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)
Owner
Forefront Estates
Architect
Edward Roberts with 1930s alterations by Beswick & Son
Date of Construction
1855
Listing
Grade II*
Capacity
Estimated at 400

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 reading, lecture and refreshment rooms as well as a market hall and shops. The building also incorporated baths, which were removed in 1864.

There were plans for a new theatre on the site in the location of the market hall in 1878, but this did not proceed. However, the building was adapted and extended in 1892. The market hall was demolished and replaced by an extension, which included a reading room, smoking room, billiards room at ground floor level and extra dressing rooms for the existing theatre / lecture hall at first floor level. 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. In 2002, Forefront Estates took ownership of the Mechanics’ Institute. However, the company was dissolved in 2012 with outstanding debts owed to the council for urgent repair works to the building. All company assets, including the Mechanics’ Institute, were then vested in the Crown with the council having first call on the assets as the principal creditor. The restoration of Forefront Estates in 2018 has seen all assets returned to the company. It is believed that this includes the Mechanics’ Institute. The company’s intentions for the building are unknown, however, past history does not bode well.

The building is also on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register.

Theatre potential

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. There is a strengthening body of local support for MIT and its community-focused project and a local desire to see the building restored and reopened.

There have been various viability studies over the years, however in 2019 the MIT, working alongside Swindon Borough Council, commissioned a new study for the building. This has been part funded through our Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme. The study has indicated that there could be a potential future for the Mechanics’ Institute as a multi-purpose space with a mixed programme of community and cultural programming but underpinned by commercial hires. This would see the theatre on the first floor of the building returned to live performance use alongside some commercial hire.

Current situation

In April 2018, the Council and MIT joined together as co-signatories on a bid to Historic England for the Railway Village to become a Heritage Action Zone (HAZ). The bid was successful and the area is now benefitting from funding and specialist support from Historic England over a five-year period. The HAZ aims to deliver enhancements to key buildings and facilities within the Railway Village, to improve public spaces, footpaths and signage, to develop a brand based on Swindon’s railway heritage, to carry out research, raise awareness and to promote the area through publications, tours, exhibitions and other cultural events. The HAZ will also enable and support future grant funding bids for the area and for the Mechanics’ Institute which is a priority project for Historic England.

MIT was successful in its bid for grant funding from the Architectural Heritage Fund in late 2018. The grant is being used to part fund a new viability study for the building, alongside funding secured through the Theatres Trust’s Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme. The AHF funding and will also go towards helping MIT commission further detailed business planning advice and specialist consultants to develop its proposals for the building.

The current work on the HAZ and on the viability study has seen the council, Historic England and MIT working closely together. Theatres Trust is working alongside all parties and is on the steering group for both projects. In addition to this work, the support of the council and Historic England has allowed an in-depth condition survey to be commissioned for the Mechanics’ Institute. Work is ongoing.

In the meantime, Swindon Borough Council is currently investigating the status of the ownership of the Mechanics’ Institute following the restoration of company Forefront Estates in 2018 and what legal options exist.

The finalised viability study together with the results of the conditions survey on the building were released in March 2020. The viability study has shown that a high-quality, multi-purpose events venue is the best option for the future use of the building.

Following the publication of the report, Swindon Borough Council’s cabinet member for heritage issues, Cllr Dale Heenan recommended that the council makes a Compulsory Purchase Order to secure ownership of the building.

At the Council Cabinet meeting of 22 April 2020, approval was given for the council’s officers to prepare the paperwork for a Compulsory Purchase Order for the building.

Campaign video (from 2016)

Swindon Mechanics Institute video

Main photo Mechanics' Institute, Theatres Trust