Corsham is a small town in a large parish, about 3 miles south west of Chippenham, 4 miles north west of Melksham, 7 miles north east of Bradford and about 8 miles from Bath. The London to Bristol railway line runs through the parish and the eastern end of the famous Box Tunnel lies within the parish. Apart from Corsham itself, many settlements grew up in the parish and some, such as Chapel Knapp, Gastard and Neston (originally Corshamside), are still distinct communities while the once separate settlement at Pickwick is now the western part of Corsham town. Other small settlements, such as Easton, Weston, and Thingley have remained as very small settlements.
The parish lies on the eastern slopes of the southern Cotswolds and is on the watershed of the Bristol Avon and the By Brook. There is no river in the town itself although the Ladbrook rises to the south and flows through modern housing eastwards out of the parish to Lacock and union with the River Avon.
Some of the parish boundaries are interesting and ancient. That in the south is a straight line for it follows the line of the Roman road between Bath and Silchester. In the north-west it follows the line of a prehistoric track towards Biddestone while the eastern boundary would have abutted the Royal forest of Chippenham. Most of the parish has a dry stony soil.
Corsham is an interesting place in that, although it is now a medium sized (for Wiltshire) town, it has never had the status of a town and no one is certain as to when it ceased to be regarded as a village and was looked upon as a town. It is also the largest place in Wiltshire to have, as yet, no published town history. As to civic status we have to go by the perceptions of local people, visitors, writers and cartographers. If we look at maps of the county we find that Saxton in 1576, Speed in 1610 and Blaeu in 1648 all used the size of typeface for Corsham that indicated a village. In the first accurate large scale map of Wiltshire (Andrews and Dury, 1773) Corsham is shown as one major street (the High Street) with no urban development as was evident at Bradford and Melksham. In Cary’s Atlas of 1794 Corsham is in the same typeface as nearby Colerne, indicating a large village.
The earliest writer seems to be John Leland (1542) who describes it as a ‘good country town’ while in 1695 Camden, who is unlikely to have visited it, says, ‘now a small village’. A directory of 1793 states, ‘a small, neat, well built town, consisting chiefly of one principle street’ but in 1825 John Britton, who was born only a few miles away at Kington St. Michael, refers to the ‘village of Corsham’. The first Kelly’s Directory of Wiltshire in 1848 describes Corsham as a market town but John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Wiltshire, Dorsetshire and Somersetshire (1859 – 1882) says, ‘The town, or rather village, . . . .’. The mapmakers seem unanimous, up to the end of the 18th century, in regarding Corsham as a village whereas the writers and directories are divided on the matter.
The only local writer regarded Corsham as a village in the early 19th century but local perceptions, which have not been recorded, are likely to have been more varied. The fact that there were markets and fairs from the late 13th century may have led to local designation of market town status, but it must be remembered that several villages had markets and the population of Corsham itself is likely to have numbered fewer than those in the rest of the parish. Prosperity seems to have come in the 17th and 18th centuries; especially in the latter with the arrival of the Methuens from Bradford on Avon. It was this family that built a market hall in 1783, replacing the earlier market cross. It would seem likely that Corsham achieved the status of a small town in the second half of the 18th century although the urban population is likely to have been small. The population of the whole parish was 2,402 in 1801 but we do not know how many of these lived in the town. After the arrival of the Great Western Railway in 1840 and the building of the Box Tunnel, leading to the discovery of superior building stone below ground, the population increased and Corsham was definitely the size of a town.
Returning to early history, Corsham is recorded as Coseham in 1001 and as Cosseha in 1086. The meaning is likely to have been the settlement, or ham, of Cosa or Cossa and the ‘r’ is a later insertion, possibly caused by the recording of local pronunciation. The history of the settlement extends before 1001 and the area belonged to the king in Saxon times when much of the remaining forest was cleared. It is reported that King Aethelred (978-1017) stayed at his house in Corsham and William of Malmesbury says he ‘had his Country Palace at Corsham and kept his Court there’. The Domesday Book (1086) records quite a large population for the time and mentions two mills; one probably on Lodbrook Water near Thingley Bridge, and the second possibly near Court Farm, Thingley. Also mentioned is the church of Paveshou which has been identified as having been on the Pittons estate. At this time there were two manors, the King’s manor and the Rectory manor.
