Swindon's 160 greatest headline makers...part 9
Updated 3:57pm Thursday 31st July 2014 in By Barry Leighton
TO celebrate the Adver’s 160th anniversary this year we present a Swindon Roll of Honour comprising 160 headline makers from the history of our town.
Here you will find those whose work and achievements have helped raise the standing and profile of both the town and the borough, or who have striven to improve the lives of ordinary folk.
It includes the greats of industry, commerce and technology along with those who have gained prominence through sport, arts, culture and media.
We have attempted to cut through the strata of Swindon life to include some of the town’s many colourful characters…along with two horses, a dog and one or two who have brought infamy crashing down upon us.
Here is the penultimate chapter in our series of ten.
RICHARDSON, JON (1982-)
Comedian Jon Richardson quite literally got his act together in Swindon.
Lancashire-born Richardson lived in the town for five years after dropping out of university, during which time he went from an unknown comic to a swiftly rising star.
He is best known for his regular appearances on Channel 4’s 8 Out of Ten Cats and hosting a Sunday morning radio music show on BBC 6.
He was a regular comic on the Channel 4 show Stand Up for the Week while his other TV appearances include The Real Man’s Road Trip – Sean and Jon Go West, and OCD.
ROBERTS, HARRY (1921-1992)
Yorkshireman Harry Roberts, a former WW2 prisoner-of-war, became the manager of the Swindon railway works in 1972 when it was under the shadow of closure.
Brought in to slam shutters on more than 130 years of railway history, he did exactly the opposite and prolonged “the works” for many years to come.
Managing the engineering plant for nine years until his retirement in 1981 he quickly recognised the worth and expertise of the workforce and won a string of important contracts that kept the enterprise afloat.
If it hadn’t been for “works saviour” Harry, Swindon would have become an unemployment black-spot.
When the complex finally did shut in 1986 new employment opportunities were arriving in the expanding town.
Upon Harry’s death, Lord Stoddart of Swindon said: “Swindon and the railway owe him a great debt of gratitude.”
ROGERS, DON (1945-)
Arguably Swindon Town’s finest ever player, Rogers made his debut at 17 and went on to play 487 games for the club, scoring 181 times.
His goals famously helped Town to Wembley for the first time in 1969 where he skated through the mud to score two in extra time, securing a 3-1 win over Arsenal in the League Cup Final – the greatest day in the club’s history.
Despite the interest of bigger clubs, Rogers stayed at the County Ground until being enticed to Crystal Palace in 1972.
After a spell at QPR he returned to Swindon in 1976 when a hip injury, caused by the trademark body-swerve that enabled him to bamboozle many-a-defender, ended his career.
Today, the south stand at the County Ground proudly bears the name The Don Rogers Stand.
RUDMAN, SHELLEY (1981-)
Swindon-born Shelley is the town’s most successful Olympian, having won a silver medal for Great Britain in the 2006 Winter Games.
The former Swindon New College student and ex-member of Swindon Harriers athletics club was introduced to the sport of skeleton bobsleigh in 2002.
Just four years later in Turin she secured the nation’s first Winter Olympics silver since 1934.
Having been plagued by a knee injury and taken time out to have a daughter, she returned to win a silver in the 2008/09 Skeleton World Cup.
Other successes have included twice bagging the European Bob Skeleton Championships and winning the 2011-12 World Cup title. She also carried the GB flag during the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
SCOTT, HARRY (1941-)
Father-of-five Harry Scott volunteered his services to the Walcot Boxing Club after arriving in Swindon from Jamaica in the 1970s.
Over four decades he has had a big impact on the lives of the many boys and young men who have passed through the County Ground Hotel gym where Harry coaches up to five nights a week.
His ethos is that boxing is a great way of instilling discipline in youngsters.
“It is all about teaching respect and encouraging that in others. I always teach my students that without respect, you can’t hope to do well in life,” he says.
Harry’s devotion has seen him pick up a number of accolades over the years including the Mayor of Swindon’s Community Award, the Nationwide Building Society Community Award, ABA Coach of the Year, the Adver’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Youth Action Wiltshire Youth Leader Award.
SKURRAY, ERNEST (1865-1940)
Ever since he first set eyes on one, Ernest Skurray became obsessed with motorcars.
