The history of the Mechanics Institution has many “golden ages”. However the period 1911 – 1930 must be one of the most turbulent and productive periods in the buildings’ history. It also marks the development of many organisations linked with the Institution and the wider town which would lead a blossoming artistic, dramatic and voluntary sector in years to come.
From the early years of the Rail works in Swindon the first week of July was known as “Trip Week”. It was during the period 1900 – 1920 that the trips were at their height. This photograph shows the north side of the Mechanics on 1st July 1912. The Bath Electric Omnibus Company busses picking up a range of “R” shop employees and children. Popular locations included Swanage, Weymouth, Weston Super Mare, St. Ives (Cornwall) and London. The trip continued into the 1960’s.
Also at this time theatre seemed to be more readily available to a mass audience. The Mechanics Institution gradually found itself stretching the existing stage and auditorium. The Mechanics also became something of a central drama location for touring productions by GWR staff. Many of these productions were performed in London,Reading, Didcot, Bath, Bristol and other minor towns on the network.
The light comedy “Trip to Juja” was produced in 1919. This toured the GWR circuit but the actors involved mostly worked within the Railway works in Swindon. This would appear to be typical of the type of production being staged at the time.
This 1920 photo taken in the “garden” of the Mechanics shows a wedding party using the surroundings to provide an impressive backdrop for the gathering. The “garden” was in fact a short lived development in a recessed area outside what was then the library. It is clear how important the building was in peoples’ lives. After all you would hardly get a photograph taken in a place which held no attraction or importance to you.
Despite the rather serious looks this photograph is of the “Gleemen of 1925” who were a group of GWR employees who became something of a local legend. The Gleemen reached the height of their success in this period. They cut several records of popular music, were recorded and broadcast by the BBC from the Mechanics Institution and toured the county and surrounding railway towns. One of the conditions of the Gleemen was to be employed within the works at Swindon. So we can be sure that the faces half smiling out of this photograph would be the same faces seen working in the metal shops, offices and carriage works during the day.
This view of the theatre would have been no surprise to the regular audience members of the time. Notice how the Victorian love of light made the auditorium light and spacious. However, the rown of low level, non-tiered and hard seats must have made some of the longer productions seem hard going. This photograph is dated 1928.
Left is the 1927 shot showing the cast of “Tom Jones” at the Mechanics’ theatre. It cannot be stated too often that for a provincial town in the post Victorian era there was both variety and range in the productions seen by the residents of Swindon. The production must have been very difficult with at least 58 people seen on stage in this photograph. Notice the stage has no flats for flying scenery, but rather relies on half rods of pelmet scenery which was to be the case until tragedy struck the theatre in the Christmas fire of 1930.