THE sick, the crippled, the lame and the blind. “Pitiable cases of people who had scarcely moved for years and some who had been brought a considerable distance in conveyances of all descriptions.” They were all there, droves of them, desperately seeking relief, a cure... something to make life more bearable, more liveable.

Lourdes, you may think. Or maybe one of those backwater revivalist churches in a mountainous enclave of the Southern States where faith healers speak in tongues and peddle divine intervention to the maimed and incapacitated, perhaps with the assistance of a bag full of snakes.

Nope, it is Swindon town centre – Regent Street, to be precise – during the early 1870s. The occasion? A visit to the town by a man of “considerable notoriety,” who professed to be “endowed with power to cure the lame and the blind by faith and the laying on of hands.”

There was certainly a healthy turn-out, if you’ll excuse the pun, according to Old Town writer/author/chronicler-of-bygone-Swindon Frederick Large, who went along out of sheer curiosity to witness what he felt was going to be – and which he concluded, was – an embarrassing charade.

“Quite an array of sick people, young and old, assembled, many with crutches, others with spinal diseases, the spectacle being a remarkable one,” recorded Mr Large in his fine book, A Swindon Retrospective 1855-1930.

“As a preliminary, the faith healer prayed for the sufferers: then he would manoeuvre his hands over the afflicted part, command the disease to depart at once and then take the patients’ crutches away and tell him to walk or run across a raised platform.”

It was, said Large, an “utter failure.” He doesn’t go into specifics but presumably many of those seeking a remedy/miracle/solution had to be untangled from the floor.

A sad, unseemly and farcical exhibition – and one that led to the downfall of a “new doctrine of Spiritualism” in Swindon, thus shaping the fate of one of the town’s most remarkable buildings.

Disappointingly, the author does not reveal the name of the celebrity charlatan but tells us that the travesty took place in The Iron Church.

Sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb amidst redbrick buildings sprouting up in the fields to accommodate the Great Western Railway’s growing workforce, The Iron Church, as it was commonly referred to, was opened on August 4, 1861 by the “Free Christian Church”.

Well-known for the “peculiarity of its construction,” it was a substantial structure comprising a long room with 10ft high iron sides and a formidable barrel-shaped roof resembling a gargantuan garden shed.

The corrugated hulk was built next to the Wilts and Berks Canal which then flowed through the heart of today’s town centre, and could seat up to 500 people on rows of oak stained benches.

Its pastor, the Reverend Frederick Rowland Young was a “clever man with extreme views and a strong believer in Spiritualism” who held “frightening” seances at his Old Town home that reportedly resulted in the “reception of messages from departed relatives and friends in the unseen world”.

His arch enemy was none other than William Morris, out-spoken founder and editor of the Swindon Advertiser who frequently denounced Young in these pages.

Young commanded quite a following until – according to Large – the disastrous arrival of the faith healer. Such was the pastor’s loss of face that many worshippers – red faced, perhaps at their gullibility – sought spiritual solace and salvation elsewhere.

As the pastor’s flock diminished to a smaller band of diehards, The Iron Church – located roughly where today’s Canal Walk meets Regent Street – quickly became too big and was declared surplus to requirements.

While Young re-located to less spacious premises in 1874 (see panel) the iron lady “passed through many vicissitudes,” to quote Large, including a stint as a bawdy music hall.

It became, the author complained while writing his book in the 1930s, “the scene of happenings that that the strong arm of the law would not tolerate today.” However, this “new sensation,” he seemed pleased to relay, did not meet with success.

Its dancing days over, it re-emerged as a roller skating rink but this, too, was short lived so the whole thing was “razed to the ground,” reported Large.

But not quite, because in 1879 it caught the eye of John Arkell, founder of what is today Swindon’s oldest surviving business.

Just the thing, mused the elderly beer-maker, to store barrels down at the family brewery in Kingsdown. But no sooner had he bought and transported the collapsed components of The Iron Church to Upper Stratton than the women in his life – wife Edith and daughter Susan – called time on his scheme.

They commandeered The Iron Church for more spiritual purposes, insisting that it be restored for its original purpose – a place of worship – and had it re-erected as such in High Street.

Resigned to losing his barrel store Honest John, as he was known, at least got to name the church which he christened St Philip’s, after his favourite grandson.

It opened on St Stephen’s Day – Boxing Day – 1879 after which the street of its location took the name of the iron church, becoming St Phillips Road, as it is today.

