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A Brief History of Swindon

by Crista Sanderson, Feb 2019

Swindon was originally an Anglo-Saxon settlement atop a limestone hill. Its name is believed to have come from the Old English words “swine” and “dun”, probably meaning “pig hill”. 

The Swindon estate was first owned by an Anglo-Saxon thane called Leofgeat, however after the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest, it was given to Wadard, a knight in the service of Odo of Bayeaux, who was the brother of the king. 

Swindon, for the majority of its history, was a market and bartering town. The old market still sits atop a hill and is known as “Old Town”.  However, like many other towns and cities in the UK, the industrial revolution was about to change this. The Wilts and Berks canal was built in 1810 and the North Wilts canal in 1819, bringing more outside trade to Swindon. 

Between 1841-42, Swindon began to become more of a railway town. Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Swindon Works was built as a construction and repair yard for locomotives on the Great Western Railway (GWR).

In the 1850’s, the New Swindon Improvement Company raised funds for a programme of self improvement and paid the GWR £40 / year for its new location in the heart of the now thriving railway town. This was groundbreaking and led to Swindon having some of the best educated manual workers in the country. 

In 1871, the GWR workers had a small amount deducted from their wages in order to fund a healthcare service. The doctors could then prescribe medicines or treatments to the workers and their families for free. In 1878, the healthcare service even began creating artificial limbs and a few years later, it started a dental practice. Doctors could even prescribe baths or haircuts. This healthcare service in Swindon had formed the model for what would go on to become the NHS.

Swindon continued on a path of human development and focus on the railway industry. For the first half of the 20th century, the railway works was the largest employer in swindon and one of the largest in the whole of the UK, employing more than 14,500 people. 

David Murray John was Swindons town clerk from 1938 to 1974 and was a major player in the post war regeneration of Swindon. He signed off on the construction of the tallest building in Swindon today, which is named after him. His successor, David Maxwell Kent, continued these policies of development after 1973. The Greater London Council withdrew from the Town Development Agreement and the local council continued public works independently. 

The major growth in population and rapid economic diversification saw Swindon develop all the features of a successful urban area.

In February of 2008, The Times included Swindon in their list of “20 best places to buy property in Britain. The average household income in Swindon is among the highest in the country. 

Swindon clearly deserves its reputation for being a town of pioneers and innovators and its history clearly reflects its ability to adapt to and overcome all problems it faces.