Today Box is best-known for its Brunel-designed Box railway tunnel and the large quantities of fine-quality stone that were exploited after the tunnel had been dug. But this is modern history from around 1840 to the present day and occupation here dates back at least to Roman times. It is quite a large parish with several settlements, apart from the village of Box, within its boundaries.
The parish is bisected diagonally by the steep-sided By Brook valley with settlements on the higher ground on either side. Although the By Brook would have been an early communication route later main routes by-passed the village of Box until 1761. Until then the Chippenham to Bath road followed a route to the south of the town, leaving Pickwick, near Corsham, passing through Chapel Plaister to the crossroads, now known as Box Five Ways. From there it took the route through Blue Vein and over King’s Down to Bathford. In 1761 the road through Box was turnpiked under the Bricker’s Barn Roads Trust, creating a more direct route (the present A4).
It was not until around 1830 that another main road was built into Box. This left the crossroads to the south of Chapel Plaister, thus turning it into Five Ways, and descended the steep into the older part of the village. This new road provided access from Bradford and Melksham.
Much of the parish consists of limestone with the good-quality beds of oolitic limestone, now known as Bath stone, topped with shelly limestone to the south. Further north is clay and beds of inferior limestones while the lower part of the By Brook valley is covered in alluvium. In the 18th and 19th centuries the chief crops seem to have been wheat, oats and barley but before that doubtless the influence of Cotswold Sheep was considerable.
It is possible that there was a Mesolithic flint working site here and there is certainly some evidence of Early Neolithic settlement. By the 2nd century A.D. a Roman villa with the associated buildings of an agricultural estate existed. This villa was probably a courtyard building having both mosaics and window glass. There was a major rebuilding in the late 3rd or early 4th century which changed it into the large villa of a wealthy person. The villa had one of the richest collections of mosaic floors of any building in Roman Britain with remains found in 20 of the 41 rooms. A villa such as this would have been the centre of a large estate and the focus of interest for possible subsidiary villas at Ditteridge and Hazelbury and for those further afield such as Colerne and Atworth.
After the Romans left, the early history of Box is shrouded in mystery and it is Hazelbury that seems to be the important place. We do not really know what Saxon settlements there were in the area although there were definitely ones at Hazelbury and Ditteridge, which are mentioned in the Domesday Book. Towards the end of the 7th century St. Aldhelm is said to have thrown down his glove at Hazelbury and told men to dig and they would find treasure – the excellent building stone that had already been used by the Romans. St. Aldhelm is said to have used stone from here to build the original church at Bradford and also for Malmesbury Abbey. Later stone was used for Bradenstoke, Stanley and Lacock Abbeys.
There were Saxon churches at both Hazelbury and Ditteridge and by 1086 Hazelbury had a reasonable population. There would appear to have been between 90 and 120 people at Hazelbury at the time of the Domesday Book and there were also 2 mills. These latter must have been in the valley of the By Brook and it is tempting to think that Hazelbury, which could have covered Box Hill, also included Box, which is not mentioned at Domesday, but the area of land given for Hazelbury is insufficient for this. Ditteridge was much smaller with a population of around 30. Whether there was a settlement at the place we now know as Box is unknown but there must have been some people living in that part of the valley.
The earliest mention of Box is in 1144 when land there was confirmed as belonging to Humphrey de Bohun. There was certainly a Norman church here and it is possible that there was a Saxon predecessor. The church was built near to the Roman villa and it is likely that dressed stone from the villa was used for part of the early church fabric. The village itself seems to have developed to the east of the church - probably because the land falls away to the west and south, and rises to the north. A market place existed here and Box would have been a small medieval market town for the surrounding area. Although called the ‘town of La Boxe’ in a land transaction of 1283 it is likely to have been only of village size and the community of Hazelbury, situated mainly on Hazelbury Hill was probably larger.
In the late 12th and early 13th centuries quarries of stone were given to Stanley Abbey (by Walter Croc, or Croke, of Hazelbury and Samuel Bigod of Box) and Lacock Abbey by Sir Henry Croc. It is likely that small settlements based on farms, such as Wormcliffe and Alcomb, were scattered throughout the modern parish by the mid 14th century when the population had expanded considerably. Many of these will have been affected by the loss of people during the outbreak of the Black Death and it is possible that the settlement at Hazelbury began a terminal decline at this point, with little demand for stone.
It is probably fair to say that until the 18th century there was no real concentration of settlement in Box parish, with most people living outside the village itself. In a taxation list of 1545 the wealthier people of Box paid £4.8.0d (£4.40p) in taxes while those of Corsham paid £5.15.0d (£5.75p). Box would have included Ditteridge and Hazelbury while the large parish of Corsham also included many settlements. A later taxation list of 1576 also seems to indicate that the parish of Box was reasonably well-populated. Quarrying, other than for purely local use, seems to have been resurrected, with stone being used for Great Chalfield Manor and Longleat House in the 15th century and 16th centuries.
The powerful Hungerford family were one of the main landowners in Box by the mid 15th century, while the landed estate of Hazelbury Manor had passed from the Croc, or Croke, family to the Bonhams by marriage. In the 17th century Box is recorded on several maps including one of 1630 by Francis Allen. Unfortunately, this does not record the ordinary houses and cottages of the village but only the church, a few large houses and the mills. From quarter session records we do know that there were a variety of trades present in Box including butchers, masons and alehouse keepers. Weaving was a major home industry by this time with cloth woven in small workshops attached to people’s homes, for the clothiers of the nearby towns.
Along with the increase in importance of weaving in the 17th century came non-conformity and there were Quakers here from the early 1600s. Later in the century a private asylum, known as Box Mad House, was established at Kingsdown.
