MY STREET CHALLENGE - REGENT CIRCUS
On a dull and dank morning, we were out just before 8 a.m. and on our way to Regent Circus situated at the top end of the Swindon shopping centre.
During the 1850s the first houses were built in Regent Street and Regent Circus, which was formerly named York Place. When the workers’ cottages in the street were being converted to shops, the name was changed to Regent Street, after the famous London street and Regent Circus was originally going to be called “Trafalgar Square” but at the time it was thought to be a little too pretentious for a small town like Swindon.
Swindon College, which comprised a Victorian former Technical College, with an entrance in Victoria Road had a large extension, which most people would admit was a concrete monstrosity, and this fronted onto Regent Circus. I actually attended the college and did a Secretarial Course in 1961 – we had most of our classes in the old college, but went down to the refectory in the new part, where most students “hung out”. At that time we used to be full-time students and that meant being at college every day from 9 until 4 – not quite like it is these days.
In 2006 the 5 acre site was sold and the college extension was demolished finally in 2012. I often used to go up to the top floor of the new library and take photographs of the demolition work and it was then interesting to see the new buildings being constructed. However, the Victorian college building has been retained at the back of the new development and this is now being renovated and as with many large buildings in the town, is being converted into apartments.
The new development comprising Morrisons, a food superstore, eight restaurants, a six screen cinema and a car park with 450 spaces was opened in 2014. At one time the roads around were controlled by pelican crossings, but since the new development was completed, this is now what is called a “shared facility” without traffic controls. It seems to work, but I have noticed, when driving, that pedestrians seem to think they have right of way and just keep walking!
The Town Hall was originally situated in The Corn Exchange in Old Town in the Market Square, but in the early 1880s when Regent Circus was first considered as a place to build fine villas, it was decided to build a New Swindon Town Hall; this was built in 1891 and then became the main Town Hall, the middle photograph at the top of the collage. It dominated the Swindon skyline and was also visible from the Old Town area, situated up the hill. The main entrance porch faced Regent Street and had a veranda and all the other doorways were also fairly grand. Eventually, local government outgrew the building and moved to a new purpose-built Civic Offices in 1938. The whole building is currently used by Swindon Dance and the part formerly used by the Reference Library remains empty. Many people relied on seeing the large clock from many areas around – the sadness for me when the new library was built was that when coming down Victoria Hill, you could no longer see the clock face!
The Cenotaph, meaning “a monument to someone buried elsewhere, especially one commemorating people who died in a war” - is situated in the middle of Regent Circus and in the photograph, you can see the Town Hall in the background. The cost of building this was raised by public donations and the 20 feet high Portland stone memorial was unveiled in October 1920 – almost a hundred years ago – and in time for the Armistice Day commemorations, but the inscription remained unfinished with the words “To the memory of the men of this Borough who fell in the Great War 1914-1918” yet to be carved. In 2002 it was agreed to add the words “all wars and conflicts since 1945”. Until doing this research, I didn’t realise that hidden behind curtains in the nearby Town Hall is an impressive wooden war memorial, listing over 900 men from Swindon, who were killed during the First World War.
Just below the photograph of the Cenotaph is one of the doorways into the Town Hall – one of my memories, in the mid to late 1950s, is of walking up these steps and into a small room to the right where I would collect the maintenance money of £1. 5s. 0d. paid each week by my father, as my parents were divorced. I must have walked past these steps hundreds of times, but have never thought about that until today.
The M E C A concert hall, as it is called now, started off as The Gaumont Cinema then the name changed to The Odeon – although we have never been into the concert hall, Mr. HCB have many happy memories of when it was a cinema and of course, in those days, there was only one large auditorium where you watched the main film, a shorter, less-well known film, the Pathé News and of course, Pearl & Dean advertising. I don’t remember us having the huge bags of sweets and popcorn that are sold in cinemas nowadays – and it was frowned upon if you started talking during the films, but again, things are very different today.
Also situated in Regent Circus was a series of portacabins that housed the main Swindon Library – however, these were removed and then a new library was built and opened in 2008 – this is the middle photograph of the collage and if you look carefully, you will see Mr. HCB. It is a wonderful building on three levels with computers, a café and a “teenagers’ area” with cushions so that they can do what teenagers do i.e. lounge about! The staff are always very helpful and one could easily spend several hours in here browsing – and I often do! In the children’s area, the children are allowed to chat and there are often different meetings held near the café – again, very different from the days when one had to be silent in a library.
Whilst speaking to him about this research, Mr. HCB reminded me that his mother, Joan, worked in a dress shop called May Arnold, which was situated in Regent Circus, where she did many of the alterations, having been trained as a seamstress when she was much younger. May Arnolds was an exclusive dress shop in the town and one of those shops where you could buy a “one off” dress or suit – rather than the mass-produced dresses from the stores in the town centre, but of course, you paid more for that privilege.
The Baptist Tabernacle was built in 1886, costing £6,000 and could accommodate 1,000 people. It was an impressive building, constructed of Bath stone, the front being made up of six Tuscan columns and enhanced by a flight of stone steps that ran the entire width of the front. However, the number of members dwindled, the building needed a great deal of maintenance and the remaining members could not afford to pay for these, so the building fell into disrepair and was then vandalised so the Council decided it was time to demolish the building. A local man purchased the portico of the building after it was demolished in 1978 and planned to use it as the frontage of a house he was building in Malmesbury, but his planning application was rejected. It was hoped that its magnificent stone façade might be incorporated into the regeneration of Regent Circus and the town centre, but this has not yet happened.
Today, the Pilgrim Centre, shown in the collage at the bottom left, is an amalgamation of several churches in the area. It was built in 1990 and stands on the site the Baptist Tabernacle once occupied. It is not only a church, but there is also a newly refurbished café and it is well known in the area for giving meals to homeless people, and helping others with various needs. Those with learning disabilities, and particularly young people, are encouraged to help in the café alongside other volunteers, who are also available to chat with those who come in for a coffee and a piece of cake – a very worthwhile venture at the top of the town centre.
The photograph above the Pilgrim Centre is an example of one of the large houses – this particular one was built in 1891 and has the initials CB inscribed above the date, which I would imagine are the initials of the builder. This building stands between two modern buildings, the large and older brick houses now having been demolished. Whilst chatting about this, Mr. HCB and I remembered that our doctor’s surgery used to be in one of these old houses, but we can’t remember which one!
Behind Regent Circus used to be an area known as Regent Place, but this has long been demolished and is now known as Theatre Square, which houses several shops and The Wyvern, Swindon’s main theatre. Previously this had been orchards near Upper Eastcott Farm, which stood close to where Regent Circus is now. Most of the houses in Regent Place were occupied by Great Western Railway workers and their families and in 1891, there were 50 houses. On the west side of Regent Place was Regent Hall, a church built for the Christian Brethren, and designed by a well-known Swindon photographer, William Hooper, who was a member of the Brethren and also project-managed the build. However, I understand that there was no direct access to Regent Place from Regent Circus, but there is still a small alleyway at the side of what was the Savoy Cinema, which led to the area. Most of Regent Place was demolished in the early 1960s and the Regent Hall was taken down in 1967.
“I'm interested in the way
in which the past affects the present
and I think that if we understand
a good deal more about history,
we automatically understand
a great more about contemporary life.”
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