This September’s Heritage Open Day at Swindon’s Railway Village Museum, alongside the 2017 Swindon Railway Festival, evoked many memories of pre-war Swindon for Fred Jennings. Fred is one of STEAM’s valuable ‘Meet the Railway Workers’ volunteers. His father was a GWR factory worker and Fred has strong recollections of what life was like living in the place we now know as the Railway Village. Our Lifelong Learning team spoke to Fred about his experiences. Fred, with the help of his daughter, has put together some of his memories of growing up in the Railway Village. What follows is his account.
Memoirs of the GWR Village from 1933 – Frederick Jennings
I remember very well, the day my father, a GWR Factory Worker, received the news that our family were successful in renting one of the 300 sturdy terrace houses in the railway villlage, generally referred to as ‘The Company’s Houses.’
These had been constructed in the 1840’s on land purchased by the GWR from John Harding Sheppard, a local farmer and brewer. The GWR had given J.D. Rigby contractors a 99 year lease on the land and the construction of the village had been overseen by Brunel. The streets were named after the destinations of the trains which passed nearby.
Father had been employed by the Great Western Railway since coming home from the service in the First World War, so had been waiting a long time to be given the opportunity of living in Reading Street.
At the time, we were a family of five, my mother and father, my older sister, myself and a younger brother. When I first set eyes on number 22 Reading Street, I recall that I was rather unimpressed. It was sparsely furnished and was dark and dingy, especially in the middle of the house.
Inside the front door was a hallway with a front room off it. After rounding a corner there was the very dark sitting room in the middle of the house. Both rooms had coal burning fireplaces. Beyond the sitting room was a larder with a large stone shelf where, in the absence of refrigeration, all our food was stored. The kitchen was across the rear of the house, with a back door opening onto a very small walled back yard containing an outside toilet and coal bunker. On the opposite side of the hallway was a staircase leading to three bedrooms, a very large one at the back of the house and two smaller ones at the front. There was no bathroom.
The good thing about living in the railway village was that our street was classed as a private road, with a locked gate across one end. This meant that there was no through fare for traffic so it was a safe place for children to play. The alleyway at the back of the house allowed for deliveries of coal to be made into the bunker.
When we first moved in, there was no electric or gas heating in the house, although we did have electric lighting. To begin with, we only had coal fire heating in the kitchen with a large range, complete with oven. It wasn’t long before a gas supply was connected above the roof of the kitchen, allowing us to cook and boil kettles on a gas stove.
On wash day, Mum had to heat the water in a brick built copper, with a large bowl inside and a coal fired grate underneath, in the corner of the kitchen. The water had to be ladled in from the kitchen sink and ladled out again after the washing was finished. The clothes were then put through the huge rollers of the mangle to squeeze out the water. I always seemed to be given this job after school on a Monday. I had to hang the clothes on the line in the back yard. I did not like this particular chore. It always fell to me.
Bath nights also involved heating water in the copper and ladling it into a tin bath which usually hung on the wall outside. After a few years, the number of children in the family had risen to seven so these bath nights were quite hectic. Later on, the older children used the nearby GWR Public Baths in Milton Road, for which a small charge was made.
The last four children in the family, two boys and two girls, were all born in Reading Street. My job in all this was to make my way to Beatrice Street to summon Nurse Ingram, the Midwife, at the appropriate time, to come and supervise the births. The babies were all born in the front room, while the rest of us waited in the passageway to hear the newborn’s first cries.
Living in the Railway Village was, at the time, quite unique, as all the working occupants were employed in some capacity by the GWR. All the neighbours had something in common with one another. Whether they were Engine Drivers, Factory Workers, Passenger Guards, Station Foremen or whatever, they were all very friendly to one another. As a child, I would run errands for others in the street.
After moving to Reading Street, I attended Sanford Street Boys School. I really liked the school and would like to think I did very well there, always finishing near the top of the class at exam time.
When I was eight years old, Mum was visited by two nuns from St. Mark’s Church, inviting me to sing in the Church Choir. She gave her permission and I went to meet the organist and Choir Master, Mr. Gale. After an audition, I was accepted, along with a lot of other boys. St. Mark’s was a High Church, built by the GWR. At the time, I did not know that a Mr. F.W. Hawksworth sang in the choir, but I was about to find out. One particular evensong, during the vicar’s sermon, I spoke quietly to a friend sitting next to me when, from the pew directly behind me, that certain Mr. Hawkswoth rapped me on the head with a ruler. Yes, he was the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the GWR.
Money was very short and we were quite poor before the Second World War started, so i took on a couple of part-time jobs after school for four days a week plus Saturday mornings. i assisted in deliveries for a local clothing store during the week and on Saturday mornings, went into the shop in Faringdon Road to clean the shop window, inside and out. For this I earned four shillings in old money. On receipt, I handed it over to my mother.
On Sundays, I did a paper round , delivering all around Clifton Street and Kings Hill. I also had to collect the paper money so by the time I got back to the shop, I was weighed down with cash. The reason I liked the paper round was that, before I set off from the shop at 7am, I was provided with a large cooked breakfast and a huge mug of tea. This was most welcome as there was very little food available at home, with the younger children having priority. I was always hungry. Again, the five shillings in old money I received went straight to Mum.
In 1942, after three years of wartime conditions, at the age of 14, I left Sanford Street Boys School. My father took me to the Railway Works Factory to inquire about a job that was on offer. I was horrified by the noise and heat and decided it wasn’t for me. Fortunately, I heard about a job in the Traffic Department, so went to see the local Station Master. I was offered a job in Swindon East Signal Box and started work there the following Monday, delighted to be able to work amongst my favourite things, Steam Engines! It was a very interesting job and I was thrilled to, at last, be working on the railway.
In my spare time, I was playing table tennis at the GWR Mechanics Institute in the Railway Village, which also boasted a snooker/billiards room, a huge reading room and library, group rooms, a dance hall and theatre.
At the age of sixteen, I was transferred to the Platform Inspectors Office to gain more experience on the railway. I was now considered capable of doing a ‘man’s job’and became a Shunter on goods wagons, probably my favourite job of my railway career.
It was at this time that I left the house in Reading Street. It had become even more crowded as my elder sister’s husband and baby were also living there. As well as being cramped, it was very noisy, not something I needed after a night shift on the railway.
So, in 1945, with very fond memories, I moved away from my family in the Railway Village and on to the next stage of my life.