Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Sad Case of the Clockwinder's Ghost

The former Great Western Railway buildings in Swindon are rumoured to include a ghost or two, one of which apparently patrols the National Monuments Record building. 

A model of Victorian efficiency, the Works complex contained a vast array of clocks and employed a clockwinder to maintain the various time pieces.  Legend has it that one such clockwinder climbed a spiral staircase in what was then a store room, to a door high in the eaves of the roof. From here he walked along one of the massive iron beams over which he threw a rope and hanged himself.  

His ghost has been seen attempting to wind an absent clock in what has since been dubbed the haunted corridor and along which security guard dogs are reluctant to patrol.

Today the imposing stone building overlooking the railway line accommodates the custodians of British history, but during the nineteenth century it accommodated the men who were actually making it. The GWR was very proud of the Swindon Works and during the late Victorian period promoted regular Wednesday afternoon public tours. 

Following the closure of the Works in 1986 plans were already under way to utilise the historic railway company buildings. The National Monuments Record Centre moved from London in 1994 to the refurbished, former GWR General Offices, a building that had been subject of alterations and ambitious rebuilding projects for more than 150 years.

All that remains today of the original 1842 building are a few window details, a doorway and lobby and a central room.  By 1870 Joseph Armstrong, Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Superintendent at Swindon’s GWR Works, had doubled the size of the building with a two storey eastern extension.  

Plans discovered during the 1990s rebuilding project revealed that by the end of the nineteenth century the central block had a glazed clerestory roof - windows set in the roof structure - suggesting that the upper floor was already being used as a drawing office.

But probably the most ambitious alterations were begun in 1904 when George Jackson Churchward added a second floor to both wings of the building.  A metal framed cage was placed on the existing walls to create a top floor measuring 31 feet (9.5 metres) at the apex of the roof.  Flooded with natural light this spacious top floor accommodated the Works drawing offices.

Other Edwardian additions to the building, which then housed a paper and plan store, a laboratory and a pay office were demolished in 1992 to make way for the NMR state of the art archive store.

The Designer Outlet Village, housed in Joseph Armstrong’s 1874 locomotive works was home to tin smiths, the brass foundry and a number of other workshops while Isambard House is one of the oldest surviving buildings dating from the first stage of construction in 1841-2.

Churchward House was the site of Archibald Sturrock, the first work’s manager’s office, a small suite of rooms built in 1846 on the corner of the iron store.  Original features include the central atrium and iron framed staircase.  The traditional lamp brackets, built to support gas lamps, were cast in the Works.

Swindon’s railway museum moved out of the old Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on Faringdon Road and into a former machine shop dating from 1846, part of Brunel’s original complex.  STEAM, the museum of the Great Western Railway opened in June 2000.   Joseph Armstrong’s 1864 extension to this building houses the museum’s Wall of Names, a memorial to the men and women who laboured inside the Works during its 143 year long history.

Views of the National Monuments Record Building

Churchward House

STEAM Museum

One of the oldest surviving buildings in the railway complex

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