Health Hydro (former GWR Medical Fund Baths and Dispensary)


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Statutory Address:
Milton Road, Swindon, SN1 5JA


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Statutory Address:
Milton Road, Swindon, SN1 5JA

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Swindon (Unitary Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Dispensary and swimming baths, now health hydro, built in 1891 for the Great Western Railway (GWR) Medical Fund Society, designed by JJ Smith of Swindon; washing baths built in 1898-9; Turkish and Russian baths added in 1904-5; additions made in 1911.

Reasons for Designation

The Health Hydro, formerly the Great Western Railway Medical Fund baths and dispensary, built from 1891 and Turkish baths added in 1904, is listed at Grade II*, for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest: * the buildings, though built in phases, are well-proportioned and well-made, with unified elevations in a good Queen Anne style and good integration of the various elements; * the elevations have good detailing, including extensive and varied carved details to the stone dressings and good inscriptions; * the swimming baths, with their wide spans formed by trusses made at the GWR works, are impressive spaces, enlivened by coloured glazing; * the interior of the Turkish baths are impressive, with their exposed timber roof structure and walls of good-quality glazed brickwork which includes moulded cornice, dado and skirtings; * the buildings as a whole demonstrate a remarkable degree of survival, including the former dispensary and consulting rooms, and the Turkish baths complex.

Historic interest: * for the age and survival of the Turkish baths suite, which have been identified as the oldest surviving, continually-functioning Turkish baths establishment in the country, which remain very little altered and in their original use; * the Health Hydro complex is highly significant as an integrated health care facility – which included two swimming baths; Turkish, Russian and washing baths; doctors; a dispensary; dental surgeries and dental laboratory; and ophthalmology, chiropody, psychology and physiotherapy departments – dating from some 50 years before the first NHS Health Centres began to provide such services for the general population; * as an important element of the Great Western Railway village which included not only the extensive works, but accommodation for workers and a range of other health and welfare facilities, including the Mechanics’ Institute and the Cottage Hospital (now the Central Community Centre); * for its use of materials designed and made at the GWR works, including the trusses forming the swimming baths, the bricks for the exteriors, and the coloured glass windows, which demonstrate the strong links between the works and the provisions made for the workers.

Group value: * with the other buildings of the Great Western Railway village on the opposite side of Faringdon Road, particularly the other health and welfare buildings including the Central Community Centre (formerly the GWR Cottage Hospital, listed Grade II), the Mechanics’ Institute (Grade II*), and the railway cottages (listed Grade II); as well as the listed buildings of the wider railway works complex.


The Great Western Railway (GWR) village was established in Swindon in 1841-2, aiming to provide 300 homes and associated facilities for a new community of workers arriving from across the country to work in the GWR Swindon railway works, which came to house an extensive and integrated design, engineering, construction and repair works for locomotives and other rolling stock and rails. The new village, laid out north of the existing town of Swindon (thence known as Old Town), was intended to be largely self-contained, with its own new church, school, public houses and even a cricket pitch. In 1844, members of the workforce set up the Swindon Mechanics’ Institute to offer social and welfare provision, including a library, education for children, community activities, with some public washing facilities and limited healthcare. In 1854 the institution constructed its own large building to house all these functions off Emlyn Square, at the heart of the railway village.

The Great Western Railway Medical Fund Society (MFS) was founded in 1847, initially known as the Sick Club, later the MFS, with money raised by direct deductions from the wages of workers at the GWR works in Swindon, who were housed in the GWR New Swindon railway village. Daniel Gooch, the superintendent of the works, was prompted by the toll on the workforce of several accidents, together with epidemics of smallpox, typhoid and cholera, to ask permission from the directors of the railway to set up a fund to improve the overall health of the workforce, increasing reliability and encouraging skilled workers to stay with the company. The fund initially provided for the services of a doctor who could be consulted, free of charge, by workers and their families (numbering 2,300 by 1850), at the GWR Mechanics’ Institute. As the works expanded, so did the provisions of the Medical Fund Society, and in response to developments in public health and sanitation, a swimming pool was constructed in 1868 and a block of washing baths at another location in 1869, extended to include Turkish baths in 1876. In 1869, with the opening of the new carriage works and the addition of new jobs, the population of the new town rose to over 5,100. The Fund set up a cottage hospital in an existing building in 1871, offering an early accident and emergency service for workers, and from 1887, offered a dental clinic in the Mechanics’ Institute.

