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Date added: 10 June 2011

The Far Reach Of The Mechanics 

A book from Swindon’s Mechanics’ Institute library has completed a 105-year, 4,000-mile journey – highlighting a proud chapter in Swindon’s history.

Book from the Mechanics' Institute Library Swindon
Jeff Long contacted SwindonWeb from his home in Tullahoma, Tennessee, USA, when a book he bought online arrived in the mail.

He bought the book - a history of Henry VIII - from a British dealer, and found himself as intrigued by the book’s own history as its contents.

Date stamps and other markings showed it was once part of the Mechanics’ famous library and had been borrowed by Swindon workers between 1906 and 1953.

“I enjoy tracking the important events in history that shaped political thought in the US,” said current owner Jeff. “The book is in excellent, usable condition, though we do handle it with care.

“I have read that the Mechanics’ Institute had one of the first lending libraries in the UK,” said Jeff. “Very progressive. I wonder if that means that we have them to thank for library fines!”
From Swindon to Tullahoma
Henry VIII
'Property' of The Mechanics Institute Library, Swindon
Henry VIII book from The Mechanics Institute Library, Swindon
Henry VIII book from The Mechanics Institute Library, Swindon
Book from the Mechanics Institute Library, Swindon
Henry VIII book from The Mechanics Institute Library, Swindon

The book is one of a growing number of ex-Mechanics’ artefacts to come to light that were assumed lost.

The organisation dedicated to preserving the building that housed the library, which also has detailed plans to return it to its rightful use as a servant to the local community, is the Mechanics’ Institution Trust.
But while they are well known for their campaign to see the bricks and mortar restored, they also hold and preserve a collection of items associated with the building, which includes a small proportion of a library that once ran to thousands of volumes.

“We have around 150 books and more than 30 pamphlets that were once in the Mechanics’ Library,” explained Daniel Rose, Chairman of the Trust. “They have been rescued, donated and purchased on our behalf over the years and have found their way back to us. But we would like to get hold of some more.

“In fact, we have an appeal out to local people who might have ex-Mechanics’ books and would like to see them ‘come home’.”
Book from the Mechanics Institute Library, Swindon

With some dating back to the origins of the library in the mid-19th century, these now have a value as museum pieces, and the Trust want to build up as large a collection as possible to ensure they are preserved.

They are easily recognised because they often have a Mechanics’ stamp in blue ink on the inside covers, usually carrying the words ‘GWR Swindon’.

This stamp is one reason for the common misconception that the organisation was set up by the GWR. In fact, it was instigated and run by railway workers themselves, for most of its existence, and had its origins back in 1843 when a small informal library was founded by workers. The following year saw the formal founding of the Mechanics’ Institution, and another ten years later, they got a building of their own.

The institute was formed “for the purpose of disseminating useful knowledge and encouraging rational amusement amongst all classes of people employed by the GWR company at Swindon”, and although its founders might not have envisaged that useful knowledge being disseminated as far as Tennessee, they certainly had vision.

The Mechanics’ was soon catering for far-ranging community needs, from a covered market to baths for washing and even a theatre, but the jewel in the crown was always its library, which ran to tens of thousands of books and was eventually housed in three locations – the main Mechanics’ building in the heart of the Railway Village plus reading rooms in Rodbourne and Gorse Hill.
Mechanics Institute Reading Room
The Mechanics' Institute Reading Room
In its heyday (above) and derelict now
Mechanics Institute Reading Room
Mechanics Institute, Swindon
Mechanics' Institute, Swindon:
circa 1900 (above)
and during recent urgent work to save the building from collapse
Mechanics Institute, Swindon

Technically a private collection because it was owned and run by the town’s railwaymen, in fact it is considered one of the first public libraries – not just in Britain but in the world – on account of the fact that so many local people had access to it. The vast majority of Swindon workers were railwaymen, and since their families also enjoyed the benefit of everything the Mechanics’ did, most of the local population could borrow books.

Members kept their own catalogues at home, from which they selected the books they wanted to borrow, and these were regularly updated. The Trust’s collection includes a few of these, which are bound just like the books they catalogue.

This railwaymen’s library was so pre-eminent that it actually caused those Swindonians without GWR connections to lose out. As long as the Mechanics’ library existed, there seemed little justification for providing another library for the minority of the local population who didn’t have access to it. But an influx of new people to Swindon during the Second World War, including foreign troops and, appropriately, Americans arriving in preparation for D-Day, highlighted the fact that those without railway connections in Swindon had fallen behind the rest of the country when it came to the provision of libraries.

So in 1943 – exactly a century after the railwaymen first considered the idea of lending and borrowing books – the town finally got its first official public library. It was a clear example of how the railway’s influence was beginning to fade – or rather how other industries and concerns in Swindon were growing, ready to fill the vacuum that the railways would leave.

By the 1960s, the independent Mechanics’ Institute had been replaced by the nationalized British Rail Staff Association, and this led to a merger of the town’s two libraries.

The old Mechanics’ books were gradually withdrawn from circulation, and were either destroyed or found their way into small collections. Over the years, first ex-railwaymen and then the general public were given the opportunity to buy ex-library books, so there are potentially thousands still owned by local families, even today, although there is no real way of knowing how many still exist.

And that’s why the Trust want to track them down – and why they would love to hear from local people wishing to donate books.
Mechanics Institute Swindon
Mechanics Institute, Swindon

Daniel said: “We intend to preserve whatever former Mechanics’ books we can, and add them to our collection. That could mean donating them now, or perhaps making arrangements for them to be bequeathed to us.

“We think they are an important part of Swindon’s history, along with anything else associated with the Mechanics’ - and we want to preserve them for posterity.

“We don’t have the money to buy books, but we can give them a good home and we already have the facilities to store them.

“But it’s not just the books we are interested in. We want to hear the stories behind them, too.

“So if anybody has an ex-Mechanics’ book or knows the whereabouts of one, and they want to see it preserved along with the others, we’d love to hear from them.”

For contact deals, see http://mechanics-trust.org.uk

The Mechanics’ Library of the Future

The story of the Mechanics’ Institute’s old library books is not just about the past and the present.

It’s now also about the future because the Trust dedicated to saving the building is about to implement an ambitious plan to also preserve the spirit of the Mechanics’ - by setting up their own lending library.

Separate from the older books it keeps as a special collection, the Mechanics’ Institution Trust also has one of the country’s biggest private libraries, running to more than 4,000 books and including a large number concerning railway and local history.

Mechanics Trust Logo
have been gathered in the 16 years since the Trust was formed, and now a private bequest has provided the funding to digitize the collection and make it available to members for borrowing.

“We are in the process of setting up a system that will be offering books for borrowing in the near future,” said Daniel Rose, the Chairman of the Trust, “just like the Mechanics’ did, all those years. It sits perfectly with the original Mechanics’ ideal of ‘disseminating useful knowledge… to all classes of people”, so the story has come full circle.”

The building where those values were enshrined between 1854 and 1986 may still be closed to the Swindon public and in tatters, awaiting its rebirth, but the spirit of the Mechanics’ – the workers’ desire to provide for their own social and community needs – is alive and well, and gearing up to be part of 21st century Swindon.

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