Its fortunes duly revived, The Iron Church was used for worship, baptisms and – for the first time – funerals.

As the village of Stratton was irreversibly engulfed by Swindon’s sprawl, a new St Phillips church emerged in Beechcroft Road in 1904 to cater for the community’s growth.

For decades afterwards, however, the still sturdy Iron Church continued to hold its own as an all-purpose hall hosting dances, wedding receptions, concerts, wakes...

During World War Two it served the military as a cookery and domestic centre equipped with gas stoves and sewing machines.

But as Neil Young once sang ‘rust never sleeps’ and as time flew by it began to deteriorate into a draughty, leaky tank.

Swindon Advertiser photographs from 50 years or so ago show The Old Iron Girl on her last legs, cutting a sad, dilapidated, window smashed figure desperately in need of a little TLC which never came.

Around this time it became the subject of interest in our letters pages. Some readers thought it had long since vanished, with one confidently asserting it was blown down and destroyed “one stormy night” in the 1870s.

We were able to assure them that it still stood... though only just. “Now in 1967, decayed, eroded and battered, it is coming to the end of its useful life of 106 years,” we reported.

Disparagingly referred to as Swindon’s “tin tabernacle” after materialising on the virgin soil of New Swindon 155 years ago, The Iron Church was finally demolished for scrap in November, 1967, making way for houses.

It had come to life the year Charles Dickens published Great Expectations. You could say this peculiar, eccentric and cheaply erected structure out-lived all expectations by many a decade.

<li> AFTER quitting their heavy metal home Young and his Free Christians had a smaller, brick-built mediaeval style place-of-worship erected in 1875 at Regent Circus on the site now occupied by Morrisons’ supermarket.
He had a house built next to it in Rolleston Street – one of many Swindon thoroughfares obliterated during redevelopment of the Seventies.
Known as Victoria Hall, Young later sold the church to the Swindon Roman Catholics before they moved to permanent premises at Holy Rood in Groundwell Road in 1905.
In 1920 the ex-church became Swindon’s first museum, housing an immense collection of curios that avid accumulator Charles Gore (1866-1951) donated to the People of Swindon.
Ten years later this ever-expanding assemblage of artefacts re-located to Aspley House, Bath Road, Old Town 
where it resides today, eagerly awaiting a move back downtown to Swindon’s proposed Culture Quarter with a little 
help from some half- promised Lottery cash.

<li>BORN in Aldershot in 1828, the Reverend Frederick Rowland Young came to Wiltshire in the 1850s before settling at Rose Cottage, Drove Road, Swindon.
He was a Unitarian Baptist Minister but did not tow the party line so set himself up as a Free Christian to which purpose he built The Iron Church.
An avowed spiritualist, he brought several faith healers to Swindon but lost face – along with a large chunk of his congregation and presumably his income – following the events described at The Iron Church.
In 1870 Young established and edited a publication called The Christian Spiritualist.
At Rose Cottage he held what Swindon author/historian Mark Child described as “seances of a terrifying nature.”
He was also a local councillor, serving as a member of the Old Swindon (Old Town) Local Board.
A larger-than-life, controversial figure Young suddenly chucked in his ministry and quit Swindon for London in 1879 where he died aged in 65 in 1893.

<li>WE know about the travesty that occurred at The Iron Church around 140 years ago thanks to the memoirs of Frederick Large who in his final years wrote what he modesty described as “my simple little book.”
A Swindon Retrospective gathered together a life-time of personal recollections and anecdotes from living and working in Swindon, from Large’s childhood in the 1850s until the last few years of his life in the early 1930s.
Son-of-a-tailor Large (1852-1934), who lived in Old Town all of his life, worked for more than 50 years as a reporter on the North Wilts Herald, an independent paper which became the Advertiser’s sister publication.
Re-printed three times in the early 1930s, the book reflects on a wide variety of subjects, from severe Swindon winters and the deplorable nature of some local hostelries, to prize fighting in the fields of Old Town, some spirited riots and the weekly horse fair in Devizes Road.
To quote the liner notes from its 1984 republication by Swindon-based Red Brick, Large’s poignant book recalls this town as a “distant, almost dream-like world – an impression that the passage of time continues to heighten.”
The book is sadly out-of-print at the moment but can sometimes be found via a trawl around the internet or local charity shops.