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Genealogy and Swindon, Wiltshire, England

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Introduction

This page is devoted to the town of Swindon, Wiltshire, England (my home town), and covers the origin of its name, an outline of its history and geography, links to other web sites concerned with the town and genealogical resources relating to the town. In doing this, it is not my intention to duplicate unnecessarily, nor to compete with, any web pages which already do some of those things, but to complement such pages and provide links to them, with appropriate description of what they have to offer.

My mother, brother, sister, various aunts, uncles and cousins and I were all born and grew up in this town, and my father moved here with his parents when he was eight years old from his place of birth in the hamlet of Coate, then just outside the town.

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Origins of the Name

The original Old English name was swin dun, meaning "swine down", or hill that was a pasture for pigs. Some early records refer to it as Higheswindon or Swyndon super montem (= Swindon on the hill). The Domesday Book of 1086 calls it Suindune.

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Geography

The location of Swindon within the county is shown on this simplified map of Wiltshire (32,373 bytes), and its relationship to surrounding villages on this enlarged map of the area (273,987 bytes) as it was in 1890.

As implied by the name, discussed above, the old town stands on a hill. It is located in north-east Wiltshire, about 80 miles west of London and 40 east of Bristol, two-three miles north of the escarpment of the chalk Marlborough Downs, surrounded by a plain of Kimmeridge clay. The hill itself is a complex structure made of layers of limestone, sand, white Portland stone and Purbeck limestone, standing some 120 feet above the surrounding area. Most of the upper sand, and the Portland and Purbeck stone has been removed by quarrying for building materials.

Two small tributaries of the Thames start in the area.The River Ray starts at the south-west corner of Coate Water, a couple of miles south-east of the town; it goes first west, then north to pass by the west side of Swindon and eventually join the Thames near Cricklade. The River Cole has its source in the area of Marshgate near to where the old Wilts and Berks Canal went through. It's course runs easterly from there, through the modern Greenbridge Retail Park, then meanders through what used to be marshland to pass east of the town and then north to and meet the Thames near Lechlade. Apart from these two small rivers, the natural water courses of the area are mere brooks which soon join one or other of them. Apparently there used to be several springs supplying the town with good drinking water, one of which had sufficient flow to drive a large mill, but what has happened to them now I do not know. [My thanks to Chris Bland for his advice on the route of the River Cole]

The town was for centuries an unimportant market town, noted only for its fairs and corn and cattle markets. It had none of the communication facilities that usually promote the growth of towns - no navigable river, no important road passing through it, even the Wilts and Berks canal passed a mile or so further north, although it did make some contribution to the local economy for a few years. Now it is on a major railway, with a fairly important junction, and has immediate access to the main motorway linking London with Bristol and south Wales.

It has been transformed by the coming of industry, initially the railway works, which at one time covered over 300 acres and employed up to 13,000 people to produce 100 new engines a year (and repair 1,000), 250 passenger coaches (and repair 5,000) and 4,500 new wagons (and repair 8,000). This activity has also now disappeared, but many new industries, such as cars and electronics, have sprung up to replace the old, so successfully that a government survey recently showed it was the most prosperous place in the UK.

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History

This necessarily brief potted history of Swindon is put together from various miscellaneous sources which I happen to have available. Anyone wanting the fullest possible, properly researched, version should consult the Victoria County History of Wilts, volumes V and IX, by Elizabeth Crittall.

Although the place name is of Saxon origin, it seems Swindon went almost unnoticed in early years apart from the entries in the Domesday Book. One historian (Cox, in his book Magna Britannia) mentions it only to say "Swindon is so inconsiderable a place that our histories take no notice of it."!

According to Rev. Canon Jackson, Swindon had belonged to the crown as part of the Kingdom of Wessex, and was granted to a Saxon thane (=nobleman) by charter, which meant it was free from some forms of taxation. It was later given back in exchange for other land and remained crown property until the Norman conquest.

