MANY people think of the Health Hydro as home to the pools where so many Swindonians learnt to swim, others perhaps as the sporting birthplace of swimming sensations who would go on to Olympic success.

But as these archive pictures show, the pools are just one part of the impressive history of a building which has featured at the heart of Swindon’s civic life for more than 120 years.

The land on which the building now stands was bought for the princely sum of £999 in 1885, construction was to get under way six years later in 1891, with the grand opening following in 1892.

However, the story that led to this point begins in the first half of that century, with the creation of the GWR’s Medical Fund Society in 1847.

The fund, paid for by contributions from the wages of railway workers, began as a way to ensure medical cover at the works and to provide protection for the wider railway community, including employees’ families, from the scourge of diseases including smallpox and cholera.

This idea of a collective health provision represented a departure from common medical practice at the time, and it would not be the last occasion that Swindon’s progressive approach would be recognised as leading the way.

The fund’s membership went on to grow and its remit expanded accordingly, taking on an advisory role on community sanitation and healthy living, in addition to direct medical care.

In 1869 a small swimming baths was opened and two years later a cottage hospital on Faringdon Road.

But it was with the arrival of the facility in nearby Milton Road, known now as the Health Hydro but through the years as the Milton Road Baths or the old health centre, that was to be the most ambitious project yet.

The site offered a truly comprehensive health and wellbeing package as it was home to a series of consultation rooms, a sizeable dispensary, a dental surgery, a waiting hall and Turkish and Russian baths, alongside the impressive large and small swimming pools that have become so widely cherished.

The large pool was not just for swimming either, the water was frequently covered over with boards to transform it into a impressive indoor event space.

In 1947, Bernard Darwin wrote that “the big bath has done its bit in more ways than one. It by no means stands idle when it is closed, but makes a splendid hall with a gallery running round it.

“It is used for roller skating and makes an admirable ballroom. In its more serious moments it has seen many big and heated political meetings.

“In war time it was ready as a casualty clearing station long before D-Day. The casualties were mercifully much smaller than had been expected, but, as it was, between four and five hundred passed through, flown there direct from the Normandy beaches.”

In the decades to follow, the society would go on to add departments of physical medicine, ophthalmology, chiropody, a skin clinic, a paediatric unit and even a psychology facility. Remarkably, they pre-dated any national healthcare provision.

Indeed, when Nye Bevan, the architect of the NHS, was seeking inspiration for what such a service might look like, it was to Swindon his gaze was drawn.

“There it was,” he is said to have remarked. “A complete health service. All we had to do was expand it to embrace the whole country.”

Many claim Swindon’s Medical Fund was the precursor to the NHS. But, arguably, it delivered a far more comprehensive service than its country-wide offspring.

It combined pioneering medicine, with health, leisure, and lifestyle. All at the heart of the community.

Leading figures from Swindon's heritage community gave us their thoughts on the Health Hydro and its place in history.

Daniel Rose, Director of the New Mechanics' Trust, said: "I'm inspired each day I enter the building by not just the historic features but thinking of what happened there and how. The Health Hydro has not just local but national significance as part of the story of modern health care and wellbeing.

"The community formed the Medical Fund Society, a truly innovative organisation that rose to the challenge of a catastrophic health crisis in Swindon's history and was decades ahead of what later became the National Health Service.

"Today the building is a rare example in the country of an operational Victorian swimming baths containing many original features which are accessible to the public.

"Like so many historic Swindon buildings of the time its physical size and breadth of uses is unparalleled with other places."

Graham Carter, Editor of Swindon Heritage, said: "With the exception of the Mechanics’ Institute, there isn’t a more important historical building in Swindon than the Health Hydro.

"On a national level it tells the story of the development of leisure, social and community services in Britain - at a time when Swindon led the way. It was a cradle of the National Health Service, and its Victorian baths are an architectural marvel that must be preserved for future generations.

"Locally it is important because it is where injured First World War soldiers were nursed; where many of the older generation met their future partners at dances and roller-skating events at the boarded-over pool; and where generations of Swindonians learned to swim, including Olympic medallists.

"Swindon’s heritage is unmatched by any other town in Britain, and superior to much bigger cities.

"If it was used to boost civic pride and restore the morale of demoralised residents, it could also repair the tattered image of Swindon outside the town and really benefit the local economy."

Martin Parry, filmmaker and creator of the documentary hit, Railway Town, said: "If the Mechanics Institution marked the beginnings of Railway Swindon's ethos of mutual care, Milton Road Baths represents its culmination.

"Here Swindonians learnt to swim long before most towns had a municipal pool, here they could relax and soothe any aches in an extensive spa facility.

"And here, if things got more serious, they could access comprehensive health care; orthopaedics, dentistry, psychiatry, children's medicine and an advanced range of medical specialisms that was, at the time, the envy of the rest of the country.

"All of which puts Milton Road Baths and The Medical Fund off the Richter scale of national historic significance."

"What is particularly embarrassing now, when you look at it's recent neglect, is to realise how very proud they would have been 125 years ago to have created a ground-breaking facility unrivalled anywhere in the land.

"It was to be more than half a century before the rest of Britain in 1948 caught up and offered comparably comprehensive health care and that itself was modelled on the scope of services developed here at Milton Road."