A popular project researching the history of Swindon’s Eastcott community has brought a host of fascinating tales into the light.

A vivid story of Victorian circuses and coronation parties, of a rags to riches philanthropist and a modern plague of insects, of wartime civil defence and an exciting adventure playground, this one small area of Swindon proved a historical treasury.

The Heritage Lottery Funded project brought a community together in a celebration of the area’s heritage, and the local history in a single Swindon neighbourhood reflected the social, political and cultural developments of Britain in a century of war and peace, and continuing change. An exhibition at the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery is attracting plenty of enthusiastic visitors, and a newly published book is selling well.

“This was truly by the community and for the community,” said Caroline Davies-Khan, chair of the Eastcott Community Organisation (ECO). “We were very interested in people’s memories and documenting what went on, and linking it to what was happening nationally – how it was part of something much bigger.”

ECO is a volunteer-run charity that manages Savernake Street Social Hall and after hearing stories of the area’s history, they applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant to discover, document and celebrate the history of the hall and the surrounding area. They received £10,000 and used the award to fund the research, which included investigating a mass of archives and documents, as well as holding memory sharing events, talks and a school’s art-history project.

The project culminated in the exhibition, which runs till May 5 at the museum and will then be held permanently at the hall. The stories, maps and pictures were also recorded in a book called Legacy of a Rag and Bone Man: A century of community life in Eastcott, Swindon.

In 2014, ECO took over the management of the hall from Swindon Borough Council, and Caroline explained how people started bringing up nuggets of information about the area’s past.

“They would say things like, did you know that it used to be used for… or how as a child they remembered when it was a British Restaurant. We started hearing all these stories,” she said. “But there was not one document explaining what the centre and the space had been used for.”

Caroline said the process of applying for the grant had not been too onerous.

“Actually it was really enjoyable – talking abut what we wanted to do and what we would like to achieve. We wanted to produce something that would be a lasting document of the centre, and to collaborate with the community and get lots of community involvement.”

They worked with the library service, and its local studies department, researched Swindon Borough Council minutes, browsed through Swindon Adver archives and scrutinised maps and documents, as well as holding the memory sharing events.

It turned out this seemingly unremarkable area had plenty of fabulous stories to discover. Eastcott lies about half way between New Swindon, the town growing from the railway works, and Old Town, on the hill. By 1900, most of the streets had been built but the land they were built on had been nicknamed Circus Fields – as this was where the Victorian circuses set up when they visited the town. By 1907 the only remaining land was the site of the hall and in 1918 Alderman James ‘Raggy’ Powell bought the plot and gifted it to the people of Swindon. Powell was a classic self-made man, who came to Swindon in the 19th century, worked as a hawker selling goods in the street, and then became a rag-and-bone man. He gained his education at the Mechanics’ Institution became a borough councillor.

By 1919, the land was being used as a tip, and the Adver reported in 1923 it contained “scores of dead fowls, cats, dogs, rabbits and fish.” The tip attracted an infestation of crickets described in the national media as a “Modern Plague of Egypt.”

During World War 2, the Government commandeered the land and built Nissen huts, set up a British Restaurant, and even tethered a barrage balloon from it. In the 1980s an adventure playground had been built – which appeared briefly on television in an advertisement – with a fort and two big slides.

Four local primary schools mined this treasury of historical stories to inspire works of art. Lethbridge took the theme of the Victorian circus, King William Street, the story of James Powell, Holy Rood the war-time Dig for Victory, and Drove, the plague of crickets. These are all a part of the exhibition.

These days, the social centre is a thriving community facility, used by lots of organisations and as a venue for all sorts of community events, including the Swindon Repair Café, the Swindon Eco Fest and Eastcott Communi-teas, which give local people a chance to get together, chat and enjoy some refreshments.

“The hall has been built and rebuilt since 1962, but there are still some things here, like the tiles,” Caroline said.

The book was written and designed by Kate Parsons, with a first print run of 300 copies.

“They are selling well. We have them at all our events, at Swindon Central Library and the museum for the exhibition,” Caroline said.

Response to the project has been positive, with visitors writing enthusiastic comments on luggage labels.

“It’s a memory place for some people – we’ve heard lots of memories about the slides and the summer play schemes. For people new to the area, it’s been fascinating for them to find out about the amount of heritage there is,” she explained.

Caroline has lived in the area for 17 years and said: “I love the community feel of it, and there are so many things happening.”

The celebration of Eastcott’s heritage is continuing with another community history project as ECO and the Swindon Suffragette volunteers have been awarded £1695 from the Women’s Vote Centenary Grant Scheme, a £1.5 million Government fund supporting local and community groups in celebrating the centenary of women getting the right to vote. Local historian Frances Bevan and event organiser Leah Bevan-Haines will be sharing the story of Swindon Suffragette Edith New and her involvement in the campaign for women’s votes, with two events at the Savernake Street Social Hall in June. For more information, visit the Savernake Street Social Hall on Facebook.