IT was a spectacle seldom witnessed in this country, commented the Swindon Advertiser on Monday, June 11, 1877. All of the shops had closed for two hours on their busiest day of the week, Saturday. And every other business activity was suspended between one and three o’clock. Throughout the town blinds were drawn in many windows.

The streets, however, were thronged with people “who appeared to be coming from every direction,” the Adver recorded. Scores spilled out of trains while hundreds of Swindon GWR workers, having clocked-off at noon, rushed home to change into appropriate clothing in which to “consign their old and respected master to his last resting place on earth.”

Swindon had never seen anything like it. At the time it was without question the biggest, grandest funeral ever staged in our entire history.

The stream of mourners that poured into the grounds of St Marks Church was both unprecedented and represented “every class” of person, we reported – from prominent directors of national railway companies to the humblest GWR labourer.

At the same time a feeling of shock and disbelief continued to permeate the town as the events, according to Astill’s Original Swindon Almanac “cast a gloom over the entire community.”

Joseph Armstrong was dead at 60. It was both hard to take and hard to take in.

Armstrong was an immense and well-known, liked and highly-respected figure-about-town who played a crucial role in The Swindon Story – one of the “greats” who helped build this town and whose influence lasted many decades after his early passing.

He wasn’t just the chief engineer who ran the Great Western Railway Works for a relatively brief but intensely productive period during the mid-to-late 19th Century.

He was a man whose work affected and very much improved virtually every aspect of life in our fast-expanding community – from health and education to welfare and leisure.

As historian Mark Child put it in The Swindon Book (2013), Armstrong is “widely regarded as the architect of Swindon’s community development.”

Next week is Joseph Armstrong’s birthday. He was born 200 years ago on September 22, 1816.

Daniel Gooch, largely acknowledged as The Father of New Swindon was born just a few weeks earlier and was last month honoured with the creation of a stylish plywood bust along with a bi-centennial beer, Golden Gooch, brewed by Arkells.

Armstrong has been overshadowed by Sir Dan who famously persuaded Isambard Kingdom Brunel to build the GWR works on low-grade farmland at the foot of what we now call Old Town – thus sparking the birth of modern Swindon.

So there is no Armstrong Amber to knock back after we’ve downed a few Golden Gooches. Which is a shame, because if ever a man deserved a batch of Swindon suds brewed in his memory it is Mr Armstrong (although he has long since been honoured with a street name.) A Geordie, Joseph Armstrong grew up in Newburn-on-Tyne, close to railway pioneer Robert Stephenson’s locomotive works where, as a youngster, he was exposed to and inspired by the regular sight of cutting edge engines such as Puffing Billy.

As a lad he worked at Stephenson’s loco factory and then became an engine driver on the ground-breaking Stockton and Darlington railway – the world’s first public line to use steam-powered engines.

Like a talented footballer who eventually became a great manager, Armstrong rose swiftly through the ranks of the railway industry to attain the post of locomotive superintendent at the newly-amalgamated Shrewsbury & Birmingham and Shrewsbury & Chester Railways.

When this merged with the GWR, Gooch, who ran the Swindon Works, appointed Armstrong as boss of the northern operation in Wolverhampton.

A decade later Armstrong, 48, stepped into a very large pair of shoes. Gooch quit the Swindon Works to lend his technical expertise to laying the first transatlantic telegraph cables – for which he was rewarded with the title “sir” – and Armstrong got his job.

New Swindon still had the feel and appearance of a Wild West town back then with new houses materialising around the Works in the muddy, virgin countryside. With his long silver hair and flowing white beard, Armstrong looked every inch the frontiersmen. He could have stepped straight out of a Western.

As well as taking care of business with production of new locos and rolling stock while heading-up the factory’s explosive expansion, Armstrong threw himself into the task of looking after the multifarious needs of its workers and their families.

“His inherent attitude to the social and moral conditions of the time was very enlightened, as was his relationship with his fellow men, whether employer or employee,” wrote Alan S Peck in his 1983 book, The Great Western at Swindon Works.

