If you asked people across Britain to say what they knew about Swindon, they’d probably mumble something about the Magic Roundabout, the Designer Outlet Centre or the epic waterslides at the Oasis Leisure Centre. There’s an awful lot more to Swindon than that though – the town’s history has been endlessly exciting and often eye-openingly immoral. Fancy learning more?
Swindon is full of… DRUNKENESS
Despite the fact that Jägerbombs and Tesco Value Vodka were a long way from existing, old newspapers are full of stories of Swindonians having a little too much to drink. For example, in July 1887 local man William Wood Clark was taken to court, where Police Constable Haynes asserted that he found the prisoner, “… in a lane leading from Little London into Cricklade Street. He was very drunk, and was using foul language, cursing the Queen and Royal Family.”
In addition to offering foul-mouthed forms of republicanism, many of Swindon’s offenders also seemed to have become physically aggressive. In June 1903, Henry Skinner, of Devises Road, was put on trial for being drunk and disorderly, and for “slashing an umbrella over people’s heads”. He was sent to prison for seven days.
That was nothing compared to Charles Willis, of 43 Cheltenham Street, who on one night in November 1905 managed to assemble a truly impressive array of criminal charges. He was charged with being drunk and disorderly, assaulting a policeman, assaulting the man trying to assist the policeman, and then doing ‘wilful damage to the woodwork of the police cells’. He was sentenced to three months’ hard labour, which was probably fair enough by the sounds of it.
It wasn’t the case that every sozzled Swindonian ended up embroiled in physical violence – some were just charged with drink driving instead. In March 1877, Thomas New was charged with being “drunk at Swindon whilst in charge of a wagon and three horses”. In his defence Thomas claimed that he “only took a drop of beer to keep out the cold, and having no food, this got into my head.” Sure Thomas, whatever you say.
It wasn’t that long before people began upgrading their stupidity from horses to something a little faster – in August 1899 Frederick Daugerfield, of South Street, was fined for being drunk at the wheel of a car. Sure, the cars of the time could barely get past 20 mph, but that’s not really the point!
Now, you may have noticed that all of these accounts only feature men. It’s worth pointing out that this wasn’t always the case; in June 1903 Jane Rouse, of Telford Street (now Cheney Manor Road), was in court for “lying in the street helplessly drunk’. Her claim that she was “sensible and could have walked home all right”, doesn’t seemed to have helped her, and she received a weighty fine.
Swindon is full of… IMMORAL VICARS
Well, when I say ‘full of’, I’m actually referring to one particular individual – Reverend Newton Ebenezer Howe, who for about ten years filled local newspapers with stories of his various dishonest misdeeds.
It all started in late 1890, when it would seem that Reverend Howe (who was married) became a little too friendly with one of his Sunday School teachers, Miss Marion Ormond. The Western Daily Press reported that he was frequently seen, “walking and being alone with her in secluded places, putting his arms around her waist and kissing her.” The Bristol Mercury added that he had “solicited the chastity of Marion Ormond, and endeavoured to have criminal intercourse with her.” Blimey.
He was subsequently suspended from the role of Vicar for three years, but a few months later he was in trouble again, after accusations surfaced that he had previously withheld church money intended for the poor. Not cool Reverend, not cool.
Amazingly, the dodgy vicar was reinstated after his suspension, although he was soon creating further outrage amongst the wider citizenry. This time he wasn’t soliciting the chastity of young women or being horrid to the unfortunate, he was insisting that burials were undertaken in Swindon churchyard, despite the fact that it was already fully occupied. His churchwardens were so alarmed that they wrote a letter to the Government, complaining that a gravedigger had recently tried to dig a grave and, “exposed portions of two coffins, and bucketful of offensive fluid ran over his boots from the corpse nearby”.
The Reverend subsequently managed to keep himself out of the newspapers for a few years, but in March 1900 he was again pulled before a judge by another accusation of ‘Adultery‘. The issue was that a young lady, Mary Roskell, had been living in his house, although seemingly with his wife’s permission this time. All the individuals involved professed that it was a chaste, paternal sort of relationship, including Ms Roskell herself, who said in court that “she never visited him in his bedroom, or sat in his study in her dressing gown.”
Given the lack of real evidence, Reverend Howe was let off the hook, although a lawyer at the trial, Mr Dickens, added that “the 1890 occurrence of Adultery could not be discounted with the present case, because it showed what the man was.” I’m not sure I’d be able to disagree.
