‘THE Borough Guide to Swindon containing 16 Photographic Views of the Principal Places of Interest of The Town and Neighbourhood.’ All yours for the princely sum of one penny – or ‘1d’ in the days when decimalisation was at least half-a-century away.

Whereas one-pence – the price of the Adver back then – was not to be scoffed at you would definitely have got your money’s worth, I’d have thought.

It is funny what you can pick up for a few quid while rummaging through the nooks and crannies of charity shops, car boot sales or junk-cum-antique emporiums: scratched toys, obsolete gadgets, yellowing Bunty annuals, dead peoples’ jewellery, must-have Jim Reeves gospel collections... and the first ever picture guide to Swindon.

At least, I presume it’s the first, being about 100 years old. The small print on the flimsy, faded blue, creased-down-the-middle cover of this particular edition – which I assume is an original though it could be a re-print – enables us to roughly date the publication. It says: “Photos by Hoopers, Cromwell Street, Swindon.”

Anyone who knows a bean about Swindon history will know that William Hooper was our ace largely-Edwardian-era photographer – a man whose relatively short career as a professional snapper (less than two decades) left us with a treasure trove of priceless images of our town of yesteryear.

Hooper’s photographs – be they street scenes, buildings, portraits or rural vistas (there was a lot of countryside within what is now built-up Swindon in the olde days,) materialise on various local nostalgia websites virtually on a daily basis.

It is fascinating poring over these monochrome images – head-shakingly wondrous to see how views of a century or so ago have changed so dramatically as to be almost, and in many cases totally, unrecognisable today.

The guide was produced between 1906 and 1921 – the years when Hooper ran his fancifully monikered The Day and Electric Light Studio from Number 6 Cromwell Street – an area flattened half-a-century later to make way for town centre redevelopment.

Tastefully yet unpretentiously produced, the pamphlet – Swindon’s first tourist guide, if you like – reveals to the outside world during the early 20th Century that there was more to our gritty Wiltshire town than a sprawling, noisy railway factory.

So what were, according to the eminent ’tog, ‘our 16 principal places of interest’ 100 years ago?

The guide begins with a Very Big Statement, which says: “Borough of Swindon population exceeds 50,000.” In 1864, the year of Hooper’s birth, 7,287 people lived here – so it had grown almost seven times in around 50 years.

Next to the caption is a photograph that signifies Swindon’s rising stature as an important industrial powerhouse thanks to the Great Western Railway, Brightwell Binyon’s 1891 redbrick Town Hall, looking much the same then as it does now.

Flip the page and Swindon’s growth is further emphasised with bustling image of ‘Swindon, The Tram Centre’. This was the junction of Bridge Street and Fleet Street that was referred to by Swindonians as ‘The Centre’. Ours was the country’s smallest tram system but at least by then we were important enough to warrant one.

Another tram pops up later (it might even be the same one) negotiating horse-drawn conveyances as it turns from Victorian Road into Bath Road. Dominating the scene is the imposing Congregational Church, built in 1866, flattened in 1949.

The Technical College too, at the bottom of Vic Hill (currently undergoing a makeover having happily survived a possible threat of extinction) is another fine redbrick structure that underlined the town’s emergence as a centre of learning and significance. ‘Swindon From The Cemetery’ is a panoramic view from Radnor Street hardly recognisable today – much of the roofs and chimneys of the old New Swindon that peep up in the distance (including in all likelihood Hooper’s studio) having long since been reduced to dust of a rusty red hue.

The GWR Park in Faringdon Road is captured during a faraway era when it was grandly decorated with meticulously manicured flower beds, ornate classically-styled park furniture and an extensive glasshouse.

Our octagonal, cast iron Victorian bandstand in the Town Gardens was photographed by Hooper long before the square clock tower was added in 1927… and about a century before the lead roof was pilfered for scrap. Another view of the Town Gardens that would be tough to square today shows the former lake – since remodelled – with its fussy central sculpture.

The boathouse at ‘The Reservoir, Coate’ is also a structure from the past preserved in time, courtesy of images such as these.

It is one of two idyllic photographs of Swindon’s best loved spot included in the guide.

Nearby Richard Jefferies House is another rural bygone rendered almost unrecognisable now by modern-day traffic.

Ditto Drove Road where farmers once drove their cattle up to Old Town market and which, a century ago, was a chocolate box-like country lane flanked with towering trees.

Church-wise, we get St Marks, the railway church, and a somewhat spooky image of the ivy-clad remnants of the ‘Old Parish Church’ in The Lawn.

Swindon’s medieval remains, of course, are now sadly padlocked to keep vandals and ne’er do wells at bay.

Hooper did not consider the likes of The Lawn manor house – home of our lords and masters the Goddard family – worthy of inclusion. Or perhaps he was instructed not to.

Two photos focus on the very reason for the Rise of Swindon – the railways.

One is a glorious shot of cloth-capped GWR men pouring through the Railway Village after clocking off.

Another, and it’s virtually impossible to pin down the location, highlights the power and the glory of steam.

Entitled ‘The Kings Special,’ it shows scores of people who have gathered to admire a GWR-built loco as it belts through the countryside near (or possibly in) Swindon.

Strange though. Those mighty, Swindon-built King class locos did not emerge from the Works until 1927 – six years after Hooper retired.

And there were no royal visits here during the period when the guide was produced.

A bit of a head scratcher, that.

  •  WILLIAM Hooper can lay a decent claim to being Swindon’s first press photographer.
    He was quickly on-hand in 1906 to capture one of Swindon’s worst tragedies when a tram lost control and crashed at the bottom of Victoria Road, killing two people and injuring 30.
    Quickly processing his photographs, they were hours later making their way by train to London and appeared in all of the national papers. 
    Hooper’s image of the prostrate tram surrounded by on-lookers remains one of the best known photographs ever taken in Swindon.
    Many of his images won awards while he also created a unique postcard after capturing a flash of lightning over Swindon while perched on the roof of his studio during a thunderstorm. 
  •  HAVE camera, will travel. First on a tricycle with an attached basket to accommodate his gear, and later on a motorcycle, William Hooper was a well-known man-about-town in early 20th Century Swindon.
    He roved the area and farther afield, taking photographs of just about any subject he felt worthy of preserving on film and from which he could make money.
    He turned hundreds of images into postcards during a pre-telephone era when this was a cheap and efficient way of communicating with friends and relatives. 
    Today Hooper’s images grace countless local history books and are widely shared and appreciated by history buffs on a string of internet nostalgia sites.
    Photography was just a hobby for William Hooper (1864-1955) when he lost part of his right leg while working at a locomotive repair shop at the Great Western Railway during the 1890s.
    Fitted with a wooden leg, he was unable to continue at the works, so he set up as a professional photographer at premises in Market Street in 1903.
    Three years later he re-located to nearby Cromwell Street where he worked from premises that he somewhat fancifully called The Day and Electric Light Studio.
    Photographers had been operating in Swindon for more than four decades but what set Hooper apart was the clarity of his images as a result of technical expertise and an insistence on top-of-the-range lenses.
    His work ethic was enormous as he covered a large range of events – fairs, markets, sports meetings – alongside run-of-the-mill street scenes that are today so illuminating.
    As well as taking him in and around Swindon, Hooper’s work saw him travel as far afield as Bristol and Salisbury.
    He was often accompanied on photographic assignments by his ‘assistant’ – his wife Mary – in a motorcycle sidecar.
    Hooper retired in 1921, leaving an outstanding legacy of work that places him among Swindon’s greatest historians… as well as the creator of its first tourist guide.