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Mechanics' Institute


The Mechanics’ Institute is perhaps one of the finest surviving examples of its kind. Designed in Tudor Gothic style of Swindon limestone rubble with Bath ashlar dressings, externally it gives the appearance of a great hall with buttressed sides of eight bays. It was built as a social and community centre for staff of the Great Western Railway, opening in 1855, with a library, coffee room and reading room. It had a lecture/concert hall with a stage. There was originally an octagonal market hall at the south end. A proposal to erect a full-scale theatre at the rear in 1878 never came to fruition. In 1892 the market hall was demolished and the Institute greatly enlarged. These and most later additions and alterations were carried out in matching style. In 1930 the centre of the building was badly damaged by fire. The first floor hall was rebuilt as a theatre, the Playhouse (later known as the Civic Playhouse), with an enlarged raised stage. It had a pit, stalls and curving dress circle. It was a pretty theatre with an elaborate circular proscenium decorated with rich scalloped plasterwork. The ceiling was divided into panels by bolection mouldings with swirling plasterwork decoration. The circle, equally elaborate, with plasterwork and (unusually for its kind) a fly tower. The Playhouse took the place of the Empire when that turned into cinema, and also served local amateur companies who were later accommodated at the Wyvern. The theatre closed in 1986 and has since been disused, falling into greater and greater disrepair. In 1990 planning permission was granted (on appeal) for conversion to a hotel, but this was not implemented. Several subsequent planning applications for demolition or conversion have been withdrawn or refused. In 2002, the building was purchased by Forefront Estates. An Urgent Works Notice was issued on the owner in 2009 to perform emergency safety work. In 2012 the Council was forced to take the owner to court to reimburse costs for works to the roof. The assets were vested in the Crown in the crown between 2012 and 2018 when the owning company was dissolved and then restored. The Mechanics' Institution Trust continues to seek a viable long-term future for this unique building.

Built / Converted
Dates of use
  • 1855 - 1986: Entertainment; Theatre
Current state
Current use
Disused (currently at risk)
Emlyn Square, Railway Village, Swindon, Wiltshire, SN1 5BP, England
Further details
Other names
Playhouse Theatre , Civic Playhouse
  • Owner/Management: Great Western Railway, owners
  • 1853 - 1855 Design/Construction:
    Edward Roberts (London)
    - Architect
  • 1855 - 1986 Use: Entertainment; Theatre
  • 1893 Alteration: Market hall removed; building greatly enlarged
    Brightwell Binyon
    - Architect
  • 1903 Alteration: Minor additions (architect unknown)
  • 1930 Alteration: Partly rebuilt after fire in former first floor hall - alterations and new fly tower
    Beswick & Son (Swindon)
    - Architect
  • 1950 - 1959 Owner/Management: Administrators of the Mayor’s Community Fund, proprietors
  • 2002 - 2012 Owner/Management: Forefront Estates
  • 2012 - 2018 Owner/Management: The Crown
  • 2018 Owner/Management: Forefront Estates
  • Capacity
    1930: 606
  • Listing
    Upgraded 1999
Stage type
Pros flat
Building dimensions: Assembly Hall 76ft x 40ft
Stage dimensions: Depth: 27ft
Proscenium width: 26ft
Height to grid: 40ft
Inside proscenium: -
Orchestra pit: Original (1930) 26