Influential People from Swindon
Swindon is fortunate to have played home to many an influential figure. Writers, Poets, Engineers and Campaigners who all worked for the greater good of both Swindon and the country.
Here we explore a few of these figures some of which may be known to you, others less so. But, all worthy of note for their influence on the town that we see today.
An advocate for the railway and its workers. Gooch continuously fought for both the worker’s rights and the railways physical and financial maintenance. With his later actions in 1868 as Chairman of the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company helping the GWR narrowly, avoid bankruptcy.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel recruited Daniel Gooch in 1837. His proposal to build a GWR central repair depot in Swindon not only changed the prospects of the town but the surrounding area. He was responsible for designing the first constructed complete locomotive at the Swindon Works, A works which at its peak employed over 14,000 people.
Gooch’s passion for his work and the railway is visible in the writing of both his diaries and letters. He assisted the workers with their proposal for a Medical Fund Society with a beseeching letter to the GWR board. And, notably proposed a strong case for the railway depot location with Brunel in 1841.
Although not born in Swindon, Gooch’s work has seen him become somewhat of an adopted son, whose legacy lives both through the railway and the Works that he helped to build. Alongside his work on the railway, Gooch was elected Conservative MP for Cricklade in 1865 a seat he held until 1885.
The present Great Western Railway has named class 800 no. 800004 after Gooch, this train will run on the line that Gooch helped to create.
Daniel Gooch’s influence on our town has been well - documented in historical guides and literature.
As well as in our own TGt GWR.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed Chief Engineer for the construction of a railway between London and Bristol in 1835. His frustration with the varying standards of locomotives delivered for his new railway led to his recruitment of Daniel Gooch in 1837 and their proposal for a Central Repair Depot in Swindon.
Brunel’s work went beyond trains including both bridge and ships. He is thought to be "one of the most ingenious and prolific figures in engineering history" and "one of the greatest figures of the Industrial Revolution, [who] changed the face of the English landscape with his ground-breaking designs and ingenious constructions".
There is no doubt that Brunel was a visionary, with his dream that passengers would be able to travel from London to New York on one ticket changing from the Great Western Railway to the Great Western steamship at the terminus in Neyland, West Wales.
Today Swindon remembers Brunel’s work and legacy alongside Gooch in both the STEAM museum and town that they helped create.
While GWR's successor Great Western Railway both its old InterCity 125 power car 43003 and new InterCity Electric Train 800004 as Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Men of the Swindon’s Mechanics’ Institution
The Men of the Mechanics’ Institution are a clear example of how a group can be a driving force for change. The men’s forming of a Medical Fund Society assisted by Daniel Gooch is widely documented. However, little mention has been given to the groups sharing of literature.
Swindon is believed to have been one of the first lending libraries in the country, thanks to a few books donated and lent by friends. The initiative began in August 1843 and was open to all residents not just workers. Launching seven years before the passing of the Public Libraries Act by the UK Government.
Medical Fund Society
The Medical Fund Society was formed in 1847 by the railway workers, and for them. An idea borne from a necessity for healthcare in our once small developing market town, unequipped to cope with the exponential growth that both the railway and its workers brought to it.
In 1845 the Railway Village was still a developing site offering only basic sanitation for its workforce. And with it a hotbed for illness and disease. Pre NHS the men were forced to rely on favours and kindness when seeking medical support. Downtime was ill affordable in GWR’s economy driven environment which saw a reduction in men at the works.
Daniel Gooch was approached to be the mouthpiece for the men and present their suggestion of a Medical Fund to GWR Directors.
He wrote a pleading letter conveying the men’s wishes, stating: “Note that the men in work are keen to support those who are without.” Within a month of the Directors agreement, the men employed by the Works formed the GWR Medical Fund Society. Now known to some as the blueprint for the NHS.
Richard Jefferies was a renowned Victorian nature writer, who was heavily influenced by the town and his surroundings. Born on a farm on the edge of Coate Water Park in 1848. Jefferies wrote extensively about the environment, the railway and town. In his lifetime, Jefferies published many books and essays. Some of the most well-known being Amaryllis at the Fair, Wood Magic and After London; Or, Wild England.
