By 1850 the Mechanics’ Institute had established a pattern of regular events in the rooms it was permitted to use in the factory. At this time the Institute was managing in borrowed space within the railway works not having premises of its own.
An annual Soiree, at the beginning of each year, with an exhibition of models and an evening of entertainment followed by dancing was a popular feature.
Regular concerts with visiting artistes were organised and a series of popular lectures on a wide variety of subjects, offered the members and their families and friends the opportunity of broadening their horizons. The concerts and lectures were usually opened with a performance by the Institute’s band, a practice which was maintained for many years.
With the start of the Crimea War and many of the men from the Wiltshire Yeomanry enlisting the part of the Mechanics’ reading room became increasingly important. At this time the railway village was again growing in size and workers and their families faced the long treck through rough ground and tracks to the nearest shops in Victoria Street and Wood Street.
The Institution was still holding its occasional meetings in the Large Room within the railway works. A series of evening classes in elementary subjects was also being held in the Bristol Street schools. The membership of the Institution, along with the use of the reading room space and library were all increasing. despite the fact that those using it were forced to cross the line which now carried trains travelling at increasing speeds. The concerts and dances were very popular especially with the ladies but for them the access was both dirty and dangerous.
At the same time there were indications that the Institution had outstayed its welcome in the factory. The railway company had no plans to provide alternative accomodation for the Institute and the Institute itself had no means to acquire land let alone build. A number of very practical needs began to conspire to lead to the creation of a permanent Institution building.
All the residents of New Swindon agreed that a social centre in the developing town would be a great boon. In addition, factory regulations at the time prevented men from taking food into the work place. During meal breaks, wives, mothers and family took food and drink to the factory. In the summer this was no problem but in winter there was no provision for those who lived some distance from the works. Another popular demand at the time was for bathing facilities with hot and cold water.
As well as these wants, there were additional problems. Primitive sanitation was a breeding ground for cholera. Combine this with the lack of decent drinking water and no shopping facilities and the problems were increased. Due to this lack of facilities many of the residents took to keeping chicken, rabbits and pigs in their back yards which only added to the health problems.
Minard Rea and his associates thought of forming a company of their own, “The New Swindon Improvement Company” raising capital to fund a permanent home for the Institution as well as providing a new market to provide supplies and attract traders.
The architect was commissioned in late 1853 with the brief set out in the company’s Constitution to provide accomodation for the inhabitants of New Swindon and its vacinity by the establishment of baths, Reading, Lecture and Refreshment Rooms a market and shops and for other local purposes.
Progress was rapid. On the 24th May 1854 the foundation stone was laid by Lord Methuen, assisted by Daniel Gooch. After the stone laying some 1,000 guests proceeded to the cricket field where a great banquet had been prepared.
The building was sufficiently complete by 20th December 1854 for a special Rally followed by entertainment in aid of the Patriotic Fund for the sick and wounded of the Crimean War. That night large numbers were let into the upper floor by a specially constructed wooden staircase. Final completion was achieved in April 1855 and the new hall and ground floor facilities were formally opened on Tuesday 1st May 1855.
Although many of the key figures in the inception, design and construction of the Mechanics’ were Masons, this apparently had no bearing on how the building was run and used. An agreement was reached between the directors of the New Swindon Improvement Company and the Mechanics’ for the latter to pay £40 p.a. rent for use of the building. They were also responsible for the upkeep of their part and any alternations and improvements subsequently made. The building operated successfully under the Vice-Presidency of Minard Rea. From the imposing building which he and his fellow members had specified, a whole series of reforms and innovations were to flow. Minard Rea’s untimely death at the age of 35 (180657) from T.B. was mourned throughout the Swindon works.
The baths were removed from the Mechanics Institution in this year to the Medical Fund Society premises in Taunton Street.
This year marked the first Juvenile Fete, a tradition which continued until the Second World War. Taking place in Faringdon Road Park the highlight was the cutting of a huge cake into slices. These were distributed to the workers’ children. The tradition soon became a firm favourite continuing for nearly a century.