In the 18th century weaving and spinning continued and there seem to have been connections with the clothiers of Bradford more than other towns. Certainly boys from the poor house, established in 1727, were apprenticed to weavers in Bradford. The industry declined in the latter part of the 18th century as increasing mechanisation concentrated activity in the towns. A charity school began in 1708 and from 1728 used a large room in the poor house (now Springfield). Quarrying continued and received a boost in 1727 when the River Avon was made navigable between Bath and Bristol. Box stone was then carted to Bath from where it could be transported by water to London and other towns.
The greatest boost for Box stone was provided in 1810 by the opening of the Kennet and Avon Canal. A short haul overland and the stone could then be transported via canal and the River Thames by barge directly to London where the price was reduced to 1/11d (about 10 pence) a cubic foot. The canal age was succeeded by the railway age, which brought fame, employment and easy transport to Box.
The last portion of Brunel’s London to Bristol Great Western Railway line to be completed was between Bath and Chippenham. This presented the greatest difficulty in the cutting of the 1¾ mile long Box Tunnel. Many people said it could not be done or that passengers would be deafened in the tunnel. Work began in early 1836 and there were early problems with flooding. Men worked both day and night with 1,500 men and over 100 horses used. During the final six months before completion there were 4,000 men and 300 horses working. The work took five years with nearly 100 men killed whilst working. The tunnel was completed in Spring 1841 and the line officially opened on 30th June 1841. There is a very grand portal at the western (Box) end of the tunnel but a somewhat plainer one at the eastern (Corsham) end.
Work on the tunnel changed the nature of Box completely. Shanty towns for labourers were built and were swiftly followed by the arrival of all the camp followers associated with the temporary camps of men. New beer houses and public houses were set up, including one with the name Railroad Tavern. The effect on the established population of this mainly agricultural parish was immense with fears of drunkenness and violence common but a few entrepreneurs were able to make money out of the railway navvies. Destruction of property was probably fairly common and most local people will have been grateful when the tunnel was completed.
One big advantage of the tunnel construction was the discovery of vast beds of fine stone to the north and south of the railway line. Extensive underground stone mines were excavated between Box Hill and Corsham and stone was brought out by trucks pulled along narrow-gauge lines to a track running parallel with Box Tunnel, emerging through a separate arch at the Corsham end. The effect of navvies remaining in the area, and a rise in numbers of quarrymen and stonemasons, led to an increase in population of nearly 47% between 1831 and 1841 – from 1,550 to 2,274. With transport by rail stone could now be sold in the chief southern towns and cities for between 9d (4 pence) and 1/8d (8½ pence) per cubic foot. Box stone was being used by Oxford University colleges by the mid 19th century.
The development of the community now known as Box Hill dates from this time and public houses with names such as the Quarrymen’s Arms and The Tunnel begin to appear. The peak period for quarrying activity was between 1880 and 1909 when millions of tons of stone was cut. The quarries continued working until 1969. Obviously the village itself expanded considerably in the 19th century, growing eastwards from the church and market place along the road to Corsham and up Quarry Hill. Apart from quarrying local industries included milling, brewing and malting and soap and candle manufacture but farming was still the mainstay of the parish. The chief crops were wheat, barley and oats.
Methodist chapels were opened at Kingsdown and Box Hill to complement the one in the village. In 1858 a cemetery was created on the A4 to the west of the church and the churchyard closed for burials. After a fall in population between the years of 1841 and 1851, numbers in the parish rose steadily. In the early years of the 19th century Kingsdown Lunatic Asylum was housing 300 patients in fairly wretched conditions. Conditions improved only slowly but by the beginning of the 20th century it was a well-run asylum for 43 patients, who paid between 2 and 5 guineas a week (£2.10p to £5.25p). By this time football teams had been formed in Box and Box Hill and in 1870 the Box Cricket Club was founded at The Chequers.
For many years all outdoor social activities and events had taken place on the ‘Fete Field’ and 1906 1906 indoor events were catered for by the building of the Bingham Hall at a cost of £600, provided by Daniel George Bingham. It was demolished in 1970 and its function is now fulfilled by the Selwyn Hall (built in 1969), which also houses the village library. After the First World War the village war memorial was erected on Bear Green in 1923 and in 1926 the Recreation Ground was built. Box has been well served with public houses and until the 1920s the village had its own brewer, Pinchins, at Box Brewery, opposite the school. It is also interesting to note that the 17th century Manor House in the High Street was still a working farm early in the 20th century and a herd of cows was frequently to be seen in the main road.
After the Second World War there was an urgent need for more housing and the ‘Fete Field’ was used for the building of Bargates Estate, while Waverley Park was built off Henley Lane. These were followed by more areas of housing in all other decades of the 20th century. Despite the increase in houses the public houses declined with The Lamb closing in the 1960s. Before that, in 1957, in a tragic accident, the Rising Sum was demolished in an explosion and the licensee and his family were killed.
The ‘big house’ in Box parish is Hazelbury Manor which was purchased by the Speke family in the early 17th century and passed to the Northey family in the early 18th century. By 1920 it had been bought by George Kidston who restored the manor house to much of its 16th century state of architecture and also wrote a book on the history of the manor. Rudloe Manor is a late 17th century house with a medieval barn, while Cheney Court at Ditteridge is from the early to mid 17th century being on the site of a 15th century manor house of the Cheneys and rebuilt for George Speke. It was owned by the Northey family in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ashley House was built around 1840 but Ashley Manor House is 17th century with earlier origins, while Alcombe Manor has medieval origins but is now mainly late 17th or early 18th century.