For 12 years he oversaw and was a party to a variety of significant improvements which greatly enhanced the quality of life in the embryonic community of New Swindon, which under Armstrong, became a fully-fledged town (see panel.) As William Morris, founder, publisher and editor of the Swindon Advertiser, wrote: “Armstrong was a general over one of the great industrial armies of Britain”… but he was also “charitable to a fault and was ever helping the poor”.

However, the heavy load that Armstrong willingly shouldered for the benefit of the people of New Swindon was steadily taking its toll. In May, 1877 he suffered a seizure and with some reluctance agreed on expert advice to seek treatment in the spa town of Matlock Bath, Derbyshire.

Soon after leaving Swindon rumour began to spread like the proverbial wildfire through town that the esteemed engineer’s health hadn’t just swiftly deteriorated but that – unthinkable that it may seem – he was actually dead.

Having made urgent inquiries to Matlock, the Swindon Advertiser was informed – almost certainly by telegraph – that “although seriously ill, Mr Armstrong is still living and in no immediate danger.”

“We earnestly hope his valuable life may be spared for many years to come,” went our anxious but nevertheless upbeat story on Monday, June 4.

Alas, Joseph Armstrong – “one of the towering figures of Victorian Swindon,” as we put it many decades later – died at 3am the following day…

  • AS the GWR’s Locomotive, Carriage & Wagon Superintendent, Armstrong transformed the Works from what was largely a repair shop to a self-supporting engineering complex.

    The project involved the introduction of new carriage and wagon works along with a huge expansion of locomotive production.

    He oversaw the manufacture of around 600 locomotives, 2,000 carriages and 10,000 wagons.

    The Sir Daniel and Queen Class locos were introduced under his leadership. Around 40 of his engines were still running at the end of the Second World War around 75 years later.

  •  EVEN today, nearly 140 years later, the funeral of Joseph Armstrong on Saturday, June 9, 1877 is described as “one of the most memorable in Swindon’s history.” His family had not encouraged “any public demonstration,” during the proceedings, we reported – and thus the huge turn-out was “entirely spontaneous”. Some 6,000 people, including 2,000 railmen who had been at the works earlier that day squeezed into St Marks churchyard – equivalent to well over a third of the combined population of Old and New Swindon (around 16,000.) Special trains were laid on from London and Wolverhampton which pulled up at a temporary platform erected outside Armstrong’s home. Unlike Gooch and Brunel, Armstrong lived in Swindon and called his three storey villa Newburn Place, after the town of his birth. (It was demolished in 1937 but is remembered at its location, Newburn Crescent.) A 800 to 900-strong procession followed the hearse to St Marks where GWR workers had formed up in lines. Armstrong was buried in what became a family plot marked by a fine marble obelisk which can be easily found today amongst the blackberry bushes. In the book Swindon: Legacy of a Railway Town (1995) John Cattell and Keith Falconer wrote: “During his term as locomotive superintendent he had overseen virtually every aspect of New Swindon life, and had made a very considerable contribution to the development of what was no longer a village but a burgeoning town.” The Advertiser, however, put it like this: “No man had ever before occupied such a position to which there were attached such momentous consequences…”
  •  JOSEPH Armstrong helped develop the budding Mechanics Institute where a library, lectures, evening classes and many other activities helped railworkers educate themselves and lead more fulfilling lives. The pioneering institution blossomed during Armstrong’s presidency to become the Heart of New Swindon. He oversaw the development of ‘The People’s Park’ in Faringdon Road from “little more than a wilderness” alongside “a most sadly abused and neglected cricket pitch” into a pleasure garden – “a thing of beauty,” wrote the Adver – for the relaxation of railway workers and their families. He then helped instigate the annual Children’s Fete at The Park which for decades became Swindon’s greatest social gathering. Armstrong became a leading figure in the Medical Fund and the Sick Fund society which provided a range of health, medical and welfare services. And he insisted the company provide an accident hospital to cope with increasing injuries at the Works. He helped found and was director of the Swindon Water Works Company – a vital facility which at last provided New Town with adequate supplies to help stave off ill-health and disease which had plagued the fledgling community in its early decades. He was instrumental in the foundation of New Swindon Education Board which enabled the GWR to build schools. And he also found time to chair the New Swindon Board (the town council) as well as undertake a spot of lay preaching.