Although his birthplace is now somewhat urbanised it was once part of extensive countryside and farmland. Fortunately, the house and part of its land are protected by the Richard Jefferies Trust, who run the space as a museum maintaining a great deal of its idyllic remote countryside charm.
In Jefferies short lifetime his path crossed with many a Swindon influential figure. He received encouragement from William Morris when working as a reporter for the Swindon Advertiser, wrote accounts of Gooch and Brunel in his essay “The Story of Swindon” and shared a love for Liddington Hill with fellow writer Alfred Williams.
Matthew Oates, National Trust/ BBC Radio 4 on Richard Jeferries and his work:
"Great Nature writers are voices from the past, pointing towards the future. They speak to us, always, from now. Perhaps they are set up to do this by Nature herself, having become her mouthpieces. Richard Jefferies, however, went further: he allowed Nature to absorb him, so that he became part of her. It is hardly surprising that his writings inspired our greatest Nature poet, Edward Thomas. Now, as our severance from Nature widens, so Jefferies’s messages increase in importance. The prospect of Sir David Attenborough, one of his successors, lying forgotten a century from now beggars belief – yet that is precisely what has happened to Jefferies, the most deeply spiritual of our Nature writers and the first and truest nature conservationist. His message is simple: in Nature we truly belong." Matthew Oates National Trust/BBC Radio 4
Swindon is proud to be the birthplace of Edith New. A key influential figure in the suffragettes’ fight for women’s right to vote.
A qualified school teacher, Edith resigned from her post in 1908 to join the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) travelling the country to spread the message and gather support. Edith was at the forefront of the groups' landmark actions. She was the first to break a window at Downing Street, the first to chain herself to its railings and the first to take part in a hunger strike while serving one of her many prison sentences. Her pioneering actions were widely recorded, revered by both the movement and today’s historical groups.
Throughout the campaign Edith’s commitment was unwavering. On her release from one of her many sentences, she shared: “If need be, I will repeat the offence, which was quite worth the whipping.”
In the centenary year of the securing of the women’s vote, Edith New was celebrated locally with an event held by the Swindon Suffragette Group and featured heavily in historical coverage. It is cited that the character Edith Ellyn, played by Helen Bonham Carter in the 2015 film Suffragette was based loosely on Edith New.
Alfred Williams – The Hammerman poet
Alfred Williams was a poet, author and collector of folk song lyrics. Roles that he carried out alongside his demanding full-time job as a steam hammer operator for the Swindon Railway Works.
Born in South Marston, Alfred began work for the Swindon Railway Works at fourteen working there for twenty-three years. Unlike Jefferies, he was self-taught and used the little free time he had to read and study. He published his first book of poems, “Songs in Wiltshire”, in 1909 and his most famous work “Life in a Railway Factory” in 1915 a year after he left the Railway Works due to ill health.
Although critically acclaimed, the book was disliked by the GWR magazine and went on to only sell around a dozen copies. Local workers are thought to have disassociated with the publication in fear of their employer and the ramifications of purchasing the book.
Williams published a further six books but died impoverished in 1930. Today, the “Life in a Railway Factory” has been described as “undisputedly the most important literary work ever produced in Swindon, about Swindon.”
William Morris – Founder, Swindon Advertiser and Monthly Record
Both the Swindon Advertiser and its founding Editor, William Morris, were influential not only on our town but country.
Founded in 1854, The Swindon Advertiser and Monthly Record were cited as being the first penny paper in Britain. Starting life as a solo project, William Morris’s intention for the publication was for it “to be a mouthpiece for the poor.” He wrote, printed, edited and delivered the publication to his readers. Printing the paper monthly to avoid Stamp Tax laws levied on fellow publications.
Morris’s model influenced other newspaper companies to adopt the penny priced publication initially across regions and eventually the country. Ultimately influencing the government to amend Stamp Duty laws to a more favourable version for both Morris and the industry. Allowing him to produce a weekly publication and eventually fund the move to a new premise on Victoria Road in the 1870’s.
Today, The Swindon Advertiser is produced as a daily newspaper. However, the staff left the iconic Victoria Road building April 2018 for new purpose-built offices in Edison Office Park, Dorcan.