In 1891-2 the first of the present buildings comprising the Health Hydro were constructed, with their entrances on Faringdon Road, to designs by Swindon architect JJ Smith, with the aim of bringing the dispersed and various provisions of the MFS under one roof, with expanded facilities for the continually growing workforce. The entrance originally had a cast iron and glass canopy inscribed SWIMMING BATHS, with flanking iron railings, later removed. The new buildings, housing two swimming pools, medical consultation rooms and a dispensary, occupied the two-thirds of a block filling the space between Milton Road and Chester Street; they were constructed using bricks made at the GWR brickworks, and the pools roofed by arching iron trusses designed and cast at the GWR works. The larger pool, extending along Chester Street, was initially for men, and the smaller, set behind the central main entrance, for women and children. The pools, which were used enthusiastically from their construction by the Swindon Amateur Swimming Club as well as the MFS subscribers, each had a gallery for spectators, tucked under which were rows of changing cubicles. The dispensary, waiting room and consulting rooms occupied the plot on the corner with Milton Road. A tunnel was constructed at basement level under the main entrance and continued northwards under the houses of the railway village directly to the carriage works, to allow the transport of coal and other supplies. A new building for extensive washing baths was added at the south-eastern corner of the block in 1898-9, with its entrance off Milton Road; and in 1903, a large suite of dressing rooms for men and women were added at the south-western corner of the block, to provide better changing facilities. In 1905, a further major addition was made to the site: an extensive suite of Turkish baths, which included three hot rooms, a Russian (vapour) bath and a plunge pool, with a shampooing (massage) room off the hot rooms. The number of employees at the works continued to rise up to 1925, when it peaked at over 14,000, and in response to both this, and an increase in the range of services offered by the MFS, the earliest building was altered in 1911, raising the height of the dispensary range along Milton Road from one to two storeys, to expand the medical consultancy and allow for a new dental laboratory. A new committee room and office space for the MFS were included in the first floor.

During the First World War, the GWR works were taken over for the war effort, and the MFS buildings were used as a military hospital, with the swimming pools floored over to create large hospital ward spaces; this work was reversed after 1918. In 1936-7, the large changing rooms at the south-west corner of the site were remodelled, and the pool-side cubicles in the large pool were removed, though the gallery and support partitions were retained.

By 1947, when the National Health Service (NHS) was being planned and the MFS consequently was wound up, the Faringdon Road site included a complete health and welfare service for the staff of the GWR works, including two swimming baths; Turkish, Russian and washing baths; doctors; a dispensary; dental surgeries and dental laboratory; and ophthalmology, chiropody, psychology and physiotherapy departments. The MFS facilities had been inspected by the Nuffield Trust and officials from the government’s Health Department on fact-finding missions, and it is recorded that Aneurin Bevan, the architect of the NHS, on seeing the provisions of the GWR Medical Fund Society, remarked, “There it was, a complete health service. All we had to do was to expand it to embrace the whole country!”.

In 1959-63, the buildings underwent major refitting and some reordering. The Faringdon Road entrance was taken out of use, though the entrances and spaces behind were left largely unaltered, and the entrance to the washing and Turkish baths on Milton Road was adopted as the main entrance. The washing baths were almost all removed, and the space remodelled with modern partitions. A new metal stair was inserted to allow access to the changing rooms at the first-floor to the rear of the large pool. The last of the poolside cubicles were removed from the smaller pool, and some alterations were made to the partitioning in the Turkish baths. The buildings underwent repairs in the late 1980s, including extensive repairs to the roofs, and some internal refitting took place. The buildings remain in use as a Health Hydro, with the pools and Turkish baths in their original uses, and the former consulting rooms and dispensary now (2019) used for spa treatments.


Dispensary and swimming baths, now health hydro, built in 1891 for the Great Western Railway (GWR) Medical Fund Society, designed by JJ Smith of Swindon; washing baths built in 1898-9; Turkish and Russian baths added in 1904-5; additions made in 1911.

MATERIALS Built of red brick made by the GWR brickworks with iron framing to the swimming bath roofs, designed and made at the GWR Works; Welsh slate and glazed roofs. Interior wall tiles by Ruabon Coal and Coke Company; floor tiles by Woolscroft of Hanley. Stained glass by Mr T Rice of the GWR works.

PLAN The buildings occupy a complete block; the whole is rectangular, lying between Milton Road and Chester Street to east and west, with its main elevation to Faringdon Road to the north. The rear of the buildings is bounded by a rear access lane. The northern part of the block is occupied by the swimming baths and former consulting rooms and dispensary, with the former washing and Turkish baths to the south-east and large changing area to the south-west.

