From 1836, Brunel had been buying locomotives from various makers for the new railway. Brunel's general specifications gave the locomotive makers a free hand in design, although subject to certain constraints such as piston speed and axle load, resulting in a diverse range of locomotives of mixed quality. In 1837, Brunel recruited Daniel Gooch and gave him the job of rectifying the heavy repair burden of the GWR's mixed bag of purchased locomotives.
It became clear that the GWR needed a central repair works so, in 1840 Gooch identified a site at Swindon because it was at the junction of the Cheltenham branch and also a "convenient division of the Great Western line for engine working". With Brunel's support, Gooch made his proposal to the GWR directors, who, on 25 February 1841, authorised the establishment of the works at Swindon. Construction started immediately and they became operational on 2 January 1843.
There are several stories relating to how the railway came to pass through Swindon. A well-circulated myth that Brunel and Daniel Gooch were surveying a vale north of Swindon Hill and Brunel either threw a stone or dropped a sandwich and declared that spot to be the centre of the works.
However Swindon's midway point between GWR terminals and the topography of land near the town were more likely factors. The Works transformed Swindon from a small market town into a railway town, boosted the population considerably and provided medical and educational facilities that had been sorely lacking.
The Great Western Railway was originally planned to cut through Savernake Forest near Marlborough, but the Marquess of Ailesbury, who owned the land, objected. The Marquess had previously objected to part of the Kennet and Avon Canal running through his estate (see Bruce Tunnel).
With the railway needing to run near to a canal at this point, and as it was cheaper to transport coal for trains along canals at this time, Swindon was the next logical choice for the works, 20 miles (32 km) north of the original route.
The line was laid in 1840, but the location of the works was still undecided. Tracks were laid at Didcot in 1839 (chosen as Lord Wantage did not want the railway passing close to Abingdon) and for some time this seemed a more likely site.
Gooch noted that the nearby Wilts and Berks Canal gave Swindon a direct connection with the Somerset coalfield. He also realised that engines needed to be changed at Swindon or close by as the gradients from Swindon to Bristol were much more arduous than the relatively easy gradients between London and Swindon. Drawing water for the engines from the canals was also considered, and an agreement to this effect was completed in 1843.
Gooch recorded at the time "I was called to report upon the best situation to build these works and, on full consideration, I reported in favour of Swindon, it being the junction with the Cheltenham branch and also a convenient division of the Great Western Line for the engine working. Mr. Brunel and I went to look at the ground, then only green fields, and he agreed with me as to its being the best place."
Once the plan was set for the railway to come to Swindon, it was at first intended to bring it closely along the foot of Swindon Hill, so as to be as close as possible to the town without entailing the excessive engineering works of building on the hill. However, the Goddard family (Lords of the Manor of Swindon), following the example the Marquess of Ailesbury (and many other landowners of the day), objected to having it near their property, so it was laid a couple of miles further north.
The first building, the locomotive repair shed, was completed in 1841 using contract labour, with the necessary machinery installed within it by 1842. Initially only employing 200 men, repairs began in 1843, with the first new locomotive, the "Premier", built in 1846 in under two weeks and renamed "Great Western". This was followed by six more, the "Iron Dukes", including "The Lord of the Isles", considered the fastest broad-gauge engine of its day. By 1851 the works were employing over 2000 men and were producing about one locomotive a week, with the first standard-gauge engine built in 1855. A rolling mill for manufacturing rails was installed in 1861, attracting workers from South Wales. Although some rolling stock was built at Wolverhampton (producing 800 standard-gauge locomotives up to 1908), Worcester and Saltney near Chester, most of the work was concentrated at Swindon.
Like most early railways, the GWR was built with gentle gradients and the minimum of curves, which meant that it was able to operate fast, lightweight 'single-wheelers', 2-2-2 and 4-2-2. However, from 1849 Gooch also built 4-4-0 saddle tanks for the hillier routes in Devon.
In addition to locomotive building, from 1850 standardised goods wagons were produced, and in 1867 Swindon was made the central workshop for the construction of carriages and wagons, with extensions and 13 miles (21 km) of additional sidings. In 1864, when Joseph Armstrong took over, he took on the responsibility of improving the passenger stock. In 1878 a separate carriage and wagon works was built on land north of the station. The first Royal Saloon was built in 1874 and converted to standard gauge in 1899.
1875 saw the opening of the boiler and tender making shops, eventually used to also produce parts for locomotives, and marine engines for the GWR's fleet of ships and barges.
In 1892 the GWR made the decision to convert rolling stock to standard gauge. All locomotives, wagons and carriages were brought to Swindon for conversion. Those that could not be converted were scrapped.
At the turn of the century, the works were employing an estimated three-quarters of Swindon's entire workforce. Churchward's tenure, first as Assistant Chief Superintendent in 1897, then Locomotive Superintendent in 1902, produced heavier locomotives, firstly the 4-4-0 City class, then the County class. Later in 1906, "North Star", originally 4-4-2, was rebuilt as the first four-cylinder 4-6-0. Later four-cylindered engines were 4-6-0 built and, in 1908 the first "Pacific" 4-6-2, the only one of its type in the country for many years. It was later rebuilt as a 4-6-0.