Although he managed to skip merrily away from the law on this occasion, it wasn’t long before his depraved antics caught up with him for good. In 1901 he was found guilty of defrauding a man with a false cheque, and was sentenced to a year in prison with hard labour.
The seemingly inexhaustible patience of the Church of England also appears to have run out at this point, and in December 1901, in a ceremony attended by various Bishops, Reverend Howe was formally “removed, deposed and degraded” from the office of Priest.
About time too! Jesus…
Swindon is full of… BLOKES WITH WEAPONS
There’s more to Swindon’s history than just insolent inebriates and perfidious priests – the town has also seen a number of armies roll on through, some of which have started actual battles nearby.
In 825, when England was divided between several constantly warring realms, the Kingdom of Wessex slashed and bashed the Kingdom of Mercia to a stand-still on Swindon’s doorstep. Research would indicate that the battlefield was located where Wroughton is now. It probably looked really cool.
Swindon appears to have been left alone by the various medieval wars of the next millennia, but 800 years later it suddenly found itself on the national stage once again. At this point the country was embroiled in the horrific English Civil War, when King fought Parliament, and men with crappy muskets fought other men with crappy muskets.
In September 1643 a Parliamentarian army, led by the Earl of Essex, spent the night at Swindon on its way back to the capital. The troops, mainly comprised of “artisans and shopkeepers” from London, spent the night camped around (what would become) Marlborough Road. They were presumably a fairly interesting sight for the Swindonians of the day, if only because they had 1,000 captured sheep with them. What the sheep thought of the English Civil War, history declines to tell us.
The next morning, the Parliamentarian army set off down the road, but were soon ambushed near Aldbourne by a Royalist army led by the dashing cavalry commander, Prince Rupert. The resulting battle was bloody, inconclusive and probably terrified the poor sheep.
In the 20th century, Britain’s bloody battles were exported abroad, but Swindon still remained a centre of military activity. During the First World War, a series of military camps were located all over the surrounding area, including the infamous ‘Bad Boys Camp’ at Chiseldon. This was a military hospital for soldiers who had contracted sexually transmitted diseases, which was surrounded by barbed wire to try and keep the patients isolated. This didn’t seem to work particularly well, as Swindon Web records,
“There were many instances of patients breaking out from this unit and heading for Swindon, especially the brothels of the Newport Street and Morley Street areas”.
Some of the soldiers didn’t even have to go that far – a shanty town known as Piccadilly sprang up next to the camp, and apparently, “Ladies from Swindon used to get the early train, known locally as the meat train, and come down to Piccadilly and ‘entertain’ soldiers from the camp whenever they got the chance.” Oh dear…
The Second World War also saw a concentration of troops in and around Swindon, including large numbers of Americans, who were often billeted in the houses of local people. Whilst these foreign visitors generally got on well with their hosts, not every Swindonian was happy to see them. One US Army X-Ray Technician, Dan Leary, recorded his experience of Swindon’s hospitality.
“George Yoder and I are practically shoved inside a row house to face a rather frightened elderly woman who is apparently alone. At first sight of the two of us, she mutters incoherently and bolts from the room and up the stairs, to the safety of her bedroom. We can hear the movement of heavy furniture against the door.
We must have appeared as monsters from another world with our great steel pot on our heads, the bulky GI overcoats, the masks, a huge pack on our backs and the always overloaded barracks bag. No wonder the poor soul fled the scene.”
Bless her. It sounds like she wasn’t a massive fan of the Second World War.
Swindon is full of… CRIMES OF PASSION
During the 19th century, Swindon’s population rocketed upwards, as many thousands of people moved to the town to find employment in the new railway works. In this topsy-turvy world of new arrivals and changing communities, it’s not really surprising that a number of murders were subsequently recorded throughout the town. Rather than try to flit through a variety of these stories though, I think it makes sense to focus on one particularly poignant case.
The story involved a young couple, Mr Edward ‘Dick’ Palmer (24) and Ms Esther ‘Hettie’ Swinford (19), “an exceedingly respectable girl”. They had met in 1901 in the Ship Hotel on Westcott Place where Esther worked as a barmaid, and were soon devoted lovers, engaged to be married.
