Railways books on the Southern Railway and its successor the Southern Region have for long tended to concentrate on the more glamorous aspects of the SR – the West Country and its iconic branches, as well as the prestige Pullman and coastal services.
To reach such far flung corners the passenger would first have had to travel through the London suburbs, a conglomeration of routes whose history is as entwined as the rails themselves.
The work of R C ‘Dick’ Riley is as noted for its diversity as it is for quantity, quality and historical importance. How fortunate we are that his desire to travel and record the later years of steam’s dominance across the British railway network has bestowed such a rich archive. When assessing the vast collection of photographs he captured, it is evident though that certain locations held an enduring allure, resulting in repeated visits over the years. Foremost amongst these places was Swindon, the beating heart of the Great Western Empire and hub of its engineering enterprise. Between the years 1937 – 1964, Dick entered the vast works site on at least twenty-five occasions armed with his camera and it is this collection of imagery that forms the basis for this volume.
The thrill of exploring a large railway works was truly an assault on the senses, from viewing the mass concentration of locomotives in varying states of repair, to the pervading smell of engineering oils and varnish, and the all encompassing noise of heavy industry and machinery. These sights and sounds have been an addictive draw for railway enthusiasts for generations and Dick Riley was no exception. Where his work differed from the majority was in its regard for the diversity of the environment, devoting as much attention on the old and the mundane as on the shiny and the new. This was no mean feat in a location where gleaming ex-works locomotives rightly demanded the spotlight.
Swindon Works was indeed a magical place and not just to the generations who worked ‘inside’ the boundary walls. From its full time opening on 2 January 1843 to its final closure on 31 March 1986, the diverse activity that took place across the sprawling estate had a justified reputation for engineering excellence. Many quipped that there was the ‘Swindon Way and the Wrong Way’ and that most locomotives arrived at Swindon for overhaul in a better mechanical condition than the ex-works products of other railway companies! Such was the professionalism of the workforce and the quality of the Great Western Railway’s designs. What is for certain is that the Locomotive, Carriage & Wagon Works, which at its height employed over 10,000 people, covered 326 acres of land and internally encompassed some 91 miles of track, was a world leading railway facility. Whilst many of the images that Dick captured during the years of his regular visits to Swindon could be viewed as traditional locomotive portraits, they also record the surroundings and atmosphere that were at its core. Hopefully the reader will enjoy this historical journey, courtesy of Mr. R C Riley, back to the time when Steam was King, and Swindon was its Palace.
Researchers have in the past tended to shy away from describing this area and with good reason – it is all too easy to go off on the wrong line!
Jeremy Clarke is a man who has studied the London area for decades. As an enthusiast living in the south, he is rightly placed to describe a part of the Southern network previously ignored but now laid bare for all to see.
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