, draper and brewer bought Sheppard’s Kingshill Villa and several parcels of land but he was out to make a quick profit on his newly acquired property.

On September 16, 1868 local auctioneer William Dore presided over an auction at the Goddard Arms Hotel where Sixty Seven lots of valuable freehold Building land on the Sands came under the hammer for the second time that year.

Clock and watchmaker George Deacon was one of those keen to make a purchase and paid £80 for lot 16, a plot with a 30ft frontage on The Sands.

Swindon builder Henry Caiger bought the land on Deacon's death four years later and built a home fit for the upwardly mobile.

But the eventual buyer was Miss Sarah Sheppard King, no nouveau riche newcomer but a member of a well established local dynasty that gave it's name to this area of Old Swindon.  The King family's roots in Swindon can be traced back to medieval landowner Robert le Kynge and a 14th century farm in the Kingshill area.

Sarah, the daughter of Richard Dore King, was born in 1821 in neighbouring Lydiard Tregoze.  In 1878 Sarah moved in to Yucca Villa with her sister Elizabeth, the estranged wife of Jonas Clark.

The two women lived together in the elegant house on The Sands for 18 years.  An inventory dated 1896 reveals a home equipped for entertaining.  The dining room was furnished with an extending mahogany table, six mahogany horsehair seated chairs, two carving chairs and two lady's chairs and the cellar contained 142 bottles of brandy, claret, port and sherry.

In her will, written in 1892, Sarah appointed her friends Charles Hibbard, a farmer then living in Bishopstone, and Edward Smith, a Swindon High Street butcher, as trustees.

She left a host of bequests to family, friends and old retainers and a mention of  'my sister Elizabeth Bathe Clark (the wife of Jonas Clark but now living separate and apart from him).'

Sarah died in 1896.  She left Yucca Villa and its contents to the trustees of her estate with the proviso that her sister remain in residence "until her death or if she should return to her husband."

Elizabeth died at Yucca Villa on June 25, 1903 aged 91.  Her niece Mary Jane registered the death describing her aunt as 'widow of Jonas Clark farmer.'

Both sisters are buried in the King family plot in St Mary's churchyard, Lydiard Tregoze.

King family graves at St Mary's, Lydiard Tregoze

 Photograph of The Sands is published courtesy of Swindon Local Studies - visit for more views of Swindon.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Looking down on Parks in the 1950s

The Town Development Act of 1952 set Swindon on an expansion that continues today and this 1950s photograph takes a bird's eye view of the two Parks estates under construction.

With plans for Penhill taking shape, the Corporation soon turned its attention to developing the east of the town where it had purchased over 1000 acres of farmland, mostly belonging to the Goddard estate.

Church Farm, acquired by the Goddard family in the 16th century, stretched from the edge of the Goddard parkland to the two neighbouring farms at Walcot and was one of those to be ploughed up.  In all seven farms - Upper and Lower Walcot, Park, Church, Manor, Coate and Prince's - were swallowed up.  As Penhill neared completion in 1955 work began on the two Park estates.

In the middle of the photograph can be seen the outline of the distinctive loop which would become Welcombe Avenue in Park North while Cranmore Avenue in Park South is more densely built along.

Roads built in 1957 such as Caxton Close, Farnborough Road and Knolton Walk were named after engines in the GWR 'Hall' class.  The second phase of building had roads named after British villages and towns such as Amersham Road after the Buckinghamshire town.

The houses went up at a cracking pace and the town’s 1950s expansion plans came in for some harsh criticism in the media where national newspapers attacked what was labelled the Swindon ‘land grab.’  The Corporation met with stiff opposition from the National Farmers Union, local Conservative MPs and the Goddard family who were set to lose their last remaining holdings in the town.

Church Farm photographed in the 1940s

Official records reveal that between 1961-2 the Corporation built nearly 1,200 houses with a further 738 built by private enterprise, but amenities for the new residents were somewhat lagging behind.  

