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.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Tales from the cemetery: Frederick and Mary Ann Gee

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.

'Mother always said there was nothing I could have done to help, but I never believed her. Today I can still hear the cries of the men, although mother said that wasn’t possible, they were too deep in the tunnel and I was too far away.

But I wasn’t. What she didn’t know was that I was there, by the mouth of the tunnel as the ballast train screeched through. I was the first person on the scene, a 10 year old boy walking home from school across the railway line.

I knew the platelayers were at work in the Sapperton tunnel that day in April 1896. I had seen them arrive with their truck and their tools while I was about my early morning tasks on the farm. A section of the tunnel was under repair and I wished I could see inside. The tunnel was a feat of engineering carved beneath the Cotswold escarpment and a source of wonderment to this 10 year old boy. By the end of that day in April 1896 the Sapperton tunnel would be the stuff of nightmares, a scene that would haunt me for years.

For weeks afterwards it was all anyone talked about in the village. How the gang of five men had been warned of the approach of a down train and had stepped out of the way on to the other set of metals. They did not notice that an up ballast train had entered the tunnel. Two men were killed instantly, their bodies mutilated in a shocking manner.

And I saw it all. At first I thought all were dead, but then came the moaning and the cries as the two who were less severely injured began to move.

I crept closer. In the light of their lantern I could see a man still lying on the track, his arm wrenched from his body, blood seeping from his head.

Help was slow in coming. The three surviving men were eventually picked up by a passenger train passing through the tunnel half an hour after the accident. At Stroud they were taken from the railway station to the hospital, causing a painful sensation in the town.

The men who died were named as H. Ballard and E. Greenaway. Another, J. Hillsley sustained concussion of the brain, scalp wounds and bruised limbs while W. Pointer was sent home from hospital during the course of that evening.

The man with the severed arm died on the way to hospital. His name was Frederick Gee.

Mother said there was nothing I could have done to help, but I never believed her.'

Platelayer – a man employed in laying and maintaining the railway track. The poorest of any railway employee with little or no opportunity for promotion or advancement. ‘The most neglected man in the service.’ (Will Thorne, Victorian platelayer).

Ganger Frederick Gee 47 was married to Mary Ann nee Willis and left seven children, five under the age of 10 years including a baby son just a few months old when he died working in the Sapperton tunnel in April 1896.

Frederick was buried in Radnor Street Cemetery where in 1900 the couple’s sixteen year old daughter Rosa Ethel was buried alongside him and four years later their son Harry Howard, aged 21.

In just a few short years Mary Ann lost her husband and two of her children, but she was made of stern stuff.

On March 14, 1907 Mary Ann set sail from Liverpool on board the SS Cymric with her four youngest sons Sidney 17, Ernest 15, Frank 13 and eleven year old Wilfred, to begin a new life in the United States of America.

The family arrived in Boston, Massachusetts on March 25 and in the 1910 US census they can be found living in Forest Dale, Salt Lake City, Utah.

In 1917 Mary Ann, then aged 62, married William A. Tolman. William Augustus Tolman was 69, a widower and a member of a prominent pioneering family in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints  (the Mormons). William’s father Cyrus had arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1848 with Brigham Young’s second company.

Theirs was a brief marriage. William died from smallpox in 1920. He was buried in the family plot at Oakley Cemetery, Cassia County, Idaho with his first wife Marintha.

Mary Ann died in 1929 aged 71. She had survived the death of two husbands, two sons and a daughter.

William Augustus Tolman and his first wife Marintha

Frederick Gee's grave - Radnor Street Cemetery
William Augustus Toman's grave - Oakley Cemetery

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Women's Exhibition - and our chosen charity is ...

Alongside the work of the Friends of Angel's Orphanage supporting the 21 orphaned or abandoned children under their shelter, the charity also creates projects to empower women, to increase their skills base and to give them independence so that they can support themselves and their children.
In April 2015 nearly 9,000 people were killed and 22,000 injured when an earthquake measuring a magnitude of 7.8 hit Nepal.
Eight million people were affected and many remain homeless a year on in what has been described as 'a country of tarpaulins, tents and tin roofed shacks'.
We are supporting the Friends of Angel's Orphanage at the Women's Exhibition and Craft Sale. Please visit their stall and if you have some spare coins, please drop them in the collecting boxes.
Thank you.