EXTERIOR The buildings are in a restrained Queen Anne style, with two-storey elevations to Faringdon Road and Milton Road, and single-storey ones to the swimming baths in Chester Street and the rear lane. The main entrance was set centrally in the Faringdon Road elevation. It is eleven bays wide, in a 5:3:3 bay rhythm; the central three bays are set forward and house the entrance, which has panelled double doors with a rectangular over light and a Bath stone Tuscan surround with an open pediment on fluted brackets. The tympanum has a central cartouche inscribed SWIMMING BATHS / ENTRANCE, surrounded by carved fish and scrolling foliage. This is flanked by cross-framed casement windows, with a three-light window above. All the other bays have cross-framed casements and all the windows have elliptical heads with scrolling keystones. Below alternate windows are inset terracotta panels with various motifs, including sea monsters, wyverns and scrolling foliage. The walling is panelled using brick pilasters, with a continuous moulded and dentillated string at first-floor level, and there are four small pediments at eaves level over bays 2, 4, 7 and 10; that over the entrance bay (7) carries a cartouche with the date 1891. Tall chimney stacks are arranged randomly, to serve the specialist functions within the buildings. To the left of the entrance section, bay 5 houses a second entrance; this has a Bath stone surround in similar style to the main entrance, with an eared and scrolled two-light overlight with coloured glazing, and a shallow pediment with scallop shell and foliate motif in the tympanum. To its left, a small oval window with Bath stone dressings, moulded surround with scrolling keystone and shaped apron below the cill. To the far right of the elevation the final bay has a similar stone entrance to that for the former dispensary, without the overlight. A large metal fire escape extends across the right-hand section of the elevation.

The Milton Road façade is in similar style and is of sixteen bays, 3:6:7. Bays 2, 4, and 7 are framed and pedimented and have 3-light windows; the rest are 2-light as before, with similar terracotta panels below. The tympana of the two right-hand pediments, over the Turkish baths building, have elaborate terracotta decoration, with cartouches inscribed MFS [Medical Fund Society] and AD / 1906 respectively. The doorway in bay 2 is similar to those on the main elevation. The entablature is inscribed WASHING & TURKISH BATHS, and the tympanum above has a blank central cartouche and foliate scrolls. The right hand seven bays, marking the later upward extension of the dispensary range, have no pediments. All windows are 2-light examples. The entrance doorway to this range matches that to the dispensary on the main elevation, with coloured glazing above the paired, panelled doors; it originally formed the women’s entrance to the dispensary. The back lane has panelled walling with 2-light windows as before. The Chester Road front has plain walling with buttresses, and continuous clerestorey lighting to the large swimming bath, top lighting to the changing rooms and two tall ventilators to the bath. The roofs are pitched and slate covered, with ventilators to the pools and Turkish baths, that to the Turkish baths under a small, timber cupola with ogee roof.

INTERIOR The complex retains many of its original internal decorative features, including panelled doors, door furniture, architraves, glazed internal partitions and coloured glazing. The fireplaces have largely been removed, except for that in the former committee room, and another, smaller in the adjacent offices. Many of the spaces have regularly-spaced, elaborate, cast-iron ceiling ventilators drawing warm, moist air out to the roof ventilation system.

The main entrance to the complex was via Faringdon Road, with the Dispensary to the left and the Swimming Baths to the right. This entrance is no longer in use, but behind it the original lobby, with moulded cornice and ceiling decoration, and two staircases, survive. To the right, the concrete open well stair to the swimming baths has elaborate cast-iron balusters and a robust handrail with scroll end. To the left, a lighter stair to the first-floor consulting and dental rooms has a closed string with turned newel and balusters. The entrance formerly for the Washing and Turkish Baths in Milton Road is now the only public entrance. This leads to a hall lined with white-glazed brick, some areas painted, with moulded cornice and a light wrought-iron roof in five bays, with glazing along the ridge. This formerly housed the washing baths, but is now arranged with partitioned changing and shower cubicles to the left (with one washing bath), a large, later-C20 metal staircase rising from the centre of the space to the swimming pool changing rooms beyond, and a modern reception desk and partitioned-off ancillary spaces to the right. To the right of the entrance a door gives access into a stair hall, from which rises an open-string, dog-leg stair with chamfered and stopped newel poses, two square-section balusters each tread, and brackets to the string. This dates from 1904, and rises to the first-floor suite above the adjacent Turkish baths.

