THERE is a treasure trove sitting in the middle of Swindon – something so unique and irreplaceable that you could say it makes the Crown Jewels look like small change.
You can go and see it if you like. Pop along during opening hours and you’re in. No charge or anything. Just like going to the library.
Where better to house such a singular cache of riches than a building many would consider the very heart of Swindon – the refurbished Victorian offices where Sir Daniel Gooch and other giants of the steam railway age designed some of the world’s most innovative locos (Kings, Castles, Cities…) This year marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of English Heritage’s National Monuments Record Centre (NMRC) at Churchward.
It houses nothing less than a complete record of England’s architectural heritage – an immense and unrivalled archive that includes photos of pretty much every hamlet, village and town in the country along with images of millions of listed, threatened or forgotten buildings?
With its stylish arched doorways and bay windows, the coursed rubble Grade II listed building dates to the 1840s and was once the nerve centre of the Great Western Railway.
Now known as The Engine House, it is home to spacious “search rooms” where people can browse through an encyclopedic library of material amassed by countless archivists, photographers, historians and antiquarians.
The stuff readily available for instant examination is contained in hundreds of red file boxes labelled with the names of towns and villages.
Choose the one you grew up in (Highworth, Stratton St Margaret, Wanborough, Wroughton) and peruse at leisure pictures of old buildings that will invariably trigger sepia tinted memories from way back.
Many of its 12 million photographs, drawings, reports and publications on England’s archaeology, historic buildings and social history are kept in a newer wing.
Attached to what was formerly the Chief Mechanical Engineer’s Office is a nondescript extension with the appearance of a modern warehouse.
In actual fact it is a hi-tech marvel – one of Europe’s finest archive facilities, no less.
More like a laboratory than a library, the temperature is meticulously maintained to preserve sensitive material including images dating to the dawn of photography.
The £5 million complex exudes the sterile atmosphere of an operating theatre.
Mike Evans, head of archives says: “We can’t stop the decaying process, but we can slow it down.
“Our coldest vaults are now at six degrees Centigrade. It is difficult to say exactly what this means for the life of the photographs we hold.
“Certainly it means that some photos which would have decayed and been lost will now be available to our descendants 100 years from now.”
Such items have to undergo a re-acclimatisation process before they can see the light of day – a bit like a diver emerging from the deep. So if you want NMRC to fish out some yellowing photos or ancient architectural plans or drawings then you have to give them a few days’ notice.
There was a rumpus back in the early Nineties when a body called the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England sought permission to convert the derelict GWR offices into a national records centre.
The aim was to bring together millions of precious documents and photos under one roof.
But the plan was fiercely opposed by another respected heritage body, the Ancient Monuments’ Society.
The proposed four-storey archive would constitute a “grim and joyless” extension, they huffed, as well as look “extraordinarily severe, forbidding and functional.” Like a couple of ageing boxing pros the two historical societies slugged it out for a while before a compromise was reached with a third re-design.
A sound that was once familiar to countless Swindonians shrieked from the old railworks site in July, 1994 when the NMRC was officially opened.
Former railway coach builder Jack Telling, 74, of Purton, did the honours when he grinningly sounded the GWR hooter to mark the occasion.
Rare photographs from the annals of archaeology can be found there: check out the 1908 images of workmen in their caps and overalls reconstructing the 3,600 year-old stones at Avebury (14 times larger and 500 years older than Stonehenge) under instruction from the site’s owner, marmalade millionaire Alexander Keiller.
Over the years the national collection in Swindon – now known as the English Heritage Archive – has grown and grown as a result numerous initiatives.
Much of it – such as 20,000 photos of England’s industrial heritage (mills, mines etc.) – can be accessed online.
Among its most important items, says Mike are photos and plans of the nation’s most iconic structures from Stonehenge to nuclear bunkers.
Other photographic treasures include a comprehensive coverage of virtually every acre of England from the air snapped by the RAF after World War Two.
“This was a nationally important survey showing England before all the changes of the second half of the 20th Century.”
Currently they are undertaking the ‘Britain from Above’ project – digitising 95,000 images of early aerial photography from 1919.
Among the many magnificent and once private collections held there are 24,000 large glass negatives – the unique Bedford Lemere archive (1880s to 1940.) Says Mike: “They were the first firm of professional architectural photographers in England. Their photos are a unique picture of Victorian and Edwardian architecture and design.”
- TO bond with the community upon whose doorstep it had arrived, English Heritage in 2002 embarked on a project to capture the stories, photographs and memories of Rodbourne.
Local people were inspired to come forward with old snaps, school log books, maps, clippings from the Adver and assorted ephemera.
Their memories of growing up in the once sleepy backwater that takes its named from a reedy brook were also recorded by English Heritage archivists.
The photos, alone, are invaluable: a 1902 image shows an army of uniformed sewing machinists working at the Bedford Lemere Clothing Company; meanwhile sisters Doreen and Margaret Hewer are frozen in time playing in the backyard of their Redcliffe Street home, 1938.
A permanent and ongoing Living History archive to be enjoyed and studied for generations to come...
- FROM pig sties to pigeon lofts, lamp posts to lavatories, toll booths to telephone booths… and even the penguin pool at London Zoo.
Fourteen years ago one of the largest and most ambitious projects of its kind was launched in Swindon.
The aim was to capture on film the vast majority of England’s 370,000 listed buildings as a ‘moment in time’ record at the turn of the Millennium.
The £3 million Images of England initiative saw nearly 1,000 volunteer photographers despatched to snap our rich, wide-ranging and idiosyncratic architectural heritage.
Instructed to record a single, defining image of each structure they were issued with maps, rolls of film and identification cards along with a few basic rules (“Look, don’t go tramping into people’s gardens without permission – and for God’s sake don’t do anything risky or daft…”)
Their efforts took them through bogs, over stiles, onto walls and into nettle-infested foliage.
The fruits of their labours can today be viewed at a free on-line library at: on http://www.imagesofengland.org.uk/
Images of England officer Alexander Saxon said: “Some of the images are amazing. We look at them and think ‘wow – that’s great’.”
- Last year staff at the English Heritage Archives dealt with over 7,500 enquiries and received 1,500 visitors to its public search room.
The facility is open Tuesday-Friday 9.30am-5pm. As most of the archive is kept in environmentally-controlled conditions visitors are urged to call first. However people are advised to use its website which in 2013 received 850,000 visits.
The English Heritage Archive, The Engine House, Firefly Avenue, Swindon SN2 2EH. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel 01793 414600 Web www.english-heritage.org.uk/archive