STEAM – the Museum of the Great Western Railway, also known as Swindon Steam Railway Museum – is a must see for anyone interested in Britain’s railway history. It is located at the site of the old railway works that was once the heart of the old Great Western Railway (GWR). Modern Swindon is largely the creation of the GWR, whose works, at its peak in the 1930s, directly employed over 14,000 workers to build and repair the locomotives and carriages of the railway dubbed “God’s Wonderful Railway” during the Victorian era.
The inevitable rationalisation following the nationalisation of the railways in 1947 and the decline of steam led to the scaling down of the plant, which eventually closed in 1986. Although the first GWR museum opened in another part of Swindon in 1962, the replacement that opened in 2000 is housed in a Grade II listed building that was part of the original Swindon Works.
The exhibition is essentially a tribute to the old GWR, its first chief engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and the men and women who built the railway and kept it running from 1833–1948.
There are plenty of hands-on exhibits and interactive displays, as well as steam engines, rolling stock, and reconstructions including a period signal room as well as a local platform, waiting room and booking office, to interest the casual visitor. Trainspotters and the railway buffs known as 'gricers' can, meanwhile, immerse themselves in the immense collections housed in what was once one of the largest railway industrial complexes in the world.
There’s a lot of old nonsense said about the ‘romance of steam’ by those who have never worked in the industry. It is, indeed, true that working on the railways isn’t just a job – it's a way of life. But what that really means on the operating side is that life is just one big shift.
Whilst the displays give us a glimpse of that world, the daily life of the workers who kept the trains rolling is barely touched upon. The images of the GWR’s bosses beam down on us in the lobby and the monuments to the workers who died in the First World War form part of one display. But there is no mention of the role of the transport and engineering unions that built the GWR and, indeed, led the demand for its nationalisation in the 1940s. Nevertheless what is on show certainly justifies the admission fee.
STEAM, the Museum of the Great Western Railway, is located in the Rodbourne area of Swindon in Fire Fly Avenue (SN2 2EY). It is approximately 10–20 minutes walk from Swindon Town Centre and is open daily, apart from 24th–26th December and 1st January. The museum is fully accessible – with disabled toilet facilities, lifts and ramps giving wheelchair and pushchair access throughout the museum. There is an in-house café and shop, and a near-by shopping mall. Admission is £8.90 with the usual concessions for students, senior citizens and children.