As a young man he quickly realised that the internal combustion engine would revolutionise travel.
He combined the family’s Swindon corn business with the sale and repair of cars, thus bringing the new-fangled motor trade to this town at around the turn of the century.
Initially based in Princess Street, Skurray’s later ditched the corn and focused on cars from a prominent and spacious Old Town site on the corner of Newport Street and High Street now occupied by the Co-op.
Skurray’s continued to thrive after the death of a “grand old man of the motor trade,” and – as one of the country’s oldest car dealers – it is now based at Hillmead, West Swindon with branches in Marlborough and Oxford.
SNELL, EDWARD (1820-1880)
Engineer Snell came to Swindon from Bristol in 1843 to work at the town’s fledgling GWR factory and swiftly rose to deputy works manager before emigrating to Australia six years later to dig for gold.
During a relatively short period here Snell left us with invaluable documents that paint a graphic picture of the early years of New Swindon.
From Snell’s diary we can look back on an era when “settlers” from all over the country lived in assorted wagons and caravans camped around the works while outbreaks of smallpox, typhus and cholera were vividly recorded.
Also an outstanding artist, he produced remarkable watercolours showing unique and fascinating views of the Swindon works and the Railway Village in the 1840s as well as detailed drawings of early GWR locomotives.
SPENCER, LADY DIANA (1734-1808)
Not that one, although they were distant relatives. Lady Di – as she was widely known in society – had the misfortune to marry Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke and lived at his family’s ancestral home, Lydiard House.
It was a desperately unhappy marriage with the vile, booze-ridden Freddy fully living up to his nickname of Bully.
Lady Di had the temerity – many would say courage – to run off with a young lover (who she eventually married after only the fourth divorce of the century) sending shockwaves through stony-faced society circles.
“The woman is a whore,” proclaimed Dr Samuel Johnson, the era’s foremost literary figure.
A talented artist, she produced a vast range of works including plaques, drawings, designs for Wedgewood china and decorative panels.
A room at Lydiard House is devoted to her works.
ST JOHN, LORD HENRY (1820-1899)
Is Henry St John, 5th Viscount Bolingbroke, Swindon’s greatest buffoon? He is certainly in with a shout.
From his stately home at Lydiard House Henry became increasingly embittered at the GWR hooter’s three early morning blasts summoning men to work.
In 1873 he applied for the abolition of the hooter, claiming the “loud piercing, roaring and distracted noise” from three miles away was detrimental to his health.
The response from GWR’s workforce was both scornful and emphatic. They raised a 4,339-word petition measuring 43 yards long that opposed the application.
The appliance was briefly silenced but as a result of ongoing local outrage, a new hooter was installed. His lordship, who lived to be 80, has since amusingly been known as Henry Hooter.
ST JOHN, LORD JOHN (1702-1748)
It was a grand design worthy of anything on Kevin McCloud’s TV show – the remodelling of a down-at-heel medieval pile into the magnificent, classically-styled mansion that is Lydiard House today.
It was the vision of John St John, Tory MP for Wootton Bassett, to virtually re-build the family’s sadly outdated two centuries old manor house.
And he had the good sense to take a wealthy wife, Anne Furnese, who bankrolled the job.
A spectacular new façade was created while Sir John employed an army of skilled stonemasons, plasterers and cabinet makers to create the elaborate marble fireplaces, and elegant interiors and furnishings that we can admire today.
Sadly, neither lived long enough to enjoy their palatial new house, dying within six months of each other in their forties.
STEVENS, FRED (1934-2010)
Adver readers of a certain age will need no introduction to Fred who for many years wrote engagingly and informatively about Swindon history in this newspaper.
Fred – a Cockney – came to Swindon in 1959 to drive tractors and later buses and coaches.
He had an insatiable passion for collecting and amassed an impressive hoard of postcards, photos, books, badges, coins, cigarette cards, stamps along with a huge array of other assorted ephemera.
This led him to convert a former auto shop into Collector’s Corner at the bottom of Kingshill Road which he ran for almost a quarter of a century.
Fred also organised Swindon’s first town hall antiques fair, had a history slot on BBC Wiltshire Radio and was at the heart of a successful campaign to thwart a proposed closure of Swindon Museum.
