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.

The exterior of Swindon Mechanics Institute with white hoarding around the perimeter.
Address
Emlyn Square, Railway Village, Swindon, Wiltshire, SN1 5BP
Risk Rating
7 (Community Value: 2, Star Rating: 2, Risk Factor: 3)
Owner
Forefront Estates
Architect
Edward Roberts; alterations 1892-1893 by Brightwen Binyon; alterations1930s 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 by and 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, but these were removed in 1864.

An early plan for a new theatre on the site in the location of the market hall in 1878 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 Swindon Mechanics’ Institute has been on the Theatres at Risk Register since 2006 when we started the list.

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

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 Swindon Borough 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 reinstatement of Forefront Estates in 2018 has seen all assets returned to the company, including the Mechanics’ Institute. The company’s intentions for the building are unknown, however past history does not bode well and the dereliction of the building is now extreme.

The Mechanics Institution Trust Ltd (MIT), a social enterprise that operates as a building preservation trust and development trust has long been campaigning for the building to be restored. In 2019 MIT, working alongside the council, commissioned a viability study (see Theatre Potential below) that sets out a sustainable route to saving the building and seeing it restored and returned to active use. A key factor in realising this ambition is ownership. It is considered essential that the building be transferred from Forefront Estates to an organisation with the appropriate skills and capacity to stabilise, restore and reopen it.

The council has provided strong support for MIT and is publicly committed to saving the building and helping to achieve an ownership solution but it is not in a position to take ownership itself. MIT is keen to take the lead on the project but it requires support to build capacity and to further develop the organisation. It is currently fundraising for both this and additional work on detailed business, fundraising and financial planning.

While the involvement of the council and the publication of the viability study has given new confidence and momentum to the project, there is still a long way to go before the ambitions are achieved.

Dilapidated section of the balcony at the back of the theatre space at the Mechanics auditorium in 2003, with peeling red paint and some boarded up windowsTheatre potential

MIT has been campaigning to save the building and would like to see it become a community and cultural hub. There has been a strengthening of local support for MIT including from Swindon Borough Council, and a desire to see the building restored and reopened through a community-focused project.

In April 2018 the council and MIT were 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, improvements to the public realm and to promote awareness of the area. The HAZ will also enable and support future grant funding bids for the area and for the Mechanics’ Institute.

In 2019 MIT, working alongside Swindon Council, Historic England and Theatres Trust commissioned a new viability study for the building. The study, part-funded through the Architectural Heritage Fund and part through our Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme, indicated that there could be a potentially sustainable future for the Mechanics’ Institute as a multi-purpose venue with a mixed programme of community and cultural activities underpinned by commercial rentals. This would see the theatre on the first floor of the building returned to live performance use alongside some commercial hire.

Current situation

The council has been investigating the impact of the change of status of the ownership of the Mechanics’ Institute following the reinstatement of Forefront Estates in 2018.

At the council's Cabinet meeting of 22 April 2020, approval was given for council officers to prepare the paperwork for a Compulsory Purchase Order for the building. Any legal intervention of this kind requires evidence that the building will be better off in the ownership of the local authority or an organisation that the council intends to hand it to. Part of this evidencing is a better understanding of the scale of the works required to see the Mechanics’ restored.

In November 2020, aided by grant funding from Historic England, the council completed a hazardous materials survey on the building. A conditions survey is due to commence in early 2022, which will allow the scale of the cost of the capital works and the size of the heritage deficit to be better understood.

The work on the HAZ and on the viability study has seen Swindon Council, Historic England, and MIT working closely together. Theatres Trust will continue to work alongside all parties to help see the ambition of the 2019 viability study achieved.

Main photo Mechanics' Institute, Theatres Trust