Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The "Lost" History of the Town of Swindon

by Nicola Cornick

Old map of Swindon

The town of Swindon in Wiltshire is not well-known for its pre-industrial era history. It rose to prominence in the early nineteenth century, first with the building of the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal in 1810 and later when it became a centre for the repair and maintenance of locomotives on the Great Western Railway. The development of a railway village and subsequently Swindon “new town” eclipsed the little village on the hill which had existed since before the Norman Conquest and which subsequently became known as “old town.” In fact some books seem to write Swindon’s pre-industrial past completely out of history. “Swindon was virtually a new town that grew up around the railway” is the only line about it in Mark Girouard’s book “The English Town,” dismissing centuries of Swindonian history. 

At the other extreme is a very different publication: William Morris’s “Swindon of 50 Years Ago” written in 1885 which he freely admits is a collection of stories about the town and not a formal history, which he says would be impossible to write because “there is absolutely no material for such a purpose.” Somewhere between the two of these, though, Swindon does have a pre-railway history that is rich and fascinating.

We know from archaeological evidence that the hill on which Swindon Old Town was built has been inhabited for a very long time. Finds from the prehistoric, Bronze Age and Roman periods give an insight into the people who were living here down the centuries. The discovery of a Saxon settlement with pit buildings was particularly interesting as these were partially constructed below ground level and had thatched roofs. As well as being used for storage they are thought to have had a purpose rather like a community hall; they were a cultural focus for story-telling, music and dancing.

It was from the Old English that the name Swindon originally derived, Swine Down, a place that was a pasture for pigs. The Latin name for the village, Swyndon Super Montem which was used in formal documents in the medieval period literally meant “Swindon over the hill” which in time became High Swindon.

The Domesday Book gives a useful insight into the size and value of the village. At the time of the Norman Conquest it had a population of 27 households and was taxed on an income of 22 units of geld. The land was worth more in 1086 than in 1066 which was unusual because the conquest had depressed land values. This prosperity continued into the 12th and 13th centuries. The first documentary record of a market in Swindon was a reference to the fact that William de Valence had first established it in 1259. Certainly, the town is referred to as Chipping Swindon in 1289, and Chipping, of course, is a name derived from Old English meaning a market. Newport Street, the first recorded named road in Old Town, dating from 1346 is a record of the market that survives into the current day, “port” meaning a market town, a place where goods are transported and exchanged, so in this case, the new market at Swindon. Swindon was also a borough, which meant that it had been granted self-governance by the Crown and was entitled to elect its own MPs which it did in 1295. It was also a place where the justice was meted out at the court assizes.

A point that is frequently made by authors and historians writing the early history of Swindon is that it is a quiet little place where nothing much happened. Yet the historical record disputes this. For a town to be incorporated as a borough, for it to elect MPs and for it to hold a market is all evidence of a very active history of investment and development. The prominence of towns grows and wanes over the centuries; we see it on a larger scale with places like Norwich, the second largest city in England in the 16thcentury with Norfolk as the most populous county in England, and we see it on a much smaller scale with the prominence of market towns like Highworth and Swindon. In 1334, for example, Swindon Old Town was comparable in size and wealth with Devizes.

The remains of Holy Rood church
This small but relatively prosperous town is recorded as having a parish church, Holy Rood, dating from 1154 although no remains of that original church can be found. However, some of the ruins that are still visible date from the 14th century. They stand close by the site of the old Goddard family manor house at what is now the Lawns Park. We also know that in 1086 Swindon already had a mill as this is mentioned in the Domesday Book. Although the mill buildings are long vanished, landscape archaeology reveals the dips and depressions in the ground via which one can trace the entire watercourse. Like so many of the villages along the Ridgeway, Swindon was on the spring line which facilitated a supply of water.

The existence of the springs and the mill also gives clues to the origin of one of the local road names, the Planks, because a raised causeway had to be built leading from the town to the church to enable people to arrive for services without getting wet or dirty from the spring waters.

Another old street name, Windmill Street, now Wood Street, hints at the fact that water power alone wasn’t sufficient to supply the needs of Swindon’s medieval population. Spring waters are notoriously unreliable and in a place as high as Swindon hill the alternative wind power for grinding grain was very useful. The name Windmill Street fell out of use in the late 16th century and Wood Street came in with the industrialisation of the area, where timber yards, farriers and other businesses sprang up. Wood Street developed into the merchant quarter of the town.