In September 1902, a short time before the wedding, it would seem that Edward had lost a large amount of money gambling on horse races. On the day of the wedding itself, he dramatically called the proceedings off and then vanished from Swindon without leaving a trace. It soon came to light that he had started working as a gardener in various towns across the country, and the estranged couple began exchanging letters. Her responses were terribly sweet, as you can see in these extracts.
“To my own Dearest Dick,
I was not surprised at all to hear from you, Dick; in fact, something seemed to tell me I should see or hear from you before long.
You have been in my eyes and mind since the day you left Swindon. Oh, that time Dick! I ought to try and forget it, but when I think of it, it nearly breaks my heart. Oh Dick I would give my life to you to be on the same footing as we were before.
They [Hettie’s family] insult you, but please God. I shan’t have to stand it much longer. Oh, my darling, how I do miss you. You were the only in the world I cared for… I would sooner die than be false and dishonourable to you.
I remain, dearest Dick, your broken-hearted Het.”
What happened between them over the next year is unclear, but it would seem that Hettie simply got over him. On the 18th September 1903 Dick arrived back in Swindon, and appeared at the Ship Hotel, where Hettie was still working. He ordered a bottle of beer and a cigar, and tried to start a conversation, only to receive the reply:
“I do not wish to have anything more to do with you.”
This must have upset him a great deal, for within moments Hettie was lying dead on the floor, a bullet through her heart. In the resulting trial, Dick claimed that:
“On the impulse of the moment, I pulled the revolver out of my pocket to frighten her. She dropped the cigar box and caught my wrist, and in snatching back, the revolver exploded. I was stunned.”
It would later transpire that he was carrying a photograph of Hettie at the time, with the words “The Curse of my Life” written on the back, which didn’t really help his claim that it was a complete accident. The Jury weren’t in the mood to treat him kindly, and he was quickly found Guilty of ‘Wilful Murder’. The Judge didn’t pull any punches with his verdict:
“For Wilful Murder the law knows but one sentence, and that I am bound to pronounce. It is that you be taken hence to the place of execution, and there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that you be buried within the precincts of the gaol.
May the Lord have mercy upon your soul.”
The Swindon Advertiser and North Wilts Chronicle wrote that:
“During the passing of the sentence, the silence in Court was well-nigh breathless. As soon as his Lordship concluded, Palmer, who stood as one transfixed during the pronouncement, turned, but as he moved towards the staircase leading from the dock, he swayed, and had to be assisted down the steps.”
He was taken back to Devizes Gaol to await his sentence, where he was “apparently quite indifferent to his fate”. On the 17th November 1903, he was executed.
I’m sorry – I can’t make a joke about this bit, it’s just a little too sad.
Swindon is full of… RURAL NICENESS
After all this weighty nastiness, I think we should probably end our mosey around Swindon’s history on something a little more pleasant.
In 1826, back when Swindon was just a small market town populated by cheery cider-swilling country folk (probably), it was visited by the famous journalist and politician, William Cobbett.
He was very taken with the place, and wrote that Swindon was, “a very neat and plain and solid and respectable market town… This is the real fat of the land, all being wheat, beans, cheese, or fat meat… There is in my opinion no land in England that surpasses this.”
If that impressed him, I bet he would have loved the Oasis waterslides.
Author’s Note: If you’d like to learn more about Swindon past then I encourage you to have a look at the history section of Swindon Web – it’s full of the most amazing stories and information, far more than I could fit into this article.
Will Hazell is a freelance copywriter who works primarily in the heritage and conservation sectors, though he enjoys dipping into other fields from time to time. If you’d like to hire his writing talents you can find him at Will Finds the Words.
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- BBC News, World War One: Chiseldon training camp’s soldiers with VD, 2014
- Bristol Mercury, 13/12/1890
- Cobbett W, Rural Rides, 1830
- Hampshire Advertiser, 28/03/1900
- Swindon Advertiser, When the Roundheads and Cavaliers came to Swindon
- Swindon Advertiser and North Wilts Chronicle, 28/03/1891
- Swindon Advertiser and North Wilts Chronicle, 12/06/1903
- Swindon Advertiser and North Wilts Chronicle, 25/09/1903
- Swindon Advertiser and North Wilts Chronicle, 30/10/1903
- Swindon Web, The Yanks are Coming!
- Warminster & Westbury Journal, 28/12/1895
- Western Daily Press, 13/12/1890
- Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser, 07/12/1901
- Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser, 07/11/1903