IT was a rare retreat from the noisy, teeming streets where horse-drawn conveyances vied for elbow room with trams, cyclists and motorised vehicles in a town centre dominated by the clank and grind of one of the largest industrial complexes of its kind in the world.

Imagine the peace and tranquillity, even if it could only be savoured for an hour or so, that this area of greenery, elegance and quietude offered not very far at all from the madding crowd.

With its well kept lawns, pretty flower beds, rose clustered rustic archways, rural walkways and neat lines of fruit trees, it must have been a glorious spot. But best of all was its raison d’etre – a huge oblong of steely water roughly the size of two football pitches.

While the Great Western Railway Works was churning out heavy duty locos just down the road, here people could fish from the banks, have a dip, glide around in canoes, punts or rowing boats, or simply enjoy the view.

But where is this oasis of calm, this temporary shelter from the hubbub and routine of industrialised New Swindon? Sadly, there are very few people alive now who could actually remember The Lost Lake of Swindon.

Back then, in its Edwardian heyday, it was the Beatrice Street Lake, located where Central Swindon merges with Gorse Hill – just off Great Western Way, a stone’s throw from TK Maxx.

Like Coate Water about two miles away, and the 147 lakes of the Cotswold Water Park about 15 miles away, the Beatrice Street Lake was not the work of Mother Nature but of man.

Whereas Coate was dug as a storage pool for the Wilts & Berks Canal, and the Cotswold Water Park continues to evolve as a result of ongoing sand and gravel extractions, the Beatrice Street Lake was originally a clay pit.

Swindon was dotted with them during the boom years of the mid-to-late 19th Century when bricks (red ones, as it turned out) were urgently required to cater for the rampant expansion of the town and the railway works.

After all the required clay had been scooped out for the purpose of brick-baking, the pits slowly filled up with water to become redundant pools.

Enter property developer George Whitehead (1857-1917) who built Whitehead Street in 1892 (which he named after himself,) Florence Street in 1894 (which he named after his sister) and Beatrice Street in 1899 (which he named after his daughter.) He also provided Beatrice Street with a pub The Princess (which he may or may not have named after the tragic figure-of-the-day Princess Ka’iulani of Hawaii*) before turning his attention to the filthy lagoon at the back of the premises.

Most of us would probably have seen it as a mucky, partially filled crater bordered by crumbling banks that probably posed a danger to youngsters.

What Whitehead imagined was a leisure and pleasure park, a heavenly haven for the People of New Swindon with an emphasis on boating and other frolicsome, water-based activities.

Central Swindon’s very own Coate Water –much smaller yet much nearer.

Snapping up the plot, he proceeded to transform Beatrice Street’s watery blot-on-the-landscape into a splendid sanctum and beauty spot in the midst of a fast spreading urban sprawl.

Whitehead’s nature-friendly, environmental regeneration project must have been a sight to behold if the photos that survive are anything to go by.

Writing to the Swindon Evening Advertiser in 1972, 76 year-old Mr RS Heavens, of Blunsdon, who once lived in Beatrice Street, provided a graphic account of its splendours.

“I well remember the lake from around 1904-1912. It was one of the prettiest and best kept pleasure grounds for miles around.”

He recalled that its owner George Whitehead was also landlord of the pub that he built during “the good old days when beer was two pence a pint.”

The park, he went on, had a “very large and well-kept lawn, around which was a beautiful flower border along with apple, pear, peach and cherry trees.

“Around the lake was a gravel path with rustic arches, rambling roses growing all over them. Then there was a larger rustic building with tables and chairs inside where one could have refreshments. The main attractions were boating, swimming and fishing.

“There was some very fine fish taken from the lake and several kinds of rowing boats, punts and canoes.

“The lake at night looked beautiful. All around the water’s edge were different coloured fancy glass vases each containing a candle.

”This was a very pretty sight in the evening as people danced on the lawns.”

Whitehead charged children a penny to enter his public garden of delights (the price of the Swindon Advertiser back then) and adults’ tuppence.

A Park North resident ‘JJJ’ wrote to us in 1977 saying he often visited the lake with an aunt and two cousins where they wandered around the grounds and watched the boating. “This was the done thing on a Sunday in those far off, peaceful days.”

JJJ went on: “The owner fenced the ground, laid out the paths and flower beds, improved the sides of the pit and made the landing stage.

“He then proceeded to tap the town’s water supply, laying a pipe underground to the pit and filling it gradually. In hot weather when the water fell he only had to open the water valve to top it up.

“I do not know how the authorities knew about the water supply being tapped, nor do I know of any penalty imposed. But the lake and its grounds now remain just a memory…”

*Described as beautiful, intelligent and determined, Princess Ka’iulani unsuccessfully fought against the annexation of Hawaii by the United States and died after catching fever aged 23 in 1899 – the year The Princess was built.

  • SO what were lifeboats doing in the middle of land-locked Swindon more than a century ago – and why, with no little irony, did one of the vessels have to be ‘rescued’ from an embarrassing predicament?
    For some years from the late Victorian era, Swindon hosted an annual Lifeboat Day that involved a special committee which organised proceedings and raised funds for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
    A lifeboat would arrive by train from the South Coast at the now long closed Old Town railway station with full crew in sou’westers and cork life-jackets. Winched onto a trailer “with large iron-rimmed wheels” it would be drawn by horses – usually those belonging to “well known haulier Tom Kembrey“– to a suitable spot of water for the big launch.
    Often it was Coate but occasionally it was Beatrice Street. With the crew on-board and armed with collection boxes, the trailer would arrive at the lake via Devizes Road, Victoria Road, Princes Street and Corporation Street.
    Thirty nine years ago Reader JJJ (see main story) recalled on one such occasion: “Here the boat was launched and the crew staged a gala of life-saving and rescuing men from the water.
    “One stunt which alarmed the crowds until they realised it was part of the display was when the crew all lined one side of the boat until it tilted throwing the whole crew into the water.”
    Boat rides were given to further swell the coffers. But on one Lifeboat Day – believed to be 1910 – there were red faces when they couldn’t get the damn boat out of the lake.
    RS Heavens who witnessed the event, recalled in the Adver letters pages 44 years ago: “Every effort was made to get the lifeboat off the lake but failed.
    “The grass bank was cut away to make a gradual slope and a team of horses were brought to the lake. They made several attempts but each failed and the grass cut up terribly.”
    Finally, after a few days of huffing and puffing in the rain, a traction engine hauled the stricken craft onto dry land with a sturdy wire cable.
  • AT some stage the Beatrice Street Lake ceased to be a pleasure park but its golden era was almost certainly from its opening circa 1904 until owner George Whitehead’s death 99 years ago.
    Over the decades it became a favoured haunt for swans and other wildlife and popular with locals who enjoyed surveying a tree enshrouded lake from their bedroom windows.
    In 1972 concerned Florence Street resident Cyril Legg voiced fears that the lake, enclosed by Mr Whitehead’s now rusty railings, had become contaminated.
    As a lad he skated on the lake during hard winters and had always loved watching the swans circle over the willows before landing.
    But he hadn’t seen the swans for five years and oil was floating around on the surface. “The water is polluted – the smell hangs in the air – and part of the bank is used as a rubbish tip.”
    Confirming that it had been contaminated from a nearby factory, the council in 1974 filled it in and used the land to extend St Marks playing fields and park.
    Back then a faded sign could still be found in Beatrice Street saying “To the lake and pleasure gardens” as if pointing back to a lost era.