A New Life in Swindon

In 1937 my parents moved to Swindon from Luton when there was a slump in the straw hat trade. My father had managed a Singer Sewing Machine shop in Luton, and all the ‘home-workers’ who had been buying sewing machines and electric motors on hire-purchase returned them when the slump came, father’s income depended on commission from sales, and we could not manage without it.

A new firm was opening a shop in Swindon, and my father was offered the job of manager. This was his old trade of boot and shoe repairs, and the manager was expected to start up the business from scratch, working and serving in the shop and generally doing everything that needed doing, from window cleaning to furniture moving. The shop was in the ‘old’ town of Swindon at the top of a hill. It had been standing empty for a long time, and I well remember the day we arrived.

We’d left Luton early on a Sunday morning in a BSA three-wheeler. There was one bench seat across the front and we sat in a row with me, a bewildered seven-year-old, in the middle, a tortoise on my knee and a rabbit in a cardboard box.

We’d said a tearful farewell to friends and neighbours (my mother was very reluctant to move) and set off into the unknown. The roads were very quiet then, and traffic on a Sunday was almost non-existent.

We arrived in the afternoon to find that the furniture had already been delivered, and had been packed into one room on the ground floor. Everywhere was thick with dust and cobwebs, and I recall my mother sitting down on the stairs and weeping, father was no defeatist, though, and soon had a bucket of hot water and a scrubbing brush. With his encouragement my mother rallied, and they both cleaned one room sufficiently to put up the beds before dark.

The following morning revealed not only more dirt and cobwebs, but rotten floorboards which had to be repaired before the furniture could be moved.

I can remember now my feelings of bewilderment as I sat on the stairs watching all this activity and wondering why we’d had to move in the first place.

Situated as we were on the slope of a hill, the gardens of the adjacent shops were stepped up the hill like a staircase. On the lower side was a fish and chip shop. There were three boys in the family. I could look over the wall down into their garden and watch them playing ball. On the other side the wall rose up high and I could see into their very neat garden only from my bedroom window. This was a jeweller’s shop, and I formed the impression that the people living there were very ‘posh’. They had one little daughter of about my own age who went to a private school. She never ever spoke to me and was seldom seen outside.

The hill sloped away again from the bottom of our garden, and we could see over the rooftops to the hills beyond.

After dark the occasional isolated glimmer of light would show up way in the distance and set me wondering about its source. Sometimes, when gazing out of the window (when I should have been in bed) I’d see the distant lights of a train winding its way around the hills. I still re-live that thrill and curiosity when I see train lights at night, wondering where it’s going to and who is travelling on it. As a rather lonely only child, with both parents working in the shop for long hours, I wove romantic stories around those mystical lights that twinkled in the distant hills.

Swindon was like two towns then, with the newer railway cottages, station and larger shops like Woolworth’s down at the bottom of the hill and the older, rather shabbier buildings at the top. I recollect my trepidation about starting at a new school and walking along what seemed to be endless streets to Lethbridge Road School (which I believe is still there). All the children in my class had already formed their friendships, and as the newcomer I always felt the odd one out.

To avoid the tedium of walking home along the same streets, I sometimes took a different route along a very dusty, comparatively busy road. Although it wasn’t so pleasant, there was the fascination of two particular shop windows. One was a joke shop, which always held me spellbound as I watched the ‘jumping beans’ in a little dish. The other was no more than a small house window, with a few dolls sitting forlornly and gazing out. Over the top was painted ‘The Doll’s Hospital’ and I never quite understood what it meant. No matter how many times I looked into the window, the dolls never changed position.

This longer route home also took me past the printing works where the local weekly newspaper was produced. To a child it appeared to be a noisy, exciting place which was open to the footpath, where you could stand and watch the papers rolling off the press. Sometimes I’d be given a newspaper to take home. I suspect now that it was probably a ‘bribe’ to make me go away.

As the year wore on we became more integrated into the local community, but nothing
had prepared us for the annual ‘trip week’. This seemed to be the highlight of the year, when everyone disappeared. Customers asked us where we’d be going and, mystified, we said: “Nowhere”. However at the chosen time in midsummer the town was suddenly deserted. Shops were shut and the streets were empty. As Swindon was a railway town, and the majority of its population worked in the vast locomotive workshops, rail travel was the most popular form of transport.

When the workshops closed for the annual holiday everyone took advantage of the special rail excursions that were laid on. After experiencing two days of ‘dead’ trade, my father decided to shut up shop and join them. How exciting it was to stand outside the station and read all the chalked boards advertising the daily trips – Porth Cawl and Weston-super-Mare 2/-, Margate 2/6d. We actually took both of those trips, and what seems so amazing now is that we didn’t have to change anywhere.

few people possessed cars in those days, and after father sold his little three-wheeler we were restricted to ‘Shanks’s Pony’. Every Sunday, fair weather or foul, we’d go out walking, leaving the Sunday lunch cooking in a very low oven.

Occasionally on those long country walks we’d stop at a lonely hostelry for a cool drink in the garden. One in particular I remember sold pickled eggs (never seen before) and 6d (which my mother thought was very expensive) would buy you a thick slice of bread, a pickled onion and a piece of cheese.

I well remember returning home to the wonderful smell of roast beef wafting from the kitchen. After several hours spent tramping over the Wroughton Downs or Marlborough Downs, sometimes against a bracing wind, the prospect of a roast dinner waiting at home quickened the steps and restored flagging spirits.

On Saturdays the local children would all head for Cote Water, an early version of a leisure park, with a large lake for boats and a bathing pool and paddling pool for toddlers. I seem to remember also a children’s playground with swings and other amusements.

Sometimes we’d cross the fields behind the church to pick blackberries, and I recall clearly my distress when I slipped on a cow pat and fell over, spilling my precious bag of berries.

I wonder how many other readers would remember those pre-war days at Swindon and the exciting outings in ‘trip week’?,

Eileen Randall