In the Domesday Book it appears that Swindon was most unusual in terms of its landholding situation. Most parishes were held by a single person or organisation (most frequently either the king or a bishop), with most such landholders having control of a number of parishes. Thus 68 landholders between them controlled the whole of Wiltshire, yet Swindon was divided between no less than five of them. One of the largest holdings was that of the Conqueror's half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and later also Earl of Kent.

The various landholdings, all earlier referred to as Swindon, later developed separate names which give some indication (through current and recent usage) of where they were located. Bishop Odo's land remained simply Swindon, and became the market town. Others were known as West Swindon, Even Swindon, Nether Swindon and Haute, High or Over Swindon, all except the last being below the hill and separate from what became the main town prior to the coming of the railway. The name Even Swindon is still in use for the same area of the modern town, although I suspect what is now known as West Swindon is probably somewhat different in location and extent from the original.

Bishop Odo was later imprisoned and Swindon, like his other lands, reverted to the crown until the reign of Henry III. Swindon was then given to another king's half-brother, this time William de Valence, Earl of Pembroke. It then passed in turn to various of his descendants until 1562, when it was purchased by Thomas Goddard of the nearby village of Upham. The Goddard family continued to live in the manor house until 1931. The house and grounds were sold to Swindon Council in 1943.

The most important event in the history of Swindon was undoubtedly the decision of Isambard Kingdom Brunel to site his railway works there, although it could be said that it would never have occurred had not the railway itself been forced to pass that way as part of a diversion north of the original planned route, to overcome the objections of the Marquis of Ailesbury, who did not want it cutting through his estate at Savernake (near Marlborough). The line itself reached Swindon in early 1841, and the works began operating about two years later.

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 the hill, so as to be as close as possible to the town without entailing excessive engineering works. However, the Goddard family, following the example quoted above of the Marquis (and many other landowners of the day), objected to having it near their property, so it was eventually laid a couple of miles further north. The factory, of course, had to be immediately adjacent to the railway, and naturally it was necessary in those days for the workers to be housed as close as possible to the factory. Consequently a new town was built, known as New Swindon, which for many years was both physically and administratively separate from Old Swindon. I have seen the statement made that "Old Swindon looked down on New Swindon", and my impression is that this was in both the physical and social senses of the phrase. They were combined as a single borough in 1900.

Swindon remained primarily a railway town until the 1960s, although a few smaller factories in other industries had by then appeared. Then began a major contraction of the British railway industry, and with it the demand for both manufacture and repair of all types of rolling stock declined dramatically. Unlike so many other towns faced with the disappearance of their staple industry, Swindon never became a depressed area. Instead new industry was attracted, notably at first the manufacture of car bodies for the motor industry.

At about this time government policy on the dispersal of London's excess population (primarily a housing shortage) was changed from the building of new towns 30-50 miles outside the capital to the major expansion of existing towns further away. The main recipients of this expansion at that time were Northampton, Peterborough and Swindon. Swindon quickly became the fastest growing town in Britain, with a sudden extension of the built-up area extending about two miles to the east. During the 1970s and 1980s there was a similar, self-generated, expansion to the west, and now it is spreading northwards.

Many new types of industry have been attracted by the excellent modern communications, readily available land, modern town centre and pleasant surrounding countryside, including in particular electronics companies and the head offices and warehouses of many nationally important organisations. In the process much of that countryside is being buried under concrete and tarmac, but it must be said that the more important sites in the area are being preserved.

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Swindon Buildings

I have added numerous photos of various buildings in Swindon, necessitating a separate page to avoid excessive file size.

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The Magic Roundabout

Magic Roundabout Swindon has become famous/infamous among motorists for the presence of this unusual design of road junction, known universally as the Magic Roundabout. The detail can be seen reasonably well by clicking on the thumbnail to see a larger diagram (32,501 bytes). The principle is that the five small white circles function as independent roundabouts, while the short sections between them act as tiny pieces of dual carriageway. It may look confusing, but it is in fact very efficient and easy to use.

