The Victoria Hotel, Victoria Road

To anyone who knows Swindon’s Old Town, this pub is instantly recognisable. The Vic, as it’s known to many, is now locally renowned as a music venue, but when this photograph was taken, it was one of the many hotels that provided board and lodge to visitors to our growing town.

We can see one of those visitors enjoying the view from the balcony that we know was still part of the fabric of the pub until at least the mid to late 1960s, because it’s still visible in another photograph we have – a view of Christchurch from Prospect Place by Swindon photographer David Marchant. It’s difficult to date this photo precisely, partly because the building has changed relatively little, but a check of the clothing worn by the two men suggests the early 20th century.

What is particularly interesting in this photo, though, is the glimpse of the building behind the Victoria, on Albert Street, and its advert for A Vitti and Sons, lodging house for travellers.

In the mid-1800s, as activity at the new Great Western Railway works drove the population of Swindon upwards, the town began to flourish economically and culturally. However, the population surge brought problems as well as benefits. Very cramped living conditions and lack of clean water supplies resulted in the prevalence of diseases such as typhus, and in 1850 the Board of Health’s inspection of Old Swindon – what we know refer to as Old Town – was damning. Effluent from households was draining into cesspools, all the town’s wells were contaminated with human waste, and the only public water supply was the dirty pond at Christchurch.

There were three slaughter houses in the area that allowed blood to flow freely out onto the streets, and in Cricklade Street five children from just one family had perished from typhus within seven weeks. Even the poor local doctor was struck down with the disease.

Add to that that the newly built Albert Street and Little London had fast become the red light district of Old Swindon, that more newcomers looking for fortune or at least steady work were migrating to the area every week, and the likelihood of meeting with misfortune of one sort of another was high. Furthermore, the area had a reputation for violence – there were more than 60 pubs for a population of around 11,000 people, and few landlords adhered to licensing laws – and one Albert Street pub, The Rhinoceros, was particularly notorious for bad behaviour.

But when The Rhinoceros became a lodging house and came up for sale in 1890s, things began to change, thanks to one Angelo Vitti. Vitti, originally from Sette Frate, south of Rome, first bought the lodging house, and then the adjacent cottages, and began to rent out rooms, and became renowned for treating his lodgers, many of whom were new to the town and isolated, or somewhat down on their luck, with respect and kindness.

This paper reported his death on 21 April 1940, describing him as a friend of poor people.

“Swindon has lost a colourful and romantic personality by the death of Mr Angelo Vitti,” the Adver said.

You can find out more about Swindon’s story at the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery today until 4.30pm. It is normally open from Tuesday to Saturday, 11am to 4.30pm but the art gallery space will be closed from Monday until 14 January to prepare for the new Gifted! exhibition. The Museum space will remain open as normal during that period.

This feature is supported by Vox PR.