MY STREET CHALLENGE - NEWPORT STREET
Mr. HCB and I were up and out early again this morning but waited until 7 a.m. because at 6.30 it was so dark! We made our way into Old Town to Newport Street, a very busy street usually, and actually, I was surprised how busy it was this early in the morning. It is the oldest recorded street in the town, being first mentioned in documents dating back to 1346 and is just round the corner from what used to be the cattle market. It was originally named "Nyweport" Street meaning 'New Market' and the cellars of some of the houses in modern-day Newport Street are thought to date back to this era.
In its heyday, Newport Street was the home of many of the lesser tradesmen of the town, shoemakers, bakers and the like, but was reckoned more humble. It was generally called Bull Street from a public house called “The Bull” opposite what is now The Steam Railway, about which see more below, but this has long been demolished. The dwellings in the street were mainly thatched and whitewashed cottages, and these remained until the 1930s, although sadly there are none to be seen in the street today. I have searched online but cannot find any information relating to The Bull public house except that it was at number 23 Newport Street. Unfortunately, Newport Street was not well kept up and apparently, its footpaths were allowed to deteriorate – so not much different from today!
In 1764 a free school for the working classes was provided in a cottage Newport Street, to educate 20 boys and 5 girls on land owned by the Goddard family, but very soon the number of pupils outgrew the accommodation and a two storey stone-built National School was built on the same site in 1835. Among its pupils in the 1860s was future author, Richard Jefferies, mentioned in my Blip about Jefferies Avenue a few weeks ago.
The school closed in 1870 and in 1909 the school building became the Christ Church Men’s Club, until it was demolished in 1962 but the name stone, which weighed about a ton, was removed and restored by the then Council. It was installed as a monument next to the garage, where the school once stood, but in 1990, it was noticed that this very large stone was missing; it has never been located, despite extensive enquiries within the Council and further afield.
In 2002, outside the offices of Monahans, Chartered Accountants, in Newport Street, a commemorative blue plaque was unveiled that reads “Near here stood Swindon’s first free school, opened circa 1764. In 1836 it was replaced on the same site by the National School, itself closed in 1870 and demolished in 1962.” This plaque was placed sufficiently high enough to avoid vandalism, but low enough to read!
Next to the National School stood a thatched building believed to date back to about 1677, and known as The Olde House At Home but sadly it was partially destroyed after the thatch caught fire during a hot, dry summer. Owned by James Barnes, It sold sweets, tobacco and liquor, much like Earles, a newsagents that now trades next door to the Accountants – but I don’t think you can buy liquor there today – however it always looks very colourful – see the middle top photograph. Our older son worked for Rose, the present owner, for a while when he was a teenager, doing a paper round and I well remember that on a Sunday, Mr. HCB needed to go out with him early in the morning in the car (much like he does at the moment to help me on a Saturday morning!) because the Sunday papers, with all their supplements and magazines, were far too heavy for our son to carry, and he had to deliver them over quite a long distance.
In 1804, the independent chapel, the earliest non-conformist meeting place in Swindon, was built in Newport Street and in spite of some opposition, it soon began to draw large congregations from Swindon and became the headquarters for missionary work in some of the surrounding villages. In 1832, trouble developed between the congregation and the new minister and 15 members left. By 1840 accommodation in the Newport Street chapel had become inadequate and the building needed attention, and although this was obviously a cause for discontent among the congregation, nothing was done until 1866, when a new chapel was built at the corner of Bath Road and Victoria Street when only 5 members of the congregation moved, but this did not include the minister! However, the membership soon increased and by 1867, the number of members was 154. However, in 1877, 56 members left the Victoria Street chapel to form a new congregation in Sanford Street. There is no sign of this building today.
Gilberts is an “old-fashioned” carpet and furniture store which has been open since 1866 and stands at the junction of Newport Street and Marlborough Road, one of the shops in Swindon where you still get good service together with knowledgeable and well-trained staff, something which is sadly lacking in many shops today.
