Not a bare head in sight as the artisans stream out of the railway works in Swindon, filing past the company-built housing (the Railway Village) after a busy morning building copper-capped steam locomotives for the Great Western Railway (GWR). Just a fraction of the 12,000 employees. They may have no NHS or JSA or Tax Credits or Sky Sports but at least they have a dinner hour – which is often more than today’s flexible and fragmented workforce can afford. The working day that was regulated by sirens and whistles is now more subtly regulated by zero hours contracts and ever expanding workloads coupled with the constant threat of unemployment – recent surveys (of doubtful provenance) on behalf of the food industry, show workers take an average of 29 to 33 minutes for lunch. Most depressing of all, one in seven employees hope to win favour with their managers by taking shorter breaks. Mass pilgrimages like this, to and from the workplace are part of labour history. Dispersal of workplaces diminishes opportunities for employees to organise and campaign for better pay and conditions. In the absence of collective action individual resentments accumulate and fester into a generalised reservoir of discontent from which the likes of UKIP draw their support.
At the age of 13 I once spent a Saturday afternoon on a tour of Swindon Works in the company of a like-minded group of train fanatics and social misfits whose ability to scrape through the Eleven Plus had been rewarded with a seven year sentence in the great Metroland Madrassa aka Watford Boys Grammar School. Our expedition leader was a gaunt and ascetic young man by the name of Rex who at 14 already resembled the Rural Dean and Antiquarian I fully expected him to become in adult life. It was a memorable experience – the last ever British-built main line steam locomotives were under construction on the factory floor. In one bay stood a completed example in all its resplendence, next to it was an almost complete example – in all about 12 locomotives presented a reductive display of disassembly, ending with a pair of sub-frames on which a number was chalked. The ethics of collecting numbers were called into question – could you really claim to have seen a locomotive when it was no more than a pair of metal castings resting on the floor?
Another assembly line was producing a batch of diesel-hydraulic locomotives – the first generation of diesel power, themselves doomed to a life of little more than a decade. Elsewhere steam locomotives of all vintages and size were undergoing repairs, surrounded by gleaming stacks of replacement parts, sets of newly turned and freshly painted driving wheels and trolley-loads of bearings, levers, rods, cranks and valves. Outside the works were the weathered and corroded remains of locomotives at the end of their working lives – in their dramatic decrepitude they were every bit as fascinating as the dazzling magnificence of the newly outshopped locomotives with their polished brass and sumptuous paintwork. The most exotic sight that day was an elderly narrow-gauge locomotive (No. 9 Prince of Wales) from the Vale of Rheidol railway that had travelled from Aberystwyth to Swindon on a flat-bed truck for repairs.
More than any of its competitors, the GWR worked hard to associate itself with the English landed gentry – the locomotives carried the names of Kings, Counties, Castles, Earls, Granges, Manors and Halls (some GWR directors were residents of homes that were honoured in this way), a constant reminder to travellers of the timeless hegemony of their superiors by birth. Although the green fields of Wessex were rudely bisected by Brunel as he pushed westwards, the knights and lords of the shires were handsomely compensated with easy access to the metropolis. Catch a cab at Paddington to a board meeting in the City, followed by a light slumber on the parliamentary benches. Lunch at a gentleman’s club might precede an adulterous assignation in Mayfair or Knightsbridge with the lubricious delights of an evening visit to a house of ill repute to look forward to.
In design terms the policy was to wrap advanced technology inside traditional forms – high-performance locomotives were styled to look like enormous pieces of mobile vintage furniture, composites of tallboys, sideboards and mantel pieces topped off with copper and brass trim and cast iron number plates, numerals burnished with gold leaf. Railway buildings took their features from the stables, workshops, lodges and estate buildings to be seen in the grounds of West Country stately homes. Architects borrowed freely from historical styles including Tudor, French Gothic and Georgian to build stations with an air of permanence as if the trains had been passing through for centuries rather than decades. Innovation and change made respectable by drawing attention away from its novelty and rooting it in the past. In the Victorian imagination, engineering excellence was just another manifestation of the eternally unrolling pageant of English pre-eminence.