The Civic News, the local authority's official news sheet, reported in the May 1962 edition that Park Shopping Centre was making rapid progress with the first shops due to open sometime in the summer.

In July of the same year it was announced that Frederick Gibberd, designer of the iconic Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool and Didcot Power Station, had been asked to prepare designs for the second state of the Park Neighbourhood Centre.  This would add ten more shops to the complex, maisonettes and a large block of flats.

Named after a picturesque village in Suffolk, Cavendish Square would be built on green fields bearing the shadow of ridge and furrow, the marks of medieval open field farming methods.

Cavendish Square pictured in the 1970s

Sadly the 1980s saw the beleaguered Cavendish Square area blighted by vandalism and in need of modernisation.  Despite a revamp at the end of the decade, a more vigorous makeover was deemed necessary and Cavendish Square appeared as pledge number 39 on the Swindon Borough Council's list of 50 Promises launched in 2005.  

Major demolition work has since taken place and a new Co-op store opened in August 2008 followed by a new library in September.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Swindon Central Library

New visitors to Swindon Central Library could be forgiven for taking it all for granted - the plush reading room overlooking Regent Circus and the secluded window seat alcoves; the colourful, spacious children’s area, not to mention the 60 free to use computers and more than 77,000 books.

But it wasn’t always so.  For more than 57 years Swindon’s town centre library was housed in temporary accommodation, the foundations of which now lie beneath the magnificent modern building next to the Victorian Town Hall.

In 1943 members of the long awaited first Public Lending Library in Swindon picked the shelves almost clean in the first week and the children’s library proved so popular it had to be re-housed in alternative accommodation.

Perhaps the middle of a world war was a challenging time for Swindon Corporation to set about creating the town’s first public library but having got the ball rolling the council was eager to proceed.  Initially the Mechanics Institution was approached with a view to using their library as a basis for a public library but they rejected the proposal, suggesting a review after the war.  Eventually the problem of accommodation was settled when town centre department store McIlroys came to the rescue.  The Public Libraries Act was adopted on October 6, 1942 and from then it was all systems go.

Reader registration began at the end of July 1943 and by the official opening date four weeks later 5,000 tickets had been issued.  The Library stock numbered 22,974 books – 19,363 in the lending library, 2,646 in the junior section and 966 in the reference.

The library was officially opened on Saturday August 14, 1943 “in the presence of a representative civic gathering.”  The Swindon reading public had to wait until Monday before they could get their hands on the books.  And once they did they flew off the shelves – 3,104 books on the first day.

It rapidly became obvious that the premises were inadequate to house both the adult and children’s libraries and at the end of the first week the junior section transferred to the former Electricity Showrooms.  Those eager little bookworms borrowed all but 14 of the books in the fiction section while back at McIlroys the adult section was reduced to 250 books by the middle of the second week.

Membership continued to rise from 12,000 after six weeks to 21,152 by March 31, 1944, seven months after the library first opened.  In October 1943 15,000 books were being issued on a weekly basis and by the end of the year the stock had been increased to 37,601 to meet the demand.  Meanwhile McIlroys made available an additional 1000 square feet of floor space to cope with library visitors.  In March 1949 Central Library moved into the first of two sets of mobile units behind the Town Hall, temporary accommodation that would last for 57 years.

Designed by Swindon Borough architects Nic Newland and Tony Curriven, the £10 million flagship building opened to a fanfare of praise on Monday October 20, 2008, on time and within budget.  But sadly today swingeing Government cutbacks have seen the library staff, arguably the most valuable resource in the high tech building, subject to a restructuring process for the second time in twelve months.

In 2010 Swindon Central Library came under threat from an invasion by the Daleks, but now it looks as if a more insidious enemy is at work.  Perhaps staff should call the Doctor for help!

Librarians move the stock into the new Regent Circus temporary accommodation

1950s - the temporary mobile structure that survived until 2008.

