HE was the grandson of one of the most celebrated and controversial figures not just of the Victorian Age but very likely of all time and a renowned journalist, writer and author in his own right. But what was Bernard Darwin CBE doing in Swindon 70 years ago?

He was here to research a book charting the history of a pioneering local institution – one that would have lasting consequences for millions of people in this country over decades to come as well as greatly raise Britain’s standing in the world.

“It is a very wonderful institution, unique in its scope and magnitude. How remarkable it is I think nobody can possibly realise without seeing it,” recorded the man who called Charles Darwin grandpa.

“I write necessarily as a layman and an outsider who has paid a too brief visit to Swindon, packed with intensely interesting sightseeing.” He had diligently swatted up on his subject but quickly realised, upon arrival, that he was “not in the least degree prepared.”

Bernard Darwin went on: “What I saw and what I must presently try to describe far surpassed anything that I had imagined from the written word... I am afraid I shall not be able to do the Society justice, however hard I must try.”

He was, course, referring to the Great Western Railway Medical Fund Society – the body that famously delivered “cradle to the grave” health care to GWR workers and their families paid for with weekly contributions from their wage packets.

Darwin had been commissioned to write a book marking the fund’s centenary in 1947.

With no little irony and “rather sadly” as he put it, 1947 also marked the end of the line for railway health care in Swindon, making way as it did for the NHS.

It has been well documented how the GWR Medical Fund did the groundwork and became the inspiration – you could say provided the blueprint – for the National Health Service.

Today the structure at the heart of the fund – the Milton Road Health Hydro – is enveloped in controversy after the private sector company which now leases the building from Swindon Council, announced it was going to close one of its two historic Victorian pools.

Understandable outrage greeted Greenwich Leisure Limited’s plan to shut the smaller pool where children and new swimmers build up confidence but which has sprung a leak that the company insists is too costly to repair.

Generations of Swindon youngsters – including my own – learned how to swim there. Who are these people who make so lightly with our heritage? They are businessmen who have been given the opportunity by the council to squeeze some cash out of our historic health hydro which was built and paid for by the People of Swindon.

A well-supported petition has been launched against the closure and while the row surrounding one of Swindon’s best known and most important buildings rumbles on it seems timely – to nick a line from Bernard Darwin – “to plunge into its history.”

Founded by the GWR in 1847 initially to help staff and their families pay for doctors, the medical fund society was by 1860 looking to provide a hospital at the Railway Village.

Around the same time they got wind of a new health trend sweeping the nation... The Turkish Bath.

Just the thing they concluded for oily, greasy, sweaty GWR workers to cleanse-up and chill-out following some hard graft at The Works.

Installed at the Mechanics Institute, these were soon joined by more conventional ‘slipper baths’ and showers. It may not seem so today, but a century-and-a-half ago the provision of such facilities in a working class domain was a bold, visionary move.

Very popular they became too and by the late 1880s the demand for full-on public bathing – an indoor swimming pool – coincided with a steady increase in the number of GWR employees... thus ensuring more cash in the fund’s kitty.

The result was the society’s flagship structure – “a bathing establishment for the company’s servants.”

The now long-familiar redbrick structure on the corner of Milton Road and Faringdon Road – known for decades simply as The Baths – has been used by generations of Swindonians ever since its’ opening in 1892.

As well as two swimming pools (the larger one f o r m e n , the smaller for women and children) and a washroom for the adjacent GWR Cottage Hospital, those far-thinking medical society fellows threw some other key facilities into the mix.

As English Heritage’s 2009 publication Great Lengths – The Historic Indoor Swimming Pools of Great Britain, put it: “Within the building, uniquely, there was a medical dispensary and a range of private consulting rooms.”

True to the company’s do-it-yourself ethos, ever y element of the complex was either designed in the GWR’s drawing office or supplied from company stores.

By 1899, when a seamless cut and warm colour palette at Toni and Guy’s was still two World Wars away, an official “hairdressing saloon” opened at Milton Road, while Russian as well as Turkish Baths were present along with the common or garden slipper variety.

Over the years myriad essentials were delivered at this multi-purpose people’s palace of health and wellbeing that pre-dated the popular rise of the supermarket by putting almost everything under one roof.

The bustling emporium incorporated GPs, dentists, pharmacists, opticians, masseurs and chiropodists along with clinics of a skin, psychological, physiotherapist and paediatric nature.

Oh yes, and an operating theatre and outpatients department, too. Not bad for a factory essentially set-up to build and repair locos and rolling stock.

The two pools – 20 and 37 yards long – were heated with an ingenuity Swindon folk had come to expect from the GWR.

Water pumped from Kemble nearly 20 miles away was heated at The Works and piped a couple of hundred yards away to The Baths. It was then relayed to The Works, reheated and sluiced back to Milton Road, providing constant hot running water.

Come the 21st Century, the complex was still one of the few in the UK where private baths and showers could be had.

A 1987 refit saw the main bath’s old fashioned pool-side cubicles dismantled, but to quote English Heritage it had still retained its “uncluttered lightness” and arched gallery overlooking the deep end.

“Moreover, the founding spirit of the place lives on,” as Ian Gordon and Simon Ingliss acknowledged in Great Lengths seven years ago.

“Now rebranded by Swindon Borough Council as a Health Hydro, there is a modern gym and a natural health clinic offering a range of complementary therapies.”

However, a key element of The Baths, a charming Victorian swimming pool in which Swindon people have been splashing around in for 124 years, could soon go under.

That’s right, some more Swindon heritage in imminent danger of going down the plug hole...

  •  CHANCES are there are people reading this who would not exist but for The Baths... or rather The Majestic Ballroom into which it was regularly transformed. The large pool at the Milton Road Baths has been boarded over and deployed for a variety of uses when required. Darwin wrote that the “big bath” made for a “splendid hall” with a gallery (its wrought iron framed balcony) running around it. “It is used for roller skating and makes an admirable ballroom” he wrote in 1947, adding that it also hosted “many big and heated political meetings.” It was used as a covered market too, on occasions. But The Baths really came alive when it morphed into The Majestic, a venue that could squeeze up to 2,000 people onto its springy dancefloor. Jazzman Johnnie Stiles, Swindon’s King of Swing, called the shots as his band’s syncopated rhythms provided the soundscape for a many a local romance. The Majestic was The Place To Be to jive, jitterbug and blow away those post war blues from the Late Forties until the Dawn of the Sixties when the greasy upstart rock’n’roll kicked-in, confining swing to the realms of nostalgia.
  •  WHEN duty called The Baths did its bit for king and country, having twice been called into action as a temporary hospital for wounded soldiers. Weeks after the onset of World War One the building was commandeered by The War Office who paid the GWR Medical Fund Society £12-a-week rent. Both pools were drained to become wards at a 100-bed facility that was run with military precision by the women of the Swindon Red Cross. Blankets and pillows were provided by the GWR along with other items including “an endless supply of bedsprings for the making of new mattresses.” During Christmas of 1914, Swindonians arrived with armfuls of plum puddings, fruit and cigarettes for our bedridden boys. Battered and bloodied from the Front, more than 3,000 were treated there until the hospital was transferred to a new 500- bed facility at Chiseldon Camp in July, 1915. The draining of pools occurred three decades later when The Baths were used as a casualty clearing station during World War Two. Around 500 wounded men were conveyed there from the beaches of Normandy, via RAFs Wroughton and Lyneham following the D-Day Invasion, although their numbers were “mercifully much smaller than had been