An icon arrived in Swindon

Giuseppe Garibaldi

Giuseppe Garibaldi

First published in News Swindon Advertiser: Photograph of the Author by

LIONISED like few other popular figures of the 19th Century he was singularly acknowledged as ‘Hero of the Two Worlds’ for his unremitting endeavours on behalf of embattled masses fighting for freedom and independence on either side of the Atlantic.

Russian peasants carried icons of him, during the American Civil War the Union and the Confederacy both sought his patronage, to the Italians he remains father of their nation and the British honoured him in their own idiosyncratic way. That’s right, they named a biscuit after him.

It is a little-known fact that exactly 150 years ago the great revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi caused scenes of uproar, joy and exhilaration in the burgeoning railway town of Swindon.

With the exception of world war victory celebrations, such a public display of unbridled zeal was probably not repeated here until over a century later when some chaps returned from Wembley with a splendid three handled trophy triumphantly tucked under their collective arm.

Between his numerous military and political campaigns involving struggles for liberation in Italy, France, Uruguay and Brazil, Garibaldi briefly came to England in 1864 and an exhibition is currently running in the capital to mark the occasion’s 150th anniversary.

At one stage during the proceedings he was on a train which stopped in Swindon… a break that by sheer force of public demand was extended for some time so that the people of this town – and in particular, its force of GWR factory workers – could cheer their hearts out and have a good old gander at a true living legend.

We know this because the event was recorded by Frederick Large in his book of recollections and memories, A Swindon Retrospective 1855-1930 (Red Brick Publishing).

The population of Swindon at this time – that is, the ancient village on the hill and the new town springing up around the fledgling railway works – was, give or take a few births and deaths, 7,287.

Fred (1852-1934) was 12 years old when Garibaldi fever gripped the community. Sadly, he gives no indication as to where the train was going or where it had come from: perhaps the “the famous emancipator of slavery in Italy,” as Fred refers to him, had sailed to Bristol and was on his way to London.

However, while writing about the event more than 60 years later, he nicely re-captured the buzz at Swindon station as a loco conveying the international hero rolled in.

“It caused no little excitement in the town, especially amongst the (GWR) factory employees,” he recalled.

“All the men came out of the Works, down the line, to meet the train, which had scarcely drawn up before the roofs of the carriages were scaled from one end of the train to the other, so eager were they to catch a glimpse of the warrior, whose name had become a household name throughout the world.

“Imagine my gratification when, although quite a youngster, I found myself, to my great surprise, immediately opposite the door of the carriage from which Garibaldi and his notable fellow passengers made their exit and went to the refreshment rooms.”

It is not difficult to imagine Fred relishing the memory, perhaps experiencing a goosebump or two, as he typed on: “I seized an opportunity to touch the hem of his garment.”

Phew!

“And to think that I had accomplished such a feat raised me in my own estimation very much indeed. Long and continued cheering greeted the arrival and departure of the train.”

  • Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807 –1882) was an Italian general, politician and liberator who played a huge role in the history of Italy.

He personally commanded and fought in numerous military campaigns that led, after many years, to the formation of a unified Italy. 

He has been called the ‘Hero of Two Worlds’ because of his military enterprises in Brazil and Uruguay as well as Italy and also on behalf of the Republic in France. 

His exploits earned him a considerable international reputation and many of the era’s greatest intellectuals and writers, such as Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, showered him with praise. 

Britain and the United States helped him a great deal, offering financial and military support in difficult circumstances.

He is also associated with the red shirts worn by his volunteers in lieu of a uniform.

  • When Garibaldi arrived in England in 1864 his reception was considered unprecedented for a foreign visitor.

He was greeted by vast crowds, met the Prince of Wales and dined with politicians and nobility.

He was also seen by thousands of ordinary working people at specially organised rallies. 

The great liberator planted trees, signed visitors books and was awarded honorary memberships of numerous bodies while souvenirs and books were produced to commemorate the visit. 

The Garibaldi in London exhibition lasts until August 29 at the Library and Museum of Freemasonry.

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