The first GWR through corridor train was built in 1891, with electric lighting introduced in 1900.
From 1914 the works turned to aiding the war effort, producing twelve howitzers by the end of the year.
C. B. Collett, Chief Mechanical Engineer from 1921 to 1941, greatly improved the works' boiler making and its facilities for working heavy gauge sheet metal. In 1927 the GWR's most powerful and largest locomotive, the King class, was introduced to become the "flagship" of the GWR fleet. The Kings had been developed from the Castle Class which, along with the Halls, were the foundation of the GWR's reputation and image.
This was the heyday of Swindon Works, when 14,000 people were employed and the main locomotive fabrication workshop, the A Shop was, at 11.25 acres (45,530 m2), one of the largest covered areas in the world.
During World War II Swindon was once again involved with military hardware, producing various types of gun mountings. Loco wheel-turning lathes were also ideally suited for making turret rings for tanks. The works also built landing craft and parts for midget submarines.
In 1947 the works were still producing 60 new locomotives in the year, falling to 42 in 1954. Between 1949 and 1960 some 200 of the various BR Standard locomotives were produced. British Railway's last steam locomotive BR standard class 9F 92220 Evening Star was built in 1960 and the first diesel-hydraulic main line locomotive in 1957. 38 "Warship" class D800s and 30 "Western" class D1000s were built at Swindon between 1958 and 1964.
Decline and closure
New building of locomotives at Swindon finished in 1965 with construction of the Class 14 diesel-hydraulic locomotives. Locomotive repairs and carriage and wagon work continued, though the original carriage and wagon workshop was sold. The works closed in 1986, but one building currently houses a museum dedicated to the Great Western Railway. The engineers' office is now the headquarters of English Heritage. Purpose-built storage now houses the English Heritage Archive.
Most of the remaining buildings are part of the Designer Outlet Village.
Superintendents and Chief Engineers
- Sir Daniel Gooch, Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Superintendent 1837–1864
- Joseph Armstrong, Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Superintendent 1864–1877
- Major William Dean, Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Superintendent 1877–1902
- G. J. Churchward, Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Superintendent 1902–1916, and Chief Mechanical Engineer 1916–1921
- C. B. Collett, Chief Mechanical Engineer 1921–1941
- F. W. Hawksworth, Chief Mechanical Engineer 1941–1949
A great many different activities were carried out within the works and most of the components used to make locomotives, carriages and wagons were made on site. The works were organised into a number of shops:-
|A||Erectors, Boilermakers, Painters, Machine and Wheel Shop|
|B||Erectors, Boilermakers, Painters and Tender Shop|
|BSE||Engine Reception and Preparation|
|C||Concentration Yard (recovery of scrap metal)|
|D||Carpenters and Masons|
|F||Smiths, Springsmiths and Chainmakers|
|K||Coppersmiths and Sheet Metal Workers|
|P1||Steaming and Boiler Mounting|
|PL||Platelayers; Loco. Works, Rails, Roads and Water Mains Maintenance|
|Q||Angle Iron Smiths|
|R||Fitters, Turners and Machinemen|
|W||Turners and Machinemen|
|X||Points and Crossings, Fittings for Permanent Way|
|1||Sawmill (West End)|
|3||Fitting and Machines|
|4||Carriage Body Building|
|5||Electric Train Lighting|
|7||Carriage Finishing and Polishers|
|9a||Lining Sewers (female)|
|13||Wagon Frame Building|
|13a||Carriage Frame Repairs|
|15||Fitting, Machining, Plumbers, Gas and Steam Fitters, Sheet Metal Workers and Coppersmiths|
|17||Road Vehicle Building and Repairing|
|19a||Carriage Trimmers Repairs|
|19b||Carriage Finishers Repairs|
|19d||Vacuum Brake and Carriage Bogie Repairs|
|20||Horse Box and Carriage Truck Repairs|
|21||Wagon Building and Repairs|
|22||Oil and Grease Works|
|23||Platelayers’ Yard, Maintenance and Breaking-up Yard|
Alfred Williams' book Life in a Railway Factory has been described as "the most important literary work ever produced in Swindon, about Swindon". At the time, the town of Swindon, with a population of about 50,000, was almost entirely dependent on the railway works for its survival and prosperity. The book is a frank account of the very hard working conditions in this enormous industrial complex, which then employed 12,000 people (almost all men), and includes information both about how locomotives were made and the people who made them.
- Mark Child. Swindon : An Illustrated History. United Kingdom: Breedon Books Publishing. ISBN 1-85983-322-5.
- Swindon Works, and its Place in British Railway History. London: Railway Executive (Western Region). 1950.
- Simmons, J (1986). The Railway in Town and Country. Newton Abbott: David and Charles.
- Larkin, E.J.; Larkin, J.G. (1988). The Railway Workshops of Great Britain 1823–1986. Macmillan Press.
- Cattell, John; Falconer, Keith (1995). Swindon: the Legacy of a Railway Town. London: HMSO. p. 181.
- Williams, Alfred (1915). Life in a Railway Factory. London: Duckworth. ISBN 978-0-905778-31-0.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Swindon Works.|