The basic structure of the streets that we still see in Swindon Old Town today was already in place by the medieval period. The market square was to the east of what is now the High Street. This name was first recorded in 1645 but almost certainly in use before that. This was a more prestigious road with larger houses and the principal inns of the town. 16 High Street is a surviving 17th-century house that was built on what is known to be a former medieval burgage plot. The long, narrow strip of land behind the frontage and the alleyway down the side of the house are still in existence, taking us straight back to Swindon’s medieval roots.

Swindon’s prosperity dipped in the mid-17th century as a result of the devastation wrought over the area by the English Civil War. However, by the end of the 17th century the re-discovery of the stone quarries, first worked in Roman times, had led to an increase in both prosperity and population. Swindon stone was smooth and white, suitable for the interior of houses. Quarries of lesser quality provided stone for paving the streets of London.

A list of inhabitants in 1697 shows that it had more than doubled from the start of the century with almost 800 people and all levels of society represented: there were those who worked the land, an emerging middle class of shop-keepers and tradesmen; yeomen and gentlemen who owned property, including members of the Goddard and Villet families.

18th century Swindon was by all accounts a very pleasant place to live. John Britton, an antiquary who was born near Chippenham referred to the politeness of the society there in his book “The Beauties of Wiltshire,” published in 1801. 'The pleasantness of its situation', he wrote, 'may have induced many persons of independent fortune to fix their residence at Swindon; and their mansions contribute as much to ornament the town as their social intercourse may be said to animate and enliven it.'

Inns flourished notably in Swindon. One of my favourite references to the town was dated 1627 and records that the constables considered (rather piously perhaps) that 9 licensed alehouses were too many for a relatively small town of approximately 300 people. We know the names of many of these inns: The Crown, built in the 16th century, was rebuilt and renamed The Goddard Arms in the 18th century in honour of the local landowners. The Bell, originally another 16th-century inn named the lapwing, had a particularly interesting history. Dutch and Flemish wool and cloth merchants established a base in Swindon in the early 18th century and, missing their local favourite tipple, gin, established an inn specifically to provide it.

The Bell Inn today

In this instance “bell” is short for bellarmine, a stoneware jug into which spirits were decanted. The bellarmine was named after Cardinal Robert Bellarmine who was a fierce opponent of the Dutch reformed church. Thus the tradition was to stamp his face on the jug and smash it when you had finished drinking.

There are persistent rumours that Swindon was the centre of a smuggling ring in the 18th century, a place where illicit spirits were stored having been brought into the ports of Dorset and carried across the wasteland of Salisbury Plain, before onward transmission to the Midlands. Certainly, there is an extensive network of tunnels beneath the old town, connecting the private houses and the inns and various other buildings. Research is still going on into the smuggling trade in Swindon; if it is proven it may turn out to be one of the most fascinating elements of pre-industrial Swindonian history!


Nicola Cornick is an international bestselling and award-winning novelist who has written over thirty historical romances and historical mysteries in a career spanning twenty years. She is the current chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association UK.

Nicola studied History at the University of London and at Ruskin College Oxford and worked in academia for a number of years before becoming a full-time author. She volunteers as a guide and researcher for the National Trust at the 17thcentury Ashdown House and gives talks and seminars on a number of historical topics. 

Her latest book, The Woman in the Lake, is available for purchase through all major retailers.

Connect with Nicola through her Website, Facebook, Twitter (@NicolaCornick) and on the Word Wenches blog


  1. Thank you for sharing this Nicola! It is always a challenge to excavate the past. How you chipped away at the bits of info about Swindon was very impressive. Looking forward to reading the Woman in the Lake and seeing Swindon come to life again!

  2. Thank you very much, Cryssa! Yes, it's quite tricky when a lot of what you are looking for is legend, hearsay and supposition. Finding supporting documents is a challenge but I love the sense of being a historical detective!

  3. What an interesting post, Nicola. I admit that when I think of Swindon, it is in terms of its railway past - you've unearthed some fascinating information from much further back. I love the detail of 9 pubs for 300 inhabitants!

    1. Hi Penny and thank you - I am glad you found it interesting. Yes, Swindon's pre-railway history has eclipsed anything that came before and whilst it's great that it is celebrated, there are so many other aspects of Swindon's history that are not as well known. Possibly the fact that there were nine alehouses and only 300 people says something about the town in those days as well...

  4. Many thanks for the informative and entertaining post on Swindon. So much of our past is swept beneath the proverbial rug. It is good of you to bring it back into the light.

  5. Ha! In case you ever wonder whether the blog is worth the effort, I bought your book on the strength of this!


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