Pictures that keep town’s past alive

This Is Wiltshire: From left, Bob Townsend, Diane Everett and Andy Binks, of the Swindon Society From left, Bob Townsend, Diane Everett and Andy Binks, of the Swindon Society

ON Sunday the Swindon Society marks 40 years of chronicling “that.”

For a definition of “that,” here’s society secretary Diane Everett: “I thought when I was a youngster that I would never be interested, but as you get older your values and your ideas change.

“People come to think ‘If only I had remembered that’, so the Swindon Society being out there recording ‘that’ is a good thing.”

At the last count, “that” included 15,000 images of Swindon, its surrounding communities and their people, dating back well into the 19th century, as well as a small number of scanned documents.

There are fascinating shots of important people and auspicious occasions, consciously preserved for posterity at the time, but even more fascinating are the candid images. There are houses, shops, celebrations, wakes, tearful wavings-off and tearful reunions.

Victorian railway workers gaze out at us from the past, as do those who worked in the same engineering sheds 20 or 50 or 100 years later; some of the women wear crinolines, others minidresses, and children with hoops and sticks mingle with ones riding skateboards.

Old men rest on benches in isolated rural hamlets which were to be bustling districts of Swindon by the time our last monarch but one came to the throne, and hoardings on cinemas no longer there advertise films no longer remembered.

Many of the images were originally 35mm slides in the collection of local historian Jean Allen. Society member Bob Townsend said: “There were 8,221 35mm slides. I know because I digitised every one of them. “We’ve collected thousands more since. We’d like people to be more forthcoming with photographs – it’s been going through my mind to ask our members to adopt an area and then go and take photographs of local buildings, businesses, shops and pubs – or perhaps just their own road.”

The Swindon Society was founded in 1972 following a series of public talks by amateur local historian Eric Arman.

Its membership has doubled to 140 over the last couple of years, which it attributes to a higher media profile and interest in local history – prompted by many photographs available online.

As well as chronicling the history of Swindon and surrounding communities, the society helps people discover their own Swindon connections.

Andy Binks, who handles the society’s publicity, said: “A couple of years ago somebody from Manchester contacted us and said their uncle ran a pub in Wroughton many years ago. We were able to find an image of the pub’s door with the uncle’s name on it.”

The society is a major force in the Swindon Collection of images at the Central Library, whose Flickr presence is a delight to anybody with an interest in the area.

It has published books and DVDs, and is in the process of digitising the tens of thousands of candid street scenes assembled by legendary local amateur photographer Albert Beaney between 1945 and 1970. He was particularly known for his entrancing images of children. In the current, more fearful age, a man wandering the streets and taking pictures of children would also be taking his life in his hands, but Beaney was able to put together one of the best archives of its kind in the country.

Sunday’s anniversary will be marked at a private gathering for members, but the subjects lined up for presentations to the public this year at the Broad Green Centre in Salisbury Street range from the history of conservation and urban design to the life of a soldier in the First World War.

Membership costs £10 a year, with concessions available, and all presentations are open to the public for a £3 entry fee. The website is www.theswindonsociety.co.uk.

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