The Book project and the women it helps.

Himalayan Adventure Girls is a non-profit organisation with the unique purpose of encouraging young Nepale women to participate in the outdoors industry as guides and instructors. Tourism has become one of the most important forms of income generation in Nepal and yet women in general continue to play little part. Since its founding in 2008 Himalyan Adventure Girls has sought to provide professional training and to create opportunities for Nepale women to gain meaningful employment in the outdoors industry...

Maiti Nepal has become a home to women and girls--whether married or not--who have been exploited, neglected or their rights grossly violated by family and society...

Earthquake Nepal is a collection of more than 50 stories from people and organisations who experienced the earthquakes of Nepal 2015. Money raised will go towards helping rebuild schools in rural areas.

Rosa Matheson and three of the boys from Angel's Orphanage.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Skyblue Blankets

Women's Exhibition and Craft Sale takes place this Saturday, November 12 at the Christ Church Community Centre, November 12, 1-4pm.
Our final seller (unless we've mis-counted or forgotten anyone!) is Skyblue Blankets who said:
Colour inspiration for my first blanket, made for my granddaughter, came from Lower Shaw Farm where we would visit the Wednesday Cafe and feed the animals and sit on the big red tractor. Since then I have been inspired by sunsets, country walks and the Walled Garden at Lydiard House. Larger blankets fit a single bed while the baby blankets are buggy size. All blankets are made from Acrylic/Nylon or Acrylic yarn, machine washable at 30 degrees.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Kennet Decorative Fine Arts Society

Women's Exhibition and Craft Sale next Saturday, November 12 at the Christ Church Community Centre 1-4pm.

Members of the Kennet Decorative Fine Arts Society will also be exhibiting and selling at our craft sale, they are part of a national registered charity for anyone interested in art.
They told us: You do not need to know anything about the arts to enjoy our varied programme of talks from Lord Byron to pub signs!
The original society was started by Patricia Fay in 1965 and became a national Registered Charity ‘NADFAS’ in 1972. As well as talks, visits and days of special interest we also volunteer to help heritage areas, locally that is St Mary’s Lydiard and The Merchant’s House Marlborough. We also support young people in art.
We meet at The Ellendune Centre, Wroughton on the third Monday of the month, September to June; December is the second Monday. Refreshments are available from 10am, talks start at 11am.
More information on our website: or call our Membership Secretary, Judi Ferries on 01793 840790.

 St Mary's Church, Lydiard Park.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Dona Bradley

We are on countdown to the Women's Exhibition and Craft Sale, now just six days away. Meet
our 18th seller Dona Bradley with her cards featuring hand-drawn landmark views of Swindon celebrating the 175th anniversary of the town. Printed without colour detail so it can be coloured by either the sender or recipient.
Dona also takes commissions to commemorate events such as a graduation, a wedding, moving into a new home or another big event in life: a hand-drawn architectural portrait of the building where it happened. Dona creates the drawing by hand from photographs or sketches, colours the drawing digitally for a modern finish and adds a beautiful hand-watercoloured sky. You can then add personal elements, including text of your choice and a photograph of you, your family or your friends.
See her website for more information:

Women's Exhibition and Craft Sale Saturday November 12 1-4pm Christ Church Community Centre, Old Town.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Friend's of Angel's Orphanage

With just a week to go until the Women's Exhibition and Craft Sale here is our 17th stall holder, the ‘Friend’s of Angel’s Orphanage’ who said:
Our products are handmade in Nepal by women. We buy from the women to help them stay economically viable and we sell them to make money for our 21 children. This way it is a win/win for us all including people who buy them as beautiful handmade items and help women and children across the world.
Please see the website or search on facebook to find out more about the orphanage and the work being done to support them.

Come and see all our fantastic sellers at Christ Church Community Centre, Swindon next week November 12, 1 - 4 pm.