The crown retained possession in the Norman and later King John (1199-1216) gave it to his son, Richard, Earl of Cornwall. In the mid 12th century he gave most of the lands, except the main estate and parks, to the tenants for an annual rent of 110 marks (just over £73). A charter of 1285 granted a market on every Thursday; this was altered to Thursday in 1302. This was in an open space at the west end of Church Street and would have centred on a market cross, of which there is mention at various times. The last mention was in 1776 when one night several men pulled it down and so damaged it that it could not be replaced. It is quite possible that competition from nearby towns meant that Corsham market may not always have been too successful over the centuries. The manor reverted to the crown in 1299 and from the latter part of the 14th century it formed part of the dowry of several queens of England. In deeds of this period and afterwards it is often called Corsham Regius (Royal Corsham) or Corsham Reginae (Queen’s Corsham).
In 1575 it was bought by a Corsham born man, Thomas Smyth, the son of John Smyth of Corsham, who was Farmer of the Customs and was therefore known as Customer Smyth. He built a great house here, on or near the site of the old manor house which John Leland had described as being ‘in ruins’ about 1541, in 1582 and this house comprises the older parts of the present Corsham Court. Customer Smyth moved to Kent and left the estate to his third son and in 1602 it was sold to Edward Hungerford. It remained with the Hungerford family until 1684 and then passed through the hands of at least six different owners before being bought by Paul Methuen of Bradford on Avon in 1746. Traditionally Paul Methuen is supposed to have bought Corsham House as a home for the collection of pictures and artistic works that he was to inherit from Sir Paul Methuen who lived until 1757.
Paul Methuen replaced the North façade with a Palladian one, dated 1749, and in 1760 ‘Capability’ Lancelot Brown was given the job of enlarging the park and house. He retained the Elizabethan exterior of the South façade, duplicated the gabled wings on each side and converted the East wing into a suite of State Rooms. The three-cube Saloon, or Picture Gallery, was built between 1762 and 1765. Many interior fittings and much furniture were created for the house by well known artists and craftsmen in the 1760s and 1770s. In 1799 Humphry Repton completed Brown’s plans for enlarging the park and in 1800 John Nash was given the task of enlarging the house. Nash radically altered the North front and the interior creating many rooms for displaying the extensive collection of paintings. By removing the Elizabethan screen he made a Grand Hall over 100 feet long and built a Library.
There were often comments, both by members of the family and visitors, that the house was damp and that this posed a risk to the pictures. In the late 1840s Mr Bellamy was brought in and had to demolish much of Nash’s structure replacing it with more solid, but less elegant, building. Most of the windows and other features, which Nash had created for the better display of the paintings, were lost but the building has remained good to this day.
The economic mainstay of the community has been agriculture stone and cloth. The parish was mainly agricultural up to the 19th century and although stone has been quarried here since at least the 7th century it was not until the mid 19th century that production became really large-scale.
Corsham itself has always been the centre of an agricultural area although competing markets at Lacock, Chippenham and Melksham have probably meant that it has not always been a successful market centre. It would seem that Paul Methuen built the Market Hall in 1783 in an attempt to revive the market at Corsham and this probably achieved some success for a while. However in 1882 part of the building was demolished, a new façade and a second storey added, and it became Corsham Town Hall. On the ground floor were the library, reading, smoking and billiard rooms of the Mechanics’ Institute, and a coffee bar. On the upper floor was an assembly room which would hold 400 people. A lock up was included in the building - a replacement for the long-disused stocks and pillory which stood near this site.
The cloth industry here was a pre-factory one as there was little water power to drive machinery. Spinning and weaving took place in the homes of the workers and production was controlled by clothiers, such as Thomas Hulbert who died in 1632. Weaving continued during the 18th century and in the 1790s there were two makers of scribbling and carding machines in the parish when it was recorded that ‘the chief support of Corsham is the woollen manufacture, here being some considerable clothiers’ (Universal British Directory 1792-3). Four clothiers are listed in 1792-3. By 1830 there are no clothiers listed for Corsham in Pigots’ Directory. Like other places with little or no groundwater the Corsham cloth industry faded in the early 19th century as production moved to factories in the towns.
The industry for the 19th century was stone quarrying and mining. In the early 18th century Ralph Allen and John Wood had used stone from the area for building in Bath but it was not until the opening of the Kennet and Avon Canal in 1810 that local stone could be transported substantial distances at fairly low cost. The result was that stone from the Box/Corsham area cost 1/11d in London in 1839 whereas stone from the Chilmark/Tisbury area in South Wiltshire was 3 times as expensive.
The greatest breakthrough for the industry came in 1840 when the Box Railway Tunnel was excavated showing that there was high quality oolitic limestone for building underground. A second tunnel was dug alongside the first and shafts led off from this into the good quality beds of stone. During the first part of the 19th century there were many small companies with the larger ones at Corsham being Randell and Saunders and the Sumsions. In 1877 most of the companies amalgamated into The Bath Stone Firms and later in 1904 as The Bath and Portland Stone Firms Ltd. Narrow gauge railways ran from the quarries to the railway stations.
