FROM elaborate Edwardian edifices and cavernous industrial structures to grand Victorian institutes of further education, leisure and pleasure… not to mention shops, pubs, schools, places of worship and row upon row of terraced houses.
Once, Swindon was not only a railway town but also a redbrick town. Fifty, maybe 60 years ago you could hardly go anywhere in Swindon without seeing red.
Stroll down virtually any street during say, the Fifties, and you would be surrounded by a high level concentration of redbrick homes and other structures of a similar hue.
There was something deeply satisfying about this; I’ve heard older Swindonians and conservationists say it gave the town a pleasing harmony and accord that was part of Swindon’s identity. Red brick dust, it’s in our DNA.
Swindon-raised Andy Partridge, of the globally-renowned pop group XTC, wrote a song that affectionately touched upon this aspect of his home town.
Redbrick Dream is a mournful, elegiac reflection on the dying embers of a town built on steam and coated in red (watch him perform it on YouTube in what appears to be the rusting hulk of a former GWR engineering workshop). But why is – or rather, was – Swindon a redbrick town?
You could say that it began about 150 million years ago when a large dollop of Kimmeridge Clay was deposited over chunks of what later became England, including chunks of what later became Swindon.
As well as being an ideal preservative for the remains of assorted ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, dinosaurs and pterosaurs that swam or roamed the locale during Upper Jurassic Age, it proved great stuff for making bricks.
Fast forward to the latter half of the 19th Century when the hilltop enclave of Old Swindon cast its eyes downwards onto the prodigious urban expansion of New Swindon.
An entire new town was engulfing the countryside around the ever-swelling Great Western Railway works and the demand for bricks to build it all was immense.
To feed the beast, brickworks sprang up everywhere, tapping into generous deposits of Kimmeridge Clay to produce distinctive looking rusty coloured bricks that painted the town red.
As one report put it, a “red rash of brick” swamped the countryside, transforming it into what we now know as Swindon town centre.
Another spoke of “red brick buildings that spread up the hill (Victoria Road) to meet the grey limestone buildings of the old town.”
The Adver in 1874 matter-of-factly reported that one firm, the Swindon Brick and Tile Company, had just taken an order for a million bricks “to be used at New Swindon.”
True to its ethos of becoming as self-sufficient as possible, the GWR created its own brickworks within the railworks site.
Among the other big players in Swindon’s booming brick business was Thomas Turner, whose handiwork can still be admired in Drove Road, adjoining Queen’s Park where his clay pit and kilns were once located.
To advertise his diverse and decorative range of bricks and terracotta products, Turner erected four eye-catching show houses which, with fairy tale-like patterns and giant red acorns, are still much appreciated and photographed today.
They always remind me of Hansel and Gretel’s Gingerbread House.
At least 20 brickworks arose in town to churn out the building blocks of New Swindon (see panel).
Historian Jan Flanagan, who probably knows more about Swindon bricks than anyone else, says there was an unfortunate by-product to all of this. “There were kilns all over Swindon and North Wiltshire. Wherever there was Kimmeridge Clay there were brickworks.
“But people living near them complained about the terrible smell from all those chimneys belching out smoke.” The bricks from some of these kilns were of an orangey-red hue that, in an almost poetic manner, appeared to glow as the sun set. Those that still exist still do.
Sadly, Swindon’s redbrick heritage has slowly but surely been eradicated over the decades, a victim of creeping expansion, redevelopment and modernisation.
While in some cases entire terraces have been flattened, many of our old redbrick streets still exist. I live in one myself.
But they are not uniformly red anymore, the original brickwork having in countless cases been pebble-dashed, cemented, painted over or embalmed in trendy facings.
Jan says: “Damp was a problem and unfortunately there was a perception that covering the front of your house with cement would solve this.”
Some of the town’s more notable redbrick buildings have, over the decades, been reduced to rubble.
With its fancy turrets and imposing Victorian demeanour, the Empire Theatre on the corner of Clarence Street and Groundwell Road (opened 1898, demolished 1959) is an early example.
The Wills cigarette factory and Swindon’s Victorian market place also spring to mind. Other goners have included some functional but nevertheless artfully constructed schools – all more than a century old – such as Rodbourne’s Jennings Street School and nearby Even Swindon School, which was ball and chained a few months ago.
“I objected to its demolition,” says Jan. “It’s maddening that a building of this stature should be knocked down. Any decent architect could have utilised it.”
The Rodbourne Arms, a sturdy local landmark for more than 100 years, also vanished in a cloud of red dust.
“Have you seen the modern monstrosity they’ve built in its place...?” says Jan, her words trailing off in exasperation and disbelief.
There is now concern over the unconventionally named 120 year-old Rehoboth Strict Baptist Chapel – a little jewel, or should that be ruby – in Swindon’s Back Garden that is cracking up apparently due to the gargantuan Regent Circus development next door. Who’ll cough up for any heavy duty damage there?
Surprisingly few of Swindon’s significant redbrick gems are protected with listed status: some former GWR workshops, the old ‘works’ boundary wall in Rodbourne Road, the former Clarence Street School, the town hall, Old Town’s Belmont Brewery among them.
It was with some glee among conservationists, then, that the boarded-up yet stately red-bricked former Technical College – built at the foot of Vic Hill in a Flemish-Baroque style – has just been awarded Grade II listed status amidst fears for its future.
A few weeks ago, as concern was mounting, veteran councillor and former Mayor of Swindon Stan Pajak said of the grand 119 year-old landmark: “There is nothing better than maintaining your heritage and that is an important building.
“The college has been let down over the last few years.
“It’s been in decay, so the thing to fight is any further decay.”
Meanwhile, Jan – along with a raft of local historians, conservationists and people who would simply like to see what remains of Swindon’s architectural heritage preserved – want more remnants from our fast fading red brick town similarly protected.
“There’s a huge amount of these red brick buildings in Swindon that aren’t listed and which a lot of us feel should be,” she says.
You don’t need to be gazing at Swindon’s heritage through rose (or red) tinted spectacles to appreciate that sentiment.
No-one manufactures bricks in Swindon today but the town and its environs are dotted with the remnants of these once thriving, noisy, reeky hives of industry.
Historian Jan Flanagan is compiling a list of Swindon’s long gone brickworks and has so far uncovered 20 of them.
Other brick-making operations also existed in surrounding areas such as Wroughton, Highworth and Purton.
Much of her work involves scouring ancient copies of the Swindon Advertiser looking for references to brickworks.
One of the biggest was the Swindon Brick and Tile Company based at the site now occupied by Halford’s and The Range in Fleming Way. Its clay pit was filled in to become the green space at Spring Gardens.
The Plaum’s Pit Lake in Cheney Manor was also site of a brickworks, having been excavated for its Kimmeridge Clay before it was used for bathing and fishing.