 

 

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List of Parish Church Incumbents

This list of the vicars and rectors at Swindon Parish Church was obtained from the book "Swindon Fifty Years Ago (More or Less)" by William Morris, published 1885; the author in turn says his list is "As printed in Sir Thomas Phillips's "WILTS INSTITUTIONS"":

1302 Richard de Haghemaz
1319 Nicholas de Hagemaz on res. of R. de H.
1361 Richard de Taillour
1361 John de Wotton
1381 John Brok
1388 Richard Suggeworth by exch. with John Brok
1390 Richard Suggeworth
1440 John Stocbrygg
1481 William Camell on death of J. Stocbrygg
1486 William Brown, on res. of Wm. Camell
1527 John Unthanke on death of Wm. Brown
1560 Aristoteles Webb on death of J. Unthanke
1575 William Wattes on death of A. Webb
1579 Richard Powell
1580 Thomas Painter
1580 John Bestpich, on death of Thos. Painter
1584 Milo Kendal, on res. of J. Bestpich
1623 William Gallimore, on res. of M. Kendal
1634 William Gallimore, on his own resignation
1662 Narcissus Marshe
1663 Henry Thompson, on res. of N. Marshe
1703 John Neate, on death of H. Thompson
1719 Gilbert Cowper, on death of J. Neate
1728 John Broadway, on res. of G. Cowper
1737 William Nichols, on death of J. Broadway
1737 William Nichols, on his own resignation
1758 Thomas Smyth, on death of W. Nichols
1790 Edmund Goodenough, on death of T. Smyth
1809 Matthew Surtees, on death of E.G.
1823 James Grooby
1847 H.G. Baily, on res. of J. Grooby
1885 H. Armstrong Hall, on res. of H.G. Baily

I have omitted the patrons, who are in Morris's list, and the specification of the office held (in most cases stated as "V. Swyndon"). The patrons up to 1560 were mostly various priors, with one abbot and in one case the king. From then until 1634 they were various local(?) gentry and thereafter the monarch.

The change in 1390 corresponded with a change of patron from the abbot to the prior of St. Mary, Southwick, that in 1634 from Thos. White of Thornhill to the king, but there was no change of patron in 1737. Presumably some sort of political manœuvering was involved in each case.

Morris notes at the end of his list that Sir Thomas Phillips's list ends with the institutioin of Matthew Surtees, of whom Morris could find no other record in Swindon. Between 1809 and 1823 the registers are signed by a Mr. Gray and a Mr. Jones, both signing as curate. Locals who remembered the latter (as Taffy Jones) insisted that he was vicar, but the registrars at the Bishop's Court at Salisbury confirmed the list as above.

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Web Pages about Swindon

Swindon Link is a local news site. I understand it is maintained by a local free newspaper of the same name, circulating in the west side of the town, but the web site covers the whole town and includes a People Link page.

The Evening Advertiser is the paid-for local newspaper, which has been published continuously since the mid-nineteenth century.

The Swindon Web is a large magazine site giving a variety of information and offering a free "re-unite long-lost friends" facility.

Another useful magazine and news site about Swindon is the Jump site.

Some history of the town is given on the Your Dictionary Swindon page, contributed by Brian Carter.

An official view of the town is given on Swindon Council's site.

Another brief description of Swindon is given on this nameless site.

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Genealogical Resources for Swindon

Many records, such as census returns, registers of electors, old large scale maps, etc. are held in Swindon Central Library, Ground Floor, Paramount House, Princes Street, Swindon, SN1 2SD. Tel: (+44) (0)1793 463238.

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A Swindon Bibliography

The following books are recommended for anyone interested in Swindon, and especially in its history:

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Film Clips about Swindon

Mike Harris has created a collection of British Pathé film clips of Swindon between 1918 and 1969, which can be seen at this web site.

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Surname and Local History Interests in Swindon

Both my own and other people's surname and local history interests in Swindon are listed on this separate page. If you would like yours added please get in touch.

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Genealogy and Wiltshire, England