During the 19th century some of the quarries that were opened were:
1830: Cathedral Quarry
1844: Tunnel Quarry
1847: Hudswell and Seven Shaft
1865: Clift Quarry – closed 1968
1875: Old Ridge
1877: Monks Park and Pictor’s Monks
1878: New Ridge
1880: Park Lane
1886: Sumsion’s Monks
1890: Sands Quarry and Longsplatt on Kingsdown (1 April 1920)
Quarries opened in the 20th century included:
c.1900: Brockleaze Quarry and Clubhouse Quarry (both Neston)
1904: Pickwick and Good’s Hill Quarry, south of Gastard (flooded and never completed)
1905: Hartham Park
Peak production occurred in 1901 when 3 million cubic feet of stone was quarried and the underground galleries were estimated to be 60 miles in length. The industry declined in the 1930s and many quarries closed in the Second World War when they were re-used by the military. Most remaining quarries closed in the 1950s and 1960s.
Other quarries were Spring Quarry, Eastrop Quarry, Bradford Road Quarry, Brewer’s Quarry, Copenacre Quarry (taken over by the government in 1937), Elm Park Quarry, Gastard (worked to 1920) and Hollybush at Neston.
During the 19th century the population steadily increased from 2,402 in 1802 to 4,322 in 1901, an increase of 80%. There was a substantial temporary increase in the late 1830s and early 1840s owing to construction of the GWR line and the Box Tunnel. In 1841 the population was 3,842 (2,952 in 1831) but this had decreased to 3,172 in 1851 when the navvies, tunnellers and engineers had departed. This increase of 30%, with a similar one in neighbouring Box, must have caused great disruption to normal community life with shanty towns, beer shops, brothels and all manner of hangers on in the parish.
The development of the urban area can be seen from the increase in the number of shops in the second half of the 19th century. In 1848 there was about 20 shops listed in the directory, a figure which increased to around 40 by the end of the century. It is surely the provision of shops that confirms Corsham’s status as a town during the 19th century as neighbouring Box, whose population increased by 106% during the period had 11 shops in 1848 and 15 or 16 in 1900. Growth of the housing area of Corsham town was fairly limited in the second half of the 19th century and in 1886 housing was still in the early area of High Street and Church Street with housing along the Pickwick Road from the Methuen Arms with new developments in Paul Street and Alexandra Terrace. Other developments were in Priory Lane and the area in the south around the railway station and Pound Pill.
By 1921 there was a little further infill on Pickwick Road, more terraces on Priory Lane and further development in the area to the south. The population fell between 1911 and the 1930s and there was little further development before WWII. There was a great influx of service personnel and civilians during WWII, which is detailed below, and between 1931 and 1951 the population increased by 143%, from 3,754 to 9,268. There has only been moderate growth since 1951. In 1946 the area of housing was not greatly different to that in the 1920s, but by the 1960s the whole triangle bordered by the High Street, Pickwick Road and Bath Road had been built up and there was further building in the area to the south of the railway line during the 1970s and 1980s. Smaller housing developments occurred at most of the smaller communities in the parish and, most recently, the area around Pickwick has been further developed.
The War Office had been interested in bombproof underground storage from the time of the First World War and the Corsham stone mines had been noted for this purpose. Construction for the Central Ammunition Depot began in 1936 and, just as there was for the building of the railway a century earlier, there was a great influx of men and materials and a great deal more machinery. The underground workings were considerable with 44 acres at Tunnel Quarry (CAD No. 1 sub depot), 6 at Ridge (RAF?Army ammunition dump) and 24 at Eastlays (CAD No. 2 sub depot). Other quarries used were Monks Park (Admiralty storage depot), Pickwick (Admiralty ammunition dump), Elm Park (MAP?RAF storage depot), Brockleaze (Admiralty ammunition depot), Spring (MAP engine factory) and Brown’s (RAF No. 10 group headquarters). From 1943 the security printers De La Rue took a lease on Clubhouse Quarry for the storage of replacement currency for occupied European countries.
Much of the building work was carried out by local civilian labour – quarrymen, agricultural workers, and colliers from the Somerset coalfield – under Royal Engineer management. From 1936 onwards many skilled mining engineers and others were recruited from the declining coal industry. Later unemployed men were brought in from all over the country. The welfare of the workmen was of great concern and they were lodged in surrounding towns and villages with special bus services for transport to work.
