GREAT WAR CENTENARY: Business (not) as usual

This Is Wiltshire: GWR workers stream down Rodbourne Road on their way to 'the office' GWR workers stream down Rodbourne Road on their way to 'the office'

Although many workers went off to war, the Works and other firms found ways to maintain production... 

THE Railway Works was at the forefront of Swindon’s war from first to last. Its hooter had long regulated the working lives of some 10,000 Swindonians and been a communal alarm clock for thousands more, but on Tuesday, August 4, 1914, at 7.40pm precisely, it sounded in a way that stopped people in their tracks.

There were 10 blasts, audible for miles around, and most of its listeners knew precisely what they heralded: the country was at war.

Great Western Railway bosses adopted a business as usual policy, but the truth went far beyond that. The Works would continue to turn out the locomotives, rolling stock and related machinery which had been its ‘business’ since the 1840s but it would also become a major equipper of the armed forces.

The huge complex of manufacturing plants housed trades as diverse as blacksmithing and draughtsmanship, leatherwork and carpentry, metal casting and precision engineering.

Its equipment and the talent of the men operating that equipment could be turned just as easily to producing the machinery of war as it had been to cementing Swindon’s global reputation as a railway town.

Normal production of locos and rolling stock continued, but there were also special engines and rolling stock for the war effort.

The locos were Dean Good 2301 class and the Armstrong goods class, of which almost 100 were thought to have been built – the exact figure is unavailable – along with 105 tenders.

Most of the locos were sent to France, with the rest finding their way into the eager hands of allies across Europe.

Hundreds of special wagons and carriages were built in Swindon during the war years, with the first ambulance trains ready by the end of August of 1914.

There were wagons designed to transport personnel, wagons designed to transport horses, wagons designed to transport ammunition and other supplies, and wagons designed to transport huge guns.

Many of the components of those huge guns, notably the mechanisms allowing them to be swivelled and their aim adjusted, were also built at Swindon. Hundreds of thousands of high-calibre, high-explosive shells were produced at the Works, along with parts of countless more for assembly elsewhere.

Other items produced ranged from stretchers for the wounded to saddlery for pack animals.

That these extra production demands were met was a remarkable achievement, especially in the light of constraints on manpower.

A quarter of a century later, at the outbreak of the Second World War, many railway workers were thwarted in their desire to join the armed forces because they were in what was deemed a Reserved Occupation. Like several other groups, including railway repair gangs, shipbuildeers and certain classes of scientist, their civilian work was deemed too important for them to enlist in the military.

At the beginning of the 1914-18 war, there were no such constraints and many men joined up. Some of their places were taken by women, many of whom were already feeling the strain of keeping families while husbands and fathers were away fighting.

Another feature of the Railway Works’ war noted by historians is the shrewd insistence on not cutting corners in terms of work practice and the maintenance of equipment and infrastructure such as the fabric of its buildings. This allowed it a strong competitive edge on its rivals once the hostilities ended.

The Railway Works was the biggest business in town, but it was far from being the only one with a role in the war effort.

Department store McIlroys, which would survive until 1998, was a good example. In those days department stores often produced their own goods in their own workshops, and McIlroys was no exception.

The government orders it processed included ones for more than 40,000 beds for use by the Army.

Gilberts in Old Town, meanwhile, was commissioned to turn out thousands of hospital beds and bedside cabinets, many of which found their way to the millitary hospital at Chiseldon, which was opened in 1915 and soon grew to become one of the largest of its kind. Like many companies entrusted with such work, it trumpeted the fact in its advertising.

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