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Noisy neighbours

Just a corner of the 326 acre Swindon Works site in 1962. Photo: Mike Peart

The railway works at Swindon, Wiltshire opened in 1843 to maintain and, later, build locomotives for the Great Western Railway (GWR). As the railway company’s network grew, so too did the demand for locomotives and rolling stock. In time, Swindon grew from a village of 2,459 people in 1841 to a large town in which the railway works was by far the largest employer. As the workforce grew, punctuality for work was helped at first from 1843 by a large bell mounted on a workshop roof. It was tolled to get the 423-strong workforce in on time, then for the lunch break and the end of shifts. The working week was 61 hours at this time. By 1871 with by now a 56½ hour working week, Swindon’s population dominated by railway employees stood at 11,770. It grew to 19,900 by 1881, and by 1921 was 55,000 of whom over 14,000 were railway employees. All the while, Swindon was getting larger and people needed to be at their jobs in the works on time. While Swindon’s housing was compact, the bell worked well, but as the town spread out a louder solution to ensure punctuality was needed. A steam-powered hooter of marine quality, size and penetration was the answer, and this came to be in the 1860s for six days a week, barring the Works’ annual holiday.

A Swindon hooter sound again
Video courtesy of komadori

In January 1873, the town authorities in Swindon received a detailed complaint from Henry St John, 5th Viscount Bolingbroke, about the effects that the Swindon Works hooter was having on his sleep and health. Bolingbroke lived in the family seat at Lydiard Park, four miles west of Swindon. He claimed the hooter woke him when it was sounded with a 10 minute blast at 5.20 a.m., then again for three minutes at 5.50 and, lastly, for a minute at 6 o’clock. As a hunter and shooter of game birds, he also claimed it affected his pheasants which were bred in the grounds. There had been an earlier complaint from Bolingbroke in 1868, after which the GWR screened the hooter to reduce its volume. In 1873, Bolingbroke got his way briefly with a successful injunction which mentioned the “loud, piercing, roaring and distracted noise” made by the two large and deep steam whistles involved. The hooter was silenced, albeit briefly, but a petition signed by over 4,300 Swindon GWR workers and family members resulted in a public meeting at which the ban on the hooter was overturned, and it was able to sound again. With the right conditions, it could apparently be heard between 12 and 15 miles away. Bolingbroke’s health appears not to have suffered as he died at Lydiard Park at the age of 79.

The Swindon Works hooter operator at his post. Photo: British Railways.

The Swindon Works hooter was blown for ten long blasts on 4th August 1914 to announce the start of the Great War. It was also the pre-arranged call for Swindon’s reservists to prepare for duty. During both World Wars, the hooter was also used as an air raid warning for which six long blasts were given.

The official closure date for what was by then British Rail Engineering Ltd’s Swindon Works was 31st March 1986, but as this was Easter Monday most of the workforce left on Wednesday 26th March 1986. On this day, known as “Black Wednesday” in Swindon, the works hooter was sounded for the last time at 4.30 p.m. with a blast lasting several minutes.

The post-war timetable for sounding the Swindon Works hooter.

The original hooters couldn’t be used after the works closure and redevelopment of the site. However, such was the importance of the hooter to Swindon’s history that a replica steam-powered hooter was made and installed on the roof of the town’s “Steam” railway museum. It is occasionally sounded using steam power during events, hopefully not frequently enough to disturb the good people of Swindon, their pheasants and other wildlife!

Mike Peart

Mike Peart is a former railwayman on British Railways (Western Region). He is co-author of Volumes 3 (Freight Marshalling Yards), 4 (Level Crossings) and 5 (Train Detection and Control) of the “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” series, and Trains of Hope”, all published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994 and was one of the four “schoolboy” founder members of the Great Western Society (Didcot Railway Centre) in 1961.

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