STILES, JOHNNIE (1914-1986)
Shortly before World War Two and for some years afterwards Swindon boasted one of the finest bands in the land.
During the days before rock and pop Swindon swung to the rhythm of the Johnnie Stiles Dance Band which regularly packed venues such as the Bradford Hall (Arts Centre), The Playhouse, The Rink (Locarno) and The Majestic (Milton Road baths).
Inspired by the likes of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, Johnnie was a trumpet-blowing maestro whose combo put Swindon on the musical map by twice winning the All British Dance Band championships.
An Adver report in February, 1949, told how the 14-piece band clinched the title for the second time in front of 6,500 “wildly screaming fans” in Manchester. More than 600 bands around the UK had entered the competition.
Johnnie also won a string of other awards before rock’n’roll in the late 1950s consigned his brassy outfit, along with the big band sound in general, to history.
STODDART, BARON DAVID (1926-)
Much of his 13-year tenure as Swindon’s Labour MP was spent working with British Rail Engineering Ltd and union representatives in an ongoing struggle to keep the town’s famous but fading railworks from closure.
Under a constant threat of the axe he helped achieve this goal, keeping thousands in work, but lost his seat in 1983 three years before the works finally went under.
Raised to the peerage, he proudly chose the name Baron Stoddart of Swindon.
Never a “yes man” who kowtowed to party politics, he was expelled by the Labour benches in the Lords in 2002 for making a principled stand against the party.
His numerous campaigns range from fighting for the diminishing rights of smokers – including those in Swindon – to taking a leading role in the drive for an Independent Britain free of the EU and railing against “monstrous” wind farms.
STRANKS, MABEL (1883-1971)
During the nation’s darkest days, when a Nazi invasion was a real threat, Highworth’s white-haired postmistress was recruited to play a pivotal role.
Mabel Stranks became a key member of Britain’s secret army, a network of auxiliaries trained to harass and sabotage the enemy in the event of an invasion. Between 1941 and 1944 some 3,000 auxiliaries called at Highworth post office where Mrs Stranks checked their papers before using a classified telephone number arranging for them to be taken for training to the unit’s hush-hush HQ at nearby Coleshill.
A Morse code telegraphist, Mrs Stranks was on a Nazi death list should the invasion ever materialise.
No-one, not even her three children, knew about her role until the existence of the auxiliaries was made public 20 years later. A plaque at Highworth post office commemorates Mrs Stranks’ important war-time exploits.
STREDDER, ROBERT (1941- )
Mime artist, fire juggler, clown, circus performer, surrealist, green campaigner, drama teacher, impersonator of naval officers (at least, that’s what the police once charged him with). Robert Stredder is all of these and more.
Ignoring his father’s wishes for him to become a lawyer, he did the next best thing and became an outlandishly costumed street entertainer – a role for which he has been well known in Swindon for nearly four decades.
Already versed in street cabaret, and having helped found the annual London to Brighton bicycle run, Robert arrived in Swindon in 1977 for the now defunct Groundwell Farm project, an arts/culture/performance hub.
Over the years he has regularly performed at fairs, fetes, festivals and all manner of functions in Swindon and farther afield.
With partner Jackie Bardwell, a trained gymnast, they tour as the multi-faceted theatrical troupe, Les Theatre des Bycyclettes.
SUTTON, MARK (1963- )
In the year we commemorate the centenary of World War One it is fitting to highlight the work of historian Mark Sutton who has done much to ensure that Swindon men who made the ultimate sacrifice are not forgotten.
Mark’s meticulously compiled 2006 book, Tell Them of Us – Remembering Swindon Sons of the Great War 1914-1918 heralded the 920 local men who lost their lives during the conflict.
The research led him to bring attention to the appalling state of some of the 100 plus graves and memorials of servicemen from both world wars at Swindon’s Radnor Street Cemetery.
Mark also helped found the Swindon in the Great War group which is this year organising a series of events to remember those who died in the killing fields of the “war to end all wars.”
As the August 4 anniversary approaches he has been refurbishing the much neglected Radnor Street Chapel which will be central to the town’s centenary commemorations.
To be continued...
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