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.
- Emlyn Square, Railway Village, Swindon, Wiltshire, SN1 5BP
- Risk Rating
- 7 (Community Value: 2, Star Rating: 2, Risk Factor: 3)
- Local Authority
- Swindon Borough Council
- Forefront Estates
- Edward Roberts; alterations 1892-1893 by Brightwen Binyon; alterations 1930s by Beswick & Son
- Date of Construction
- Grade II*
- Estimated at 400
- Database Link
- View in Theatres Database
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 the 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 saw all assets returned to the company, including the Mechanics’ Institute. The company has indicated no interest in the building since and the dereliction is now extreme.
There is strong support to save and restore the building from local building preservation and development trust, Swindon Heritage Preservation Trust (previously known as the Mechanics’ Institution Trust Ltd), and also from the council. However, the ownership of the building remains a barrier to the ambition.
Mechanics’ Institution Trust Ltd has long campaigned to save the Mechanics’ Institute and would like to see it become a community and cultural hub. There is a strengthening of local support to see the building restored and reopened through a community-focused project including from Swindon Borough Council.
In April 2018 the council and Swindon Heritage Preservation Trust (as the Mechanics’ Institution Trust Ltd) were co-signatories on a bid to Historic England for the Railway Village to become a Heritage Action Zone with a focus on delivering enhancements to key buildings and facilities within the Railway Village, improvements to the public realm and to promoting awareness of the area. The bid was successful and subsequently the area, including the Mechanics’ Institute, has benefitted from funding and specialist support from Historic England over a five-year period.
In 2019 Swindon Heritage Preservation Trust, Swindon Borough Council, Historic England and Theatres Trust formed a stakeholder group to commission a new viability study for the Mechanics’ Institute. The study, part-funded through the Architectural Heritage Fund and part through Theatres Trust Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme, indicated that there could be a potentially sustainable future for the building 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.
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 on 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 evidence is a better understanding of the scale of the works required to see the Mechanics’ Institute restored.
In November 2020, aided by grant funding from Historic England, the council completed a hazardous materials survey on the building. A conditions survey has also been completed, which has estimated the cost of the capital works and the size of the heritage deficit and also identified some urgent works to be carried out in order to prevent any further deterioration of the building.
In March 2023 it was announced that Historic England had provided a grant of £10k to cover some initial repairs for the building. The works, commissioned by the council, have helped enable further understanding of ‘hard to reach’ parts of the building, including the flytower structure and roof. Further urgent works are required including the removal of vegetation and to stop spread of buddleia.
Local elections in May 2023 saw a change in leadership at the council. The new cabinet has pledged its commitment to working collaboratively with residents and to making positive plans for the town’s heritage sites and buildings, including the Mechanics’ Institute. In November 2023, the council held a special public event to kick-start a borough-wide engagement on heritage. This event together with a public consultation will help inform a new Heritage Action Plan for Swindon.
November 2023 also saw the completion of a mural for the South elevation of the Mechanics’ Institute hoardings. The work, undertaken by professional graffiti and street artist, Jaksta Arts, was commissioned by Swindon Heritage Preservation Trustworking the Heritage Action Zone.
Main photo Mechanics' Institute, Theatres Trust