In order to introduce the history of the Mechanics’ Institute building it is important to understand the history leading up to the development of the town and the formation of the Institution. The Mechanics Institutions were a movement started in the 1830’s in Scotland. There is no real equivalent today, but these were a combination of self-help, education and social groupings. Their strength remained north of the border but spread to England, although few reached as far south as Swindon. It is probably true to say that the Swindon Mechanics Institution owes much to the fact that the first supervisor of the works was a Scot with experience of the Mechanics in Dundee and Glasgow.
It was quite a risky decision to build the workshops in Swindon during the 1840’s. Although the railway was expanding rapidly, there was still no uniform guage (track width). In addition, Swindon was a green field site with very limited water and sanitation. Skilled labour was virtually non-existant in the area. Swindon itself was a small and relatively unknown setttlement consisting of what would now be considered Old Town. Locally, both Bristol and Reading had better water supplies and more skilled labour. The exact reasons for the choice of Swindon is still unclear. Much seems to have been down to the influence of Daniel Gooch with the board of the Great Western Railway (GWR).
Whatever the decision, the result was the building of a major industrial construction and repair centre. This was in a location with no houses, schools, recreational facilities, shops or market within easy reach. Daniel Gooch records in his diary that machinery started at the Swindon site on 28th November 1842 with the factory began work on 2nd January 1843.
Some 15 employees – probably from O shop – collected together some books “a few kind friends had given them”. This was the beginning of a circulating library which predates the first public lending library in Manchester by some nine years.
In 1844, the New Swindon Mechanics’ Institution was formed and constituted “for the benefit and enlightenment of those employed by the G.W.R”. Two important facts should be noted here. The first is that non-GWR workers were allowed to join as outside members making the Institution an open body. Secondly and contrary to popular mythology, the Institution was set up with help from the GWR but not by the GWR. The main driving force behind its formation was from the workers on the ground along with some enlightened individuals such as Minard Christian-Rea and his brother brother(?!) Rea. The Institution was providing for very real practical needs mostly suggested by and managed by the workforce rather than from the often suggested paternal benevolence of the Great Western Railway.
The growth of railways was at its greatest in 1845. Brunel was driving forward with the GWR as were others throughout the country. Many companies were using different track guages and Parliament set up a commission to standardise the tracks. Housing had been started at the Railway Village in Swindon with its uniform rows of cottages, however a new contract to maintain and build trains for the Bristol and Exeter company meant Swindon was unable to cope with the extra demand for housing. With no drains or sanitation, disease became chronic, particularly Tuberculosis and diptheria.
As an emergency provision a block of single mens quarters was planned and construction of “the barracks” began. This is now the Railway Museum in Faringdon Road. Unfortunately, several strokes of bad luck were to hit the town. Brunel lost out as the 4.5 foot track width was adopted as the standard guage across the country. In addition, recession and the loss of the Bristol and Exeter contract meant many of the towns new workers were now unemployed.
In an era with no National Health Service and in a town hit by T.B. it was no time to be poor. In a unique move demonstrating the spirit of the town it was agreed that those ex-employees would still continue to receive medical attention from the railway doctors as part of the Medical Society Fund set up and run with considerable assistance from the Mechanics Institution. This medical fund was to become established and would form an inclusive health service some 100 years before the birth of the N.H.S. Indeed Bevan said of the Medical fund “There it was a complete health service in Swindon. All we had to do was expand it to the whole country.