2010 - staff under threat from Dalek invasion

Images courtesy of Swindon Local Studies

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Town Hall

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

William Ellis

Sadly this is all that remains of a once magnificent memorial to the Ellis family in Radnor Street Cemetery.  Thieves armed with cutting equipment removed the ornate metalwork and with it all reference to the family buried there.

William Ellis was one of the first members of the New Swindon Local Board, a director of the Swindon Building Society, Chairman of the New Swindon Gas Company and a director of the Swindon Water Company. A devout Methodist, he was described as being ‘a most acceptable lay preacher widely known in Wiltshire and South Wales.’

Expansion at the GWR Works in 1861 saw the building of new Rolling Mills. Once established the rail mill produced an estimated 19,300 tons of rails a year with the workforce consisting mainly of Welsh iron workers.  

Thomas Ellis was the first manager at the Rolling Mills and was responsible for building the cottages along Cambria Place to house the Welsh workers. 

William came to Swindon with his two young children and took over as manager in 1863.  The family’s first home was at 4 Church Place, before moving to the Woodlands, a GWR manager’s house.

When William died on May 25 1896 the Advertiser published a lengthy obituary in which he was described as having the ‘esteem of the large number of men who were under his control.’

“The first portion of the funeral service was conducted at 8 am on the lawn in front of the Woodlands by Revs A.A. Southerns and G. Osborne.  Portions of Scripture were read, and hymns No. 680 and 940 from the Wesley hymn book were sung at the close of the beautiful and impressive early morning service,” the Advertiser reported.  “The cortege then proceeded to a saloon, which was placed near the house, and the family left by the 9-5 train for Abergavenny where a hearse and carriages were in waiting to convey the remains and family to Lanelly church, where a large number of friends from neighbouring places had assembled.”

William’s son Ernest followed his father into the Rolling Mills where he worked as Assistant Manager.  He and his wife Catherine lived at the old Ellis family home at 4 Church Place. Two of their children who died in infancy were buried in the Radnor Street plot, Olga Louise in 1897 aged 2 years and 2 months and Louis Robert in 1890 aged just six months.

Ernest died in 1915.  The Advertiser published an account of the Memorial Service held in the Wesley Chapel, Faringdon Street during which Ernest was described as a man who ‘hoped for the best, and believed of the best in people,’ ironic considering the vandalism of his family's memorial.

Ernest’s wife Catherine who died in 1931 aged 78 and his sister Louisa who died in 1944 aged 89 were both buried in the family plot.  The names of William and his wife Emily were included on the family memorial.

Fortunately there are photographs of the distinctive monument preserved on Duncan and Mandy Ball’s website.  Without this record the memory of one family who made such a large contribution to 19th century Swindon would be lost.

Photograph of the memorial is courtesy of Duncan and Mandy Ball.  Visit their website on

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Looking down on Cambria Place in the 1950s

"There is very little architecture in Swindon and a great deal of building," wrote poet laureate John Betjeman in 1950.

This aerial view of the Faringdon Park area taken around the same time shows some of the many rows of Victorian terraced housing to which Betjeman, somewhat unkindly, referred.

With an influx of Welsh workers moving to Swindon when the GWR Rolling Mills opened in the 1860s, additional housing had to be built, and quickly.  Initially accommodation was found for the Welsh families in the Barracks, a former lodging house for single men, but this proved both unsuccessful and inadequate and an alternative had to be found.

The first stone cottages along Cambria Place were built in about 1864.  The 1871 census records forgemen, iron rollers and rail roughers from Llanelly, Tredegar and Ebbw Vale among those living in the canal side properties.  A Baptist Chapel seating 250 was built in 1866 where for many years the sermons were preached in Welsh.

In 1871 the two up, two down terraced house at 7 Cambria Place was packed to the rafters.  Living with iron roller William Harry, his wife Mary and their five sons were Mary's mother, two nephews both employed at the Works, and two nieces, Jane 23 and twelve year old Alice.

