Famously engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Great Western Railway (GWR) was founded in 1833 and came into service five years later in 1838.
Connecting London with the West of England and South Wales, GWR quickly became known as ‘God's Wonderful Railway’ and was regarded as one of the crowning achievements of Victorian era engineering.
Encompassing a number of key locations across our region – many of which are still in existence today - GWR’s locomotives and rolling stock were built and maintained at Swindon Works, which opened in 1841.
Such is the railway’s iconic status; numerous stories circulate which speculate upon how the railway came to pass through Swindon. Perhaps one of the most famous suggests that whilst sounding out potential locations for the Works, Brunel declared the spot that where a stone landed to be its centre.
More than likely, however, the fact that Swindon is equidistant between both Bristol and Reading and London and Cardiff was perhaps the most compelling factor!
What isn’t in dispute though, is the fact that Swindon Works proved transformational for the town.
Swindon’s population went from 2,500 to 12,500 in the space of 50 years, turning it into a bustling railway town, whose population today is almost 220,000.
The catalyst to Swindon’s boom was the emergence of GWR village, which was built in the immediate surroundings of the Swindon Works.
In a similar vein to Cadbury’s Bourneville, GWR Village was a product of Victorian values, an initiative of GWR bosses to provide housing, education and healthcare for employees right on the Work’s very doorstep. Hence, Swindon was not only the largest railway works in the world, it was a revolution in social innovation as well.
Such was the communitarian thinking of the time, that at the very centre of GWR Village was GWR Park – a park which was overlooked by the eponymously named Park House.
Park House was GWR Village’s doctor’s surgery, treatment rooms and living quarters. At its peak it provided health care for 14,000 Swindon Works employees and their families.
Funded by the GWR Medical Fund and presided over by Doctors Charles Whiston Hind, George Money Swinhoe and more, Park House’s 100-year revolution in healthcare started a ripple effect that had impact far beyond Swindon.
And one we all cherish to this day.
Nye Bevan, the Welsh Labour Party politician credited with spearheading the establishment of the NHS, was a great admirer of the healthcare model that GWR had pioneered in Swindon and took it as inspiration for the National Health Service.
He famously remarked: “There was a complete health service in Swindon. All we had to do was expand it to the country.”
A spacious yellow brick building with high ceilings, large windows, period features and stunning views across the park, Park House became the accommodation for the GWR medical staff in 1907 and continued as a medical examination centre for some years.
Swindon Works was eventually closed in 1986, but the spirit of GWR lives on in Grade II* listed Park House.
After Swindon Works closed, over 1,300 British Rail engineers lost their jobs. Male unemployment in Swindon rose to 7,221. British Rail was Swindon’s largest employer and had been ever since it was established in 1948.
This had a devastating impact on the economy of the town, so much so that Thamesdown Borough Council (now known as Swindon Borough Council) got behind efforts to help with the effects arising from the closure. Shortly thereafter GWE was born.
GWE or Great Western Enterprise, now known as the Swindon & Wiltshire Initiative, was set up to help Swindon’s communities prosper through providing help and advice to companies in order to encourage job creation and economic growth.
Just like GWR a hundred years previous, GWE was inspired by, and, held true, the core values of community cohesion and wellbeing, and over the years GWE has made a significant impact across Swindon & Wiltshire.
Due to these beginnings, it was always the intention of its patrons to return GWE to its spiritual home - Railway Village. The jewel in the crown of which being Park House.
Park House was eventually acquired and re-opened by GWE as a business centre in 1998. Bank of England Governor Eddie George cut the ribbon at its unveiling.
These days, Park House remains a thriving business space in the heart of Swindon’s vibrant railway village, with GWE’s predecessor the Swindon & Wiltshire Initiative and many other local businesses operating from the premises.
To find out more about the work of the Swindon & Wiltshire Initiative click here. For information on Park and House and virtual tour visit: https://www.businesswest.co.uk/grow/serviced-offices/park-house-swindon