by Ike Gradwell, Communist Parliamentary Candidate for Swindon.
dated 12th March 1966
Any town likely to be faced with rapid development because of “over-spill” plans will have to face unexpected social problems.
Perhaps others may find useful this story of the growth of Swindon from a town of 68,000 in 1953 to 105,000 in 1966, with the prospect of the present population being perhaps doubled by the seventies.
Old Swindon was a market village of 2,000 people built on the hill looking across the lush Thames Valley. New Swindon was built on the plain round the railway factory which started production in 1842. In 1900 the two combined to form the present Borough of
Swindon; to all intents and purposes te Great Western Railway had supplanted Squire Goddard as “the Lord of he Manor”.
The prison-like factory walls would set the train robbers problems; and so the railshop men are said to work “inside”. Although wages were not high, permanent employment was
fairly well assured, and the 12,000 rail-shop men could plan ahead: until 1940 the town claimed to have one of the highest percentages of owner-occupiers in the country.
Protocol governed entry into the ranks of the skilled workers. The son of a “first class” tradesman (a locomotive fitter-erector, for example) had a “first class” apprenticeship. The wife of the “second class” tradesman, a wagon-builder, bore only “second class” sons. The labourers begat only labourers.
However, protocol could be circumvented. Apprenticeship fees were £100 for “first class” and £60 for “second class”. Worthy citizens endowed trusts to indenture poor lads; and as the premiums were perks for the managerial staff, this system persisted until nationalisation in 1948.
It would be wrong to conclude that the railshop workers were ignorant “swede-bashers”; an accusation with which refugee aircraft workers in the wartime shadow factories taunted
Indeed, they had shown remarkable initiative in the early days in establishing their own health service which employed doctors and nurses to staff the surgeries and hospital just outside the factory gates. They owned their own theatre, library, club-rooms, swimming
baths and sports ground. But for the rest of the town not even a public library, and only Garrards and W. D. and H. O. Wills for alternative employment until a few wartime factories like Plesseys and Vickers were established.
This was the town that was to take thousands of Londoners.
In 1945 in its pre-municipal election folder, Swindon branch of the Communist Party made proposals to “break the economic stranglehold in which the G.W.R. holds the workers”. The
town council was not averse from accepting new industries, for the population figure had become static, and 100,000 was thought necessary for Swindon to stand a real chance of
becoming a County Borough, a laudable ambition which had become almost an obsession with some dignitaries.
So in 1952 under the Town Development Act, Swindon agreed to take part of London’s “over-spill”. Plessey’s expanded; Metal Box and various other firms arrived; and the great inducement of a council house was extended to cover workers from any part of Britain as the factories became greedy for skilled labour. The Corporation built and let factories to numerous small firms. Then in 1955 Pressed Steel decided to build a car body factory and
by 1958 it was in production.
But it was not only the fresh pure air of the Wiltshire Downs that attracted Pressed Steel to Swindon; labour was cheaper. In April and May of that year all grades of worker were on official strike for seven weeks. As a result the gap between the rates at Pressed Steel,
Oxford, only 30 miles away and Swindon were narrowed; in the case of the skilled from 8d. to 3d. By 1960 it had again widened, and the skilled workers went on unofficial strike for Is. an hour increase. They lost; and many shop stewards and local trade union officials lost their jobs. Some had to leave the district.
However, at present there is one bright spot on the wages front. Although Beeching’s choppper has greatly diminished the labour force in the British Railways, its, character, with the coming of diesels, has changed. With the change has appeared a shop-floor
militancy that has won what are probably the best earnings of any rail-shop workers in Britain.
Amenities lagged behind. In 1960 the Communist Party in the town published a leaflet Swindon, the Boom Town? and under the sub-heading “What About the Bit Between?” we said:
“The concentration was on somewhere to work and somewhere to sleep; but people must not be regarded simply as factory fodder.”
In 1961 information about the housing list was refused to the local press; and in its election address of that year the Communist Party declared “Hush-hush Must Go”. Relations between the council and the public deteriorated so much that the following year we had
to point out:
“Within the last 12 months the Chairman of the Housing Committee and the Officer in charge of Public Relations have resigned following the handling of tenders in which certain
specifications were not carried out on Council houses, there were court proceedings followed by convictions; and, now, within the last two months, the Chief Education Officer disappears quietly from the scene without a word of explanation to the public.”
As none of this was discussed in open council, we concluded that the town was governed by a “tacit coalition”.
However, all was not black. At last shops began to appear on the estates— some had waited seven years; new schools, often packed on the day they were opened, were built; the extension to the college was occupied; some youth clubs were provided.
And in 1960 the first stage of the first new hospital built in Britain since the war was completed. Most of the town centre is being re-developed by private companies, but today plans have been published for a new £1 million Civic Hall in a £2,353,000 civic centre. The
council boasts that the price of land in the centre is comparable with that in “the City” seeing this as a criterion of success rather than robbery of the people as the sharks move in. Financially the town’s expansion is reflected in a loan debt of £25 million (£2 million more than last year), or £236 per head.
Absence of facilities
In the absence of facilities on the housing estates, the Co-op showed initiative in providing mobile shops and it also pioneered self-service to cut “shopping time”. Membership rose
from 30,000 to 50,000 and sales from £2^ million to £4^ million between 1955 and 1965. This without much help from a Labour council. The Co-op president complained bitterly that land was sold to a brewer for a pub but refused to the Co-op for a shop.
The trade union facilities afforded the staff ought to be reflected in a more consistent advocacy of “Go Co-operative Shopping” by the trade union leadership. On the other hand, one would welcome more loyalty to Co-op produced goods and a stronger line against South African produce on the part of the society.
The vast new housing estates afforded splendid opportunities for establishing the comprehensive schools which we have advocated for nearly 20 years. The chance was lost and this year the change was made to Junior and Senior High Schools. We now campaign for
fully comprehensive schools (as the ommunist Party has always done) in roups of existing buildings with all fture new schools to be “purpose-built”.
Maternity facilities are totally in- adequate and plans were prepared and tenders invited for a wing to the new hospital. Then came the economy pause and the plans- went back into their pigeon holes. The E.T.U. branch protested to the Swindon Trades Council, which called a delegate meeting of all organisations where two doctors explained the grave situation. A petition was launched and 18,000 signatures obtained. The writer was elected as one of a delegation to see the Government representative, who would not meet us.
But pressure told in the long run and the building is to start next month.
This is the kind of mass pressure that we hope will be developed to ensure that the next phase of Swindon’s expansion will provide factories, houses and all services at the same time whilst not neglecting the claims of the older parts of the town.
As a Communist I am proud to be representing in the General Election the Party that has fought consistently for a better deal for people in our growing town.