Maxwell Street built in around 1890 was named after surveyor and civil engineer James Maxwell.  The Manchester based partnership of Maxwell and Tuke was engaged by the trustees of the Rolleston Estate for various Swindon projects.  This prestigious partnership was responsible for a number of iconic buildings nationwide, including the Blackpool Tower.

Lorne Street, developed in 1891 is supposedly named after the Marquis of Lorne who married Queen Victoria's fourth daughter, the Princess Louise in 1871.

Esther's memorial was restored
 in 2009 by Highworth Memorials
Public houses in the area include The Greyhound, Faringdon Road where a six hour battle took place on Easter Monday 1854.  Men took turns to join in the fighting and the Advertiser reported on the total absence of police. And The Ship,Westcott Place was the scene of a murder when in 1903 Esther Swinford was shot dead by her former fiance Edward Palmer.  Townspeople erected a memorial to the murdered girl in Radnor Street Cemetery.

Just visible towards the top left hand corner of this photograph are a number of buildings long since gone, among them the Central Club and Institute in Milton Road which was demolished in 1970.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Bolingbroke Arms

Hook Farm signpost
Today there is little evidence of the medieval village of Lydiard Tregoze.  However, despite the proliferation of 1980s building around Lydiard Park, it is still possible to trace a depression in the landscape close to the park and St Mary’s Church.  This is believed to be a ‘hollow way,’ the former medieval high street from village to parish church.

The popular theory is that the village was abandoned following the Black Death when plague decimated the population.  The tithing of Lydiard Tregoze, a group of ten householders, a sort of medieval neighbourhood watch, continues to appear in records during the 16th century but disappears after this date when there was a shift of population to Hook.

The Bolingbroke Arms, situated between Hook and Greatfield, is little changed since it served the Lydiard estate workers in the 19th century – or is it?

The inn first appeared listed in early local trade directories and at the time of the 1841 census Samuel Kerley was the innkeeper.

James Cox took over as mine host following Samuel’s death in 1855 and in 1861 his widow Lucy was in charge.  Jesse Hitchcock, a carpenter and joiner with a family builder’s business in Wootton Bassett, took over the lease a year later and the Hitchcock family was still pulling pints at the pub into the 20th century.  It was the departure of 78 year old Frances Hitchcock in 1904 that saw the beginning of some drastic changes at the Bolingbroke.

When the Surveyor of Taxes valued the inn and six acres of land at £20, landagents Goodwyn & Sons of Granville Chambers in Portman Square, London wrote the following report to Lady Bolingbroke in 1905.

“The widow Hitchcock the tenant had been there for about 40 years and the place had been demolished within the last few months after an intimation from the magistrates that they could not renew the licence to a new tenant when Mrs Hitchcock left unless the place was rebuilt.”

Properties at Hook

Two years later and landlord Tom Townsend was established as tenant but unfortunately the new inn would eventually lose its association with family from whom it took its name.

When the major portion of the Lydiard Estate came under the hammer at the Goddard Arms Hotel in Old Town on Friday March 21, 1930 lot 12 was described as a fully licensed Inn known as The Bolingbroke Arms, Hook.  Fronting the Wootton Bassett to Purton Road the property comprised three enclosures of land measuring over five acres with outbuildings, a store and garage.  An additional shed, pig sties and trade fittings are described as belonging to the tenant, Tom Townsend who paid £35 a year rent.

The Advertiser coverage of the auction reported that “the biddings started at £1,000 and rose to £2,500 at which figure the lot was purchased by Mr F. Weeks, managing director of the Lamb Brewery Company, Frome."

Kingsdown brewer Arkells bought the Hook hostelry in 2001.  The refurbished Bolingbroke Arms, hotel, pub and restaurant now boasts eight en-suite bedrooms furnished in Cotswold pine, considerably more upmarket than in widow Hitchcock’s day!

The Bolingbroke Arms today