Our Meetings

Swindon Society Meeting Review

Wednesday 13th March 2024

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Last month we were given by a talk by committee member and all-round knowledgeable bloke John Stooke on the history of Market Square and the Corn Exchange/Locarno. John began by giving us a brief history of Market Square prior to the Corn Exchange being built. There were some transfers in ownership along the way, but probably the first bit of importance in establishing a market here was Thomas Goddard being granted a weekly cattle market and twice-yearly fair in 1626. The markets weren’t doing so well by 1640, however the cattle plague in Highworth (which John reminded us was bigger and more important than Swindon at this point) increased the trade through the Swindon cattle market. We were then told that it was here that there was a pillory and stocks and other ‘entertainment’ held here included bear baiting until 1810. It was a regular sport for the time, but it got me wondering - where did the bears come from? It seems an awful lot of trouble to be shipping them in from the continent, as they weren’t native to Britain by that point. Anyway, John then showed us an image from the early 1800s of the square by John Luckett Jefferies a relative of Richard Jefferies. He owned the bakery on the corner of the square. We then saw another artwork of the area, this time by Frank Quinton in 1980, this time showing the Corn Exchange (or Locarno as it would probably have been referred to at that point). This led on to talking about the Corn Exchange, which was built between 1852-54 on land leased from Ambrose Lethbridge Goddard. It included a hall with room for 500 people and it housed the polling station and the Swindon Local Board within years of being opened. Although it was built as a corn exchange, it was found that ground floor of the building was too small to house the market! It was therefore leased to the wine merchant William Brown, and John showed us that they infilled the ground floor archways so that it could be used to process the wine. They were known as Brown & Nephew and later as Brown & Plummer. We then got a surprise when Society member Royston Cartwright appeared on the screen, albeit it a younger version. He explained that he worked for Brown & Plummer and told us about his working day decanting (and drinking!) port. A market hall was still needed in Swindon though, so Goddard leased more land and evicted some people to enable the building of an extension to the Town Hall building. It opened in 1866 to a banquet for 300 men followed by a ball. John detailed how the extension was built in Swindon stone and the whole building was combined on the inside, so they weren’t two separate entities. Events were being held in the new hall very soon after it opened, with it holding up 1,000 people sat down and 10,000 stood up. Bearing those numbers in mind, John then told us of possibly one of the worst attended events in the hall’s history when only 6 people turned up to an event called ‘The State of England and the State of the World’! We were then moved on a little in time when John told us about the huge fall in corn prices 20 years later, which led to the building being permanently converted into a 1,000 seat auditorium. The wine merchants also expanded into the basement. Further on again, a town hall was built for Swindon New Town at Regent Circus. When the Old and New Town Local Boards combined, all the functions being carried out in the Old Town Hall moved down the hill to the new building. The Masonic Orders later moved into the building and stayed for nearly 80 years. It was home to several lodges, most notably the Royal Sussex Lodge and the Daniel Gooch Lodge. However, they moved out in 1972 when they bought the plot of land adjacent to the building and purpose-built something rather less grand, in which they are still housed today. Also in the building for nearly as many years as the Masons, was a rolling skating rink. There was one in the building from 1909 right up until the building’s closure in the 1970s. There was also a cinema from 1919 to 1949, which latterly became a concert venue called the Locarno. Initially the venue attracted big band music. John expounded his unrivalled musical knowledge then telling us about a variety of bands and people that I had not previously heard of, such as the resident Ken Kitching Band. The slightly more famous Ronnie Scott and his band also played there. In the 1960s it was a popular venue for the bands such as The Kinks, The Yardbirds and The Animals. All the while though, the Locarno wasn’t granted an alcohol licence. To get around this though, Mr and Mrs Spackman were brought in to sell alcohol on the premises from the nearest pub to the Locarno, the Bell and Shoulder of Mutton Inn. Outside the Locarno, funfairs were held until 1965 when they moved to the roomier County Ground car park. As John described the range of activities going on in the building towards the end of its life, it struck me that the Locarno had become almost akin to a leisure centre, holding dancing, roller skating, wrestling events and bingo as well as concerts. The Locarno was finally closed in the 1970s which set the stage for its current state of decay. It was bought by local business owner Gael Mackenzie in 1999 who over the years has had plans to convert the site into a nightclub, restaurant, hotel, cafe and residential spaces. None of these plans have come to fruition unfortunately and the plans were also hindered by arson attacks in May 2003 and again in May 2004. There was a threat of demolition in 2012, although the building is Grade II listed. We continue to be hopeful that some future plans will give this beautiful Swindon landmark a new lease of life. John then finished the talk by playing a selection of songs by some of the 1960s pop bands he’d mentioned earlier. Kelly Blake - March 2024

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