Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Barracks

"I consider this building in its present state quite unfit for human habitation and dangerous to the health of the district," Inspector Henry Haynes wrote to the monthly meeting of the New Swindon Local Board held on 2nd August 1866.

The launch of The Platform youth centre in March 2010 in the building once known as the Barracks is yet another chapter in the changing role of this historic property.  Designed to accommodate young men in single rooms with a variety of communal facilities the lodging house, complete with Gothic turrets, was built to ease overcrowding in the GWR company houses.

Work begun in 1849 but the building was beset by problems from the start. Construction work stopped as the effects of a general slump in railway fortunes hit Swindon and in 1851 the building was still unfinished and unoccupied.

With costs rising to £10,000 (approximately £789,000 today) things failed to improve. Unpopular from the outset, the building soon became known as the Barracks. Constrained by GWR rules and regulations the young men moved out, preferring to lodge in the cramped conditions of the railway village cottages instead.

The building stood empty until the construction of the new Rolling Mills in 1861 saw an influx of migrant Welsh workers and their wives and children. The GWR Company responded by converting the Barracks into supposedly family friendly accommodation. Around the time Henry Haynes made his inspection there were 500 men, women and children living there in deplorable conditions.

"The building is in a dirty, filthy state all over (with one or two exceptions) and in a very bad state of repair," writes Hayes. He reports ashes and house refuse piled up against the back doors, broken windows and filthy floors and staircases but the greatest cause of concern was the insanitary conditions in which the families lived. With outbreaks of smallpox, typhus and cholera during the early years of the railway village development, the newly created Local Board of Health was horrified to read Haynes’ description of water closets that were "entirely choked up and in a filthy state."

The insufficient water supply, which Haynes described as unfit for drinking purposes, was laid on from the Wilts and Berks Canal and only available on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It's easy to see how life expectancy in 1860s industrial Swindon reached an all time low of 30 years.

The occupants of the Barracks were transferred to hurriedly built cottages in Cambria Bridge Road and Cambria Place. Legend has it that the volatile Welsh women could not live in such close proximity, but it was more likely the GWR were forced to take action in response to this damning inspection report.

The builders moved in again and after extensive alterations, including the gutting of three floors in the main body of the building to create one large room, the Barracks opened as a Wesleyan Chapel in 1869.

The Chapel closed in 1959 and the building was conveyed to the Corporation of Swindon.  Another refit and another reincarnation and this strangely versatile building re-opened as a railway museum in June 1962.

Samuel Loxton's view of the Wesleyan Chapel c1900

Railway engines moving into the new railway museum captured by Colin Finch in 1962.

Images published courtesy of Swindon Local Studies

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Samuel Loxton 

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