In 1940 there was hasty planning for the building of underground factories well away from the effect of bombs and high explosives. The ‘Hawthorn’ Project, which gave its name to the area around Westwells, was the construction of an underground town devoted to the building of the Hawthorn aero-engine. Twelve thousand or more people worked on the construction and running of the factory. During the war, and just after, Corsham was greatly changed, both above and below ground. Three major access roads were built and additional railway sidings constructed. After the war most of the underground workings were closed but above ground a military presence remained at Rudloe, Hawthorn and Copenacre. Copenacre had been established as the Royal Naval Store Depot, Copenacre, as part of the R.N. Supply and Transport Service whose role was to support the Royal Navy as an efficient and effective fighting force. The depot was alongside the A4, on land that was once part of the Hartham estate, and was largely used for support for the Navy’s electronic equipment. It was officially closed on 30th September 1995.
There are several areas within Corsham parish which can still be regarded as separate communities.
Chapel Knap takes its name from a 15th century chapel to St. John.
Neston was so called after the local big house, Neston Park (built shortly after 1790), and includes the hamlets of Corshamside, Lock’s Cross, Moor Green, Elley Green, Baker’s Corner, Pool Green, Greenhill and others. It became an ecclesiastical parish in the 1860s and is now growing steadily with several small housing developments having been completed in recent decades.
Hartham had 6 owners of land in the Domesday Book but from 1457 the estates were owned by the Gore family. From 1640 there were two principle families: the Goddards who owned Hartham Park and Rudloe, and the Ducketts whose Hartham House stood near Biddestone. In the 19th century Lord Methuen bought this latter estate and Hartham Park (b. Jones Wyatt 1790-5) became the property of Thomas Payne, who made a large addition to the house in the 1860s.
Rudloe Manor seems to have originated in the 13th century and it was bought by Thomas Tropenell in 1465. The present house dates from around 1685 and the estate was bought by the Air Ministry in 1941.
Gastard is a settlement in the south of the parish and Gastard Court contains medieval masonry although the mullioned windows indicate a 17th century rebuilding. Like Neston, Gastard has a parish church.
Easton has a village street with 18th century cottages leading down to the 18th century Easton Court although there are also several earlier gabled houses with mullioned windows.
Pickwick is now largely part of Corsham although it was once a separate community on the turnpike road. Lower Pickwick has an impressive manor house of the late 17th century.
In Corsham itself there are some fine buildings, particularly in the High Street where one house, Parkside, has strong artistic associations, having been the home of the architect and historian, Sir Harold Brakspear and later, up to 1970, the home of the composer, Sir Michael Tippett. Church Square is one of the oldest areas and is said to have had four inns, possibly around 1600. These were The Old George, The Horseshoe, The White Hart and The Golden Ball. A much later one is in The Methuen Arms which was rebuilt in 1805. Before that it was The Red Lion and had been so since 1608 when it is mentioned in the Quarter Sessions roll. It was said that there were 3 tippling houses in Corsham and that about a year earlier Christopher Nott had set up a new alehouse in ‘a remote place in the skirts of the towne’. The Court ordered the new alehouse to be suppressed but this does not seem to have happened. The site originally held a medieval house, Winter’s Court. The Pack Horse Inn was once the church house, used for the secular functions of the church.
The recently restored Lady Margaret Hungerford Almshouses were erected in 1668 and were founded and endowed by Lady Margaret, widow of Sir Edward Hungerford. She was a Puritan and a very strong Christian who was wealthy in her own right. It originally took 6 poor people and this was later increased to a maximum of 8. Part of the structure was a school which provided free education for ten needy children. Between 1807, when he was aged 75, and 1812, Edward Hasted, author of a twelve volume work on the history of Kent, was Master of Corsham Almshouse.
Corsham possessed a fire engine from 1810. There was a gasworks, built late 1850s -early 1860s by the Corsham Gas Company which was supplying gas to heat the Congregational Chapel in 1863. The gasworks were taken over by Bath Gas Company in the early 1930s and were eventually demolished. Corsham has always had a good supply of water from local wells and springs but when a local water company provided a piped supply in 1889 it was brought from Coxwell, near the top of Naish Hill in Lacock parish. Many houses in the High Street had water laid on by January 1890. Originally electricity for local use was provided from two generators at the back of The Methuen Arms. By 1930 the Western Electricity Supply Co. Ltd. was based in the High Street.
In1946 the Bath Academy of Art was established in Corsham, four years after its buildings in Bath were destroyed by bombing. The centre of the Academy was Corsham Court, held on a 99 year lease. Teacher training courses were offered as well and the official designation was an art school associated with a training college. For many years music was also a part of the curriculum at Corsham. The Academy merged with the Bath College of Higher Education and later, in 1986, moved from Corsham back to Bath. It is now incorporated in Bath Spa University.