History Historic Documents
Swindon's Golden lion

How many people that wander down Canal Walk ever stop to look at our Golden Lion I ask myself. Few I suspect know much of its history or of its future. Perhaps it's time to remind our older residents and inform our newer ones about our beloved Lion.

The story of the Golden Lion begins with the coming of the Wilts & Berks Canal along a line north west of the town of Swindon. (today we call it Canal Walk). The year is 1800 and the Navigators ( Navvies ) have reached a lane that winds its way up to what we now call Old Swindon. Here they build a bridge over the canal and the locals call this Bridge Lane for obvious reasons (later Bridge Street)leading down to Fleet Way along the river Fleet, (later concreted over and called Fleet Street).

Slowly Bridge Lane starts to fill up with buildings to accommodate the Canal Workers. With the coming of the Railway's this street is transformed into a thriving thoroughfare with no less than Three Places of Worship and Seven Pubs.

The closest of these to the Canal is called the Golden Lion Inn and over its doorway couchant style lays a golden lion keeping watch over all those entering and leaving the hostelry. The nearby bridge quickly gets called the Golden Lion Bridge because of its proximity to the watering hole used by all those that are travelling along the waterway. The business men of Old Town start to develop the other side of Bridge Street and it eventually gets called Regent Street instead of Bridge Lane.

On the 13th April 1863 the ratepayers of Old Swindon meet with those from New Swindon to discuss the state of the old wooden bridge which has been unsafe now for almost 10 years and is totally inadequate for the purpose that it is now used for.

A new bridge is commissioned which is very ornate and will cost £600 to build. This bridge had 4 huge pillars, 2 on each side set inside four coffer-dams with massive chains that would wind the bridge up and down by use of 2 windlass gears that took 2 men to operate them.

The new bridge is opened seven years later in July 1870 with a huge fanfare of publicity.

Just nine months later and the bridge has to be closed down for repairs because one of the giant pillars had slipped an inch or two into the canal and each time the bridge is drawn up the chains twist on the cogs and jam the mechanism.

A full report of this bridge building catastrophe and what is to be done about it appears in the Swindon Advertiser on 13th March 1871

The third and undoubtedly the most famous was the beautiful pedestrian bridge built it was said so that the railway workers could not use the excuse that the bridge was up when they were late for work. It was common practise for the men to have a pint or two of beer on their way to work at 6am then make a run for the works on the last hooter. If you clocked in late you would be sent home and lose a day's wages but if the bridge was up it was not your fault.

This bridge cost £94 to construct and would you believe it, To this day no one knows what ever happened to it when it was removed.

You may ask yourself why was the public house called the Golden Lion. It was tradition in those days to name pubs either after Royalty (The George, The Duke, The Queens Arms, The Kings Head etc.) or after Heraldic Shields (Red Lion, White Lion etc) but our Golden Lion is something very special.

There were 2 Golden Lions standing Rampant on the shield of England after 1066. Then Richard the Lion-Heart King of England 1189-1199 added the third Lion lying across the top of his Shield so that his men could easily recognise him from the other Knights in the midst of battle. Thus our Lion has a very proud history behind it.

The Golden Lion that you see in Canal Walk today is not the original one that lay over the door of he public house. That was taken down in the early 1900s when someone noticed that each time a tram went past the Lion quivered.
He was taken down and put into the garden of the pub, Then later moved a few feet closer to the canal and surrounded by iron railings. Some claimed this was to stop the children from sitting on his back and pulling his ears but I prefer to believe the story that it was to stop the lion from escaping.

During the Second World War the railings were removed for the war effort but the lion did not run away, He was proud to be doing his bit for the war effort.

The Golden Lion pub finally closed it's doors for the last time on 15th March 1956. At some time in the early 1960s the lion was taken away and put into storage by the council, why I do not know but in 1963 the winter of the big freeze someone looked at the poor old lion and decided that he might get cold in all that snow so they put a tarpaulin over the top of him and tied it down.

That lion had stood up to all that the weather could throw at him for over 100 years and never flinched once, But he could not stand sweating under the tarpaulin and when it was removed some months later the stone had crumbled, His Ears, His Nose, and his Feet all fell off. Our Lion was dead.

When the Brunel Centre was built it was thought a good idea to get a new Golden Lion and put it where the old one laid but unfortunately they put it facing the wrong way.

On February 25th 1978 the new lion was unveiled to mark the Queen's Silver Jubilee and a school teacher came up with the idea of putting a time capsule under the lion containing all the things that the children in his class thought important to them at the time.

Now our lion stands guard over a piece of our history again and next time he is moved the people of Swindon will learn what it was like to go to school in the 1970s.

So next time you are in the vicinity of Regent Street and Canal Walk say hello to our Lion and lift the children up so that they can pat him on the head.

Remember our Lion has been looking out for us for over 170 years now and will probably be there in another 170 years time.

You can learn much more about our Canal's history if you come into the shop and buy one or two of our books or pick them up at one of our displays. If you live to far away why not buy it on line .

Roy Cartwright