Mechanics' Institute

Built as a social and community centre for Swindon’s Victorian railway workers, it is hoped that this building can once again serve the local community as a cultural hub.

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Address
Emlyn Square, Railway Village, Swindon, Wiltshire, SN1 5BP
Risk Rating
6 (Community Value: 2, Star Rating: 1, Risk Factor: 3)
Architect
Edward Roberts with 1930s alterations by Beswick & Son
Date of Construction
1855
Listing
Grade II*
Capacity
400 (estimated)

Significance

Built in the Tudor Gothic style, the Mechanics’ Institute is a grand, Grade II* listed building, and a fine example of its kind. It was built as a social and community centre for staff of the Great Western Railway, providing them with facilities they would otherwise have had little access to. It opened in 1855 with a library, coffee room and reading room. In 1930 the centre of the building was badly damaged by fire and the first floor hall was rebuilt as a theatre, with an enlarged stage. It was a pretty theatre with an elaborate proscenium and (unusually for its kind) a fly tower. It is located at the heart of the Railway Village, the community it once served.

Why is this theatre at risk?

The theatre closed in 1986 and has since been disused, falling into greater and greater disrepair.

Current situation

A local group, the Mechanics' Institution Trust (MIT), has been campaigning to save the building and would like to see it become a community and cultural hub. The group was invited by Swindon Borough Council to sit on a steering committee for a council-funded viability study for the building. In 2016 when works on this viability study appeared to have stalled MIT secured funding from the Architectural Heritage Fund to complete its own viability study for the building. Theatres Trust provided viability and business plan advice around the theatre aspect. The study indicated that there is a potential future for the Mechanics’ as a community hub, which would include restoration and reopening of the theatre. In 2017, MIT appointed a part-time director to focus on the project development. There is a strengthening body of local support for MIT and its community-focused project.

In April 2018, the council and MIT joined together as co-signatories on a bid for The Railway Village to become an Historic England Heritage Action Zone (HAZ). The bid was successful and the area will now benefit from funding and specialist support from Historic England over a five-year period. While this will not benefit the Mechanics Institute directly, it is an important way of focusing attention, skills, funding and strategy on the Railway Village and will help lay the foundations for future bids for the area including the Mechanics Institute.

In the meantime, work to combine the outcomes from both the council and MIT’s viability studies, which was due to take place in 2018, was put on hold to focus on the HAZ bid. It is hoped that this will be restarted in 2019. Theatres Trust has been invited to sit on the steering group for the study.

MIT will also be continuing with its work to commission detailed business planning advice and specialist consultants to further develop its proposal in order to secure stakeholder support and hope to approach Heritage Lottery Fund for a Round 1 grant. This work will be funded thanks to financial support from the Architectural Heritage Fund and The Pilgrim Trust. An in-depth condition survey is also planned to be commissioned and paid for by Swindon Borough Council.

The Mechanics Institute has been under the jurisdiction of the Crown Estate following the dissolution of Forefront Estates Ltd, the previous owner, in 2012. The company was dissolved with debts to the council over urgent repair works to the Mechanics still outstanding. However, an application to restore the company has recently been approved, which it is understood includes the return of all assets previously owned by the company returned to it by the Treasury Solicitor. The Mechanics Institution Trust and Swindon Borough Council are currently investigating legal options.

In May we were delighted to support the theatre with a grant as part of our Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme. 

Update November 2019

With funding from our Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme, alongside financial support from the Architectural Heritage Fund, the Mechanics Trust has commissioned specialist consultants Fourth Street and Donald Insall Associates to undertake a viability study to determine the best use for the building.

Campaign video (from 2016)

Swindon Mechanics Institute video

Image: Mechanics' Institute, Theatres Trust