Former Great Western Railway Works & Village

Grade 2 listed engineering sheds in 1995
©Swindon Borough Council
Great Western Outlet Centre after conversion of engineering sheds in 1997
©Rawles & Co

Region: South West

Unitary Authority: Swindon

Owner Type: Charity; Company; English Heritage; Local Authority; Private; Religious Organisation

Funding Body: HLF, Private, Local Authority

Year of Intervention: 1990 - on-going

Summary: Swindon’s historic railway Works and Village is increasingly recognised as an exemplar for the regeneration of heritage industrial buildings. Only fourteen years ago the buildings in Swindon’s 19th-century Railway Works lay empty and derelict. Today they form the UK’s, and perhaps Europe’s, main railway-engineering heritage showpiece.


Swindon’s vast [40 hectare],  historic railway area constitutes the largest and most significant surviving former railway-engineering establishment of its time, in the world. It includes the Great Western Railway Company engineering sheds, offices, workers’ cottages, dispensary and swimming baths, school, church, vicarage and park. This has been described as “an unrivalled example of an almost complete, planned railway settlement of the 1840’s and early 1850’s”.

Today’s conurbation of ‘Swindon’ would not likely have existed, but for the decision of Isambard Brunel to build the GWR’s engineering works in the area.  This led to the creation of the largest and richest town in Wiltshire.  Today, with its 1960’s and 70’s town-centre shopping precinct, Swindon would be very different without the Great Western Works. It is “one of the success stories in the regeneration of historic industrial sites” that “now constitutes one of the largest conservation schemes and visitor attractions in southern England.”

Issue: At the beginning of the 20th century, Swindon’s GWR Works was one of the largest engineering complexes in the world, covering 130 hectares with a workforce of over 14,000.  However, its greatest days were behind it when Britain's railways were nationalised in 1948, bringing to an end the GWR's 113-year story.   The decline of the works was as rapid as its expansion over a century earlier. It finally closed in 1986, becoming empty and derelict
Strategy: Swindon’s GWR Works conservation area has been called “a showpiece of regeneration demonstrating a mix of public and private funding” (English Heritage: 2000). The local council led the way in regeneration when it bought the 300 substandard Railway Village cottages in the 1960’s and renovated the lot.  Since then, both private investment and lottery funding have played a part in the area’s dramatic economic and social regeneration.
Outcome: Though finished as a major industrial workplace, the legacy of the site’s 19th century buildings is captivating.  After years of dereliction, the site has now been opened up to the public, for leisure, education and shopping opportunities. The National Trust will open their brand new Central Offices here this year, to sit alongside English Heritage’s offices and National Monuments Record Centre, and the Museum of the Great Western Railway.

Keywords: Regeneration; Education and Outreach; Sustainability

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