In 1874, Thomas Hooper Deacon and his business partner, Thomas Edmund Liddiard, signed a lease on the mansion house, garden, yards and stables on the corner of High Street and Newport Street and under the same agreement they also acquired various other properties in the area behind the two streets in order to extend their Vale of White Horse (VWH) Horse and Carriage Repository. Thomas Hooper Deacon is remembered today in the naming of Hooper Place, a lane close to the site of the Repository that now leads into the large car park for the Co-op store.
In 1881 the railway line to Marlborough was opened just south of Newport Street but this was closed to passenger traffic in 1961. Mr. HCB remembers travelling from the station when he was younger, just for fun, he told me, down to the main railway station at Swindon junction and he also remembers catching the train from here to Marlborough, where he went fishing with his uncle on the Kennet and Avon Canal.
Many of the old buildings were demolished to allow for road widening and a huge Co-op store stands on the corner opposite Gilberts, where once the mansion house stood. Fortunately, it is not a concrete monstrosity, like many of the new buildings in the town, but is built of red brick, so doesn’t look that bad and there are also other red brick buildings in the street in place of those demolished.
I used to work for Dreweatt Neate, a firm of Chartered Surveyors, just along the road from Gilberts and spent many happy years there. The building is named Vectis Court and I was wondering why it was so named, so rang my old boss, who is the son of Mr. H.R. Wightman, a partner in the firm of Farrant & Wightman. Apparently, there was a competition to name the building and as Vectis is the ancient Roman name for The Isle of Wight, an island off the coast of Hampshire in the English Channel, and Mr. Wightman’s name was spelt the same i.e “Wight” this name won.
When Dreweatt Neate moved to a more modern building in Old Town, I worked there for sometime until I moved to a firm of Solicitors, Chalke Smith Brooks, in High Street. Vectis Court was taken over by a firm of Solicitors, Withy King, and little did I know when I started working at Chalke Smith Brooks that they would amalgamate with Withy King and I would then be working back in Newport Street. However, this building has now been converted to serviced apartments since Withy King moved out a couple of years ago.
The local “gathering place” after work on a Friday evening was just along the road, on the same side as Dreweatt Neate, in one of the pubs, The Steam Railway, originally a coaching inn called The Railway Hotel, with plenty of history relating to the railways, obviously due to its proximity to the site of the Old Swindon railway station. It is a very different place today – on one side is a small wood-panelled bar with an open fireplace that serves “real” ales and food and the larger part is now given over to live sports coverage and music – not my “cup of tea” or should I say “glass of beer”?
There are another two public houses at the Devizes Road end of the street, The Wheatsheaf and The Royal Oak both of which, as far as I can ascertain, have been in existence since at least 1875 and maybe even longer. They are still open today, although I have never been in either of them. There is also The Plough just round the corner in Devizes Road. Definitely a “proliferation of public houses” in this street.
Numbers 17 and 18 Newport Street – middle left in the collage - are thought to be the oldest houses in Swindon and are Grade II Listed. The building is two houses remodelled into one and is a three storey house with a carriageway through the central bay, which was formerly the access to a blacksmith and stables at the rear. The cellars beneath this house are thought to date from the 14th century and it is said that there is a later entrance, but now bricked up, to a tunnel that might have been part of the network known to have existed beneath Old Swindon. This one may have run beneath the roadway towards The Bull Alehouse that existed in 1771, and later renamed The White Hart, but this public house has now been demolished, probably when the road was widened. This interesting house had been a boarding house when Mr. Harold Easthope, an art restorer and dealer, and his wife, Marjorie (nee Fripp), an art teacher, bought half the property in 1955 and gave painting classes to aspiring local artists. They purchased the remainder of the property in 1962 and in 1970 established an art gallery named Easthope & Fripp, with the words “A Fine Art Gallery” across the front of the building.
I apologise for the length of this journal entry, but there were so many properties with interesting stories in this street and although, sadly many of them have been demolished, it’s good to recall those memories.
“All buildings have a psychological
as well as a purely visual effect
on the landscape.”