How town was put on the map by Brunel

First published in News Swindon Advertiser: Photograph of the Author by

This year is the 200th anniversary since the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.There are activities taking place across the region to celebrate the anniversary and one of them is the Great Reading Adventure. Last week the Advertiser published extracts from the novel Around the World in Eighty Days, which everyone in the town is being encouraged to read. Today we look at how Brunel helped shaped Swindon into the town it is today.

WHILE the fictional Phileas Fogg was taking on a bet that challenged him to travel around the world in 80 days, Isambard Kingdom Brunel had already opened up a new world to Swindonians.

Although the engineer was not born in the town, we have every reason to adopt him.

Until Brunel and his plans for the Great Western Railway arrived, Swindon was little more than a sleepy market town on top of a hill.

It was his assistant Daniel Gooch, who had been told to find a suitable site, who suggested to Brunel that Swindon might be a suitable site for his new railway works.

Originally Brunel, who was voted as the second Greatest Briton in a BBC TV series, had been looking to build on an area in Savernake Forest.

When the pair first visited the site in Swindon there was only green fields, and they agreed it was the ideal location.

But it was that one decision that saw Swindon's population rise from just under 2,000 in 1841 to more than 180,000 today.

As the railway works expanded throughout the 19th Century, so did the town, stretching down the hill from Old Town to what is now the town centre.

Brunel was just 27 when he was commissioned to build the Great Western Railway, affectionately known as God's Wonderful Railway, in 1833.

Trains from London to Bristol began running through Swindon on June 30, 1841, but the station was not built in the town for another year.

In 1843 the GWR works became fully functional and in its heyday employed more than 15,000.

The first locomotive to be completely constructed in Swindon was the Great Western in 1846, which was designed by Gooch.

Staff worked day and night on the design and construction for 13 weeks.

It ran on the tracks for the first time on April 1, 1846.

At the heart of the works was the Railway Village, designed and built by Brunel for his workers.

The railways prospered and for more than a century were the main source of employment in Swindon.

As they fell into decline so did the railway works.

The numbers working were gradually reduced until British Rail, which had taken over GWR with rail nationalisation, decided to close the works.

They shut for the last time in 1986.

Among Brunel's other works are the Clifton Suspension bridge, the SS Great Western, and the SS Great Eastern.

Brunel collapsed, suffering from kidney failure on September 5, 1859 and died 10 days later.

He never saw the completion of the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol, which was opened five years after his death.

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