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Swindon 's earliest settlers were a stone age community living on Swindon Hill. The location afforded an excellent defensive position against attack, with the added advantage of a water supply.
The town's next occupants were the Romans who quarried the hill's Portland limestone and shipped it to their settlement below. In 1997, a digger preparing the ground for homes unearthed the remains of a Roman Villa.
Further exploration revealed evidence of a vast Roman community: a 10-acre complex of sanctuaries, temples, pools and terraced gardens. In fact, recent excavations suggest it could be one of Britain's finest Roman religious sites and comparable with Europe's best.
When the Romans left, Saxons lived on the hill and established a farming community, giving Swindon its name. The town's name derives from the Saxon's reference to its burgeoning livestock trade – 'swin dun' or swine down.
In 1066, William the Conqueror gave Swindon to his half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, as a gift. On Odo's imprisonment, Swindon’s ownership passed to the crown until the reign of Henry III who then gave it to William de Valence, Earl of Pembroke. And so Swindon remained for many years: a small market town of little significance and influence.
One man changed all that forever: Isambard Kingdom Brunel – The Great Western Railway's (GWR) Engineer to the Company. In 1840, he chose Swindon as the site of GWR's railway works. By 1843, the works employed 400 men. And by 1846, it had built its first locomotive – 'The Great Western'.
From there, train production boomed. In the 1920s, the works employed 14,000 to build the King Class locomotives – the jewels in GWR's crown. And on 28 April 1924, King George V and Queen Mary visited the works to view the trains for themselves. They witnessed the work's most famous locomotive in production: Number 6000, King George V.
The end of the decade preceding the Second World War saw Swindon enjoying global recognition for its engineering excellence. But its fortunes soon sadly declined. By 1960, the town had built its last steam locomotive, 'The Evening Star', and the workforce had fallen to five thousand.
The death-knell for the railway works finally rang on 27 March 1986 to the bitter disappointment of a town shaped by them. Yet, their spirit lives on in. In 2000, the site was redeveloped to house the shopping centre of the Great Western Outlet Designer Village. The site still features a rare collection of trains including the famous Hagley Hall locomotive.
In the same year, HRH the Prince of Wales – an enthusiastic supporter of the railway work's conservation – opened 'STEAM – Museum of the Great Western Railway'. Set in a beautifully restored building at the heart of the old works. The attraction celebrates the people who worked and travelled on the GWR – affectionately known as 'God's Wonderful Railway'.
Swindon Council website