The Turkish baths range is built internally entirely using glazed brick: dark brown for skirtings, with buff and a green line to dado level; moulded glazed-brick dado; and white above. The door and window surrounds are made from bull-nosed brick, and have segmental-arched tops. There are several painted hand signs marking the WAY OUT, on both floors. The ground floor of the Turkish bath suite now houses a large cooling room, open to its king-post roof; three hot rooms (one in the position of the former Russian bath) and a plunge pool, divided lengthways to create a hot, bubble pool and a cold plunge bath, each half the size of the original plunge. The hot rooms are built in the same glazed brick. The baths suite is reached from a corridor with an extensive glazed internal wall, with etched glass and marginal glazing, and a curved corner to the southern end. Off this are former consulting rooms and offices. A marble massage table dating from 1904 survives as a bench. The first-floor rooms, include the large committee room, its glazed bricks intact but now painted, with a heavy marble fire surround with tile inserts and hearth, and an Art-Nouveau style grate. The remainder of the spaces, formerly the women’s baths, are given over to offices and include a glazed timber partition with obscured glass.

North of the Turkish baths range is the former dispensary and consulting rooms, which largely retain their original layout, despite some additional lightweight partitioning. The external walls are lined with the former consulting rooms, some now used as treatment rooms, and two converted to lavatories. The walls have a moulded cornice and are plastered and painted above a brown glazed brick skirting. The open space to the centre housed the partitioned-off dispensary and the L-shaped waiting room, both still legible. The roof over the single-storey area is formed from a compound iron Warren truss, with glazing along the ridge, otherwise boarded. Two windows with coloured glazing are set high in the wall at first-floor level to allow visibility from the first-floor corridor along the Faringdon Road elevation. The remainder of this wall has a late C20 mural incorporating these windows and the ground-floor doors below. The interior of the dispensary retains evidence of the hatches to the waiting area, and much of its counter, with drawers and sliding cupboard doors. Two pairs of double doors in semi-circular-arched openings, give access to the lobbies to the (former) men’s and women’s entrances from Milton Road.

Access to the swimming baths and changing rooms is now via the former washing baths, though the original access from the Faringdon Road lobby still exists. The changing rooms are top-lit, with king-post roofs, and have mid-C20 fittings. Link spaces lead to the large pool. This double-height hall houses a pool 110 feet (33.5m) long. It has an arched roof formed from seven iron trusses with ovoid piercings, the main members very similar in profile to railway tracks, which were designed by the GWR drawing office and manufactured by the GWR works. The ridge is glazed, and along the long sides is continuous clerestory glazing. A gallery run around the hall, constructed from timber, with rows of timber seating. At the north end is an arcade of three round arches with moulding and keystones and clerestory glazing in the gable above, with rows of raked seating set under the sloping roof. At the south end is a very large round-arched window in a moulded surround, with flanking, moulded band. The window is filled with delicate coloured and stained glass, incorporating a variety of motifs. The gallery, which survives from the construction of the building, is carried on slender uprights, modified in the mid-C20, some time after the removal of the ranks of poolside changing cubicles which originally lined the sides of the pool; this area is now finished in terrazzo and tile.

The hall for the smaller pool is constructed in the same way, with five identical trusses, and has a similar round-arched window, now blind due to the addition of later buildings behind. The infilled window is painted with a 1980s mural. The trusses spring from riveted brackets. At the opposite end, the round-arched entrance doorway has moulded capitals with carved fish and foliage. A low wall has been constructed in place of the former poolside cubicles on one side of the pool.

This list entry was subject to a Minor Amendment on 12/03/2020


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Cattell, J, Falconer, K, Swindon: The Legacy of a Railway Town (RCHME), (1995), 168-9
Shifrin, Malcolm, Victorian Turkish Baths, (2015), 176-81
Bernard Darwin: A Century of Medical Service (1947, reprinted 1991)
Donald Insall Associates - Swindon Health Hydro: Conservation Management Plan (March 2018)


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

Images of England

Images of England was a photographic record of every listed building in England, created as a snap shot of listed buildings at the turn of the millennium. These photographs of the exterior of listed buildings were taken by volunteers between 1999 and 2008. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Date: 22 Nov 2007
Reference: IOE01/17097/22
Rights: Copyright IoE Lorna Freeman. Source Historic England Archive
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