The borough council has agreed to commence processes necessary to undertake a compulsory purchase of the Mechanics Institute building … but with caveats (SA, April 23 ).

In recent research, the Swindon populace ranked the Mechanics Institute building number one in a list of heritage buildings the council should seek to save and restore. But why is this imposing structure such a revered local icon?

Buildings are more than just stone and mortar. GWR workmen set up the original Institution in a cleared space in “O” shop inside the works in 1844 and it was GWR workers, supported by Daniel Gooch, and overseen by Works Manager Minard Rea, that built the new Mechanics Institute building for themselves … and not the GWR company as is sometimes thought.

166 years ago, Gooch and Minard Rea laid the foundation stone in front of 10,000 onlookers. Gooch wanted a ‘statement’ building befitting the grandeur of the enterprise, hence departed from Brunel’s architectural design for the railway village. Built largely of Swindon stone with Bath stone dressings and at a cost of £3600, it was first used in a fundraising event for sick and wounded from the Crimean War on December 20th, 1854.

It offered a wide range of facilities including men’s and ladies reading rooms (with periodicals and newspapers) billiards, chess and draughts, bagatelle, a full library, lecture rooms, offices and a council office, cold water baths, a coffee room, a dining room and a 700 seat theatre.

Just take the library. Predating the first lending library nationally by nine years, it was established first by the men inside the works in 1843 with just 130 books. It moved to the Institute building in 1855. By 1885 there were 12000 volumes and by World War II, 40,000 books were on the shelves!

Our Swindon Mechanics Institution was one of 700 which were set up in Victorian Britain, but the Swindon Institute was one of the biggest, longest lasting and the most far-reaching in the services it provided.

In the words of the late Trevor Cockbill, “In looking at the New Swindon Mechanics Institute, we are studying the cradle which nursed the direct ancestors of our present welfare state; its importance cannot be overstated." The 700 seat Playhouse Theatre was frequented and loved by generations of Swindonians with its Regal Ballroom a favoured venue for Swindon girls and servicemen throughout the Second World War.

The council's positive approach is very welcome, but it is not a done deal. They will only initiate a compulsory purchase when a well-funded operator is in position, with resources capable of sustaining the building in the long term. Tax payers would expect no less.

Together, with the borough council, that is what we at the trust are systematically working towards, a partnership capable of restoring this unique social asset to its former majesty, with a realistic long term use.

In 1991 its listing was upgraded to Grade 2*, included on the English Heritage list of buildings at risk and the Victorian Society ranked it amongst the 10 most endangered buildings in the country.

It would be unthinkable to be remembered as the generation who allowed this important local heritage building, to end its days as just another heap of rubble in Central Swindon!

John Stooke


The New Mechanics Institute Preservation Trust


How sad to see the photos of stock being removed from Debenhams (SA, April 24) and to read that the store is closing with the loss of maybe 150 jobs.

I never had the opportunity to say goodbye to Cathy in the lingerie department so I hope she reads this letter or is told about it.

I wanted to say thank you to her for all the excellent advice and service she has given me over the years with all my purchases.

The store will be missed in the town and I pray that all the 150 staff find new jobs and are happy.

Wherever you go Cathy they will be blessed to have you!

Elizabeth Payne

Cornmarsh Way