The ready availability of limestone in the Cotswolds had made it a convenient building material since at least Roman times. Corsham sits on the Greater Oolitic Seam which, since it extends in about a 20 mile radius of Bath, has been termed 'Bath Stone'. This stone differs from the Cotswold seams further north by having a lower ironstone content and therefore being lighter in colour. It is also less friable and so suitable for producing the dressed blocks of stone so common in the buildings of towns like Corsham and Bath.
Until the 19th century, the Corsham area had been quarried chiefly for local use. The construction of the Box Hill railway tunnel by the great engineer Brunel, however, brought the means of transporting stone easily further afield at the same time, coincidentally, as uncovering huge new deposits. So much stone was shipped from Corsham now that Bath Stone was sometimes also known as 'Corsham Stone'.
After the First World War, the expense of extracting stone and the development of cheaper building materials almost brought quarrying for Bath Stone to an end. With the renewed interest in conservation and building design sympathetic to its context, high quality limestone is again much in demand and quarries are being worked again, not only in the Corsham area, but also at Limpley Stoke near Bath. It is understood that stone is currently being extracted regularly from up to three different quarries in Corsham.
During the First and Second World Wars, abandoned underground stone quarries under Box Hill were used to store ammunition. In the 1950s part of the 35-acre Spring Quarry was developed as a Central Government War Headquarters site to which the government could retreat in the event of a nuclear strike. Code-named 'Burlington', the radiation-proof bunker 100 feet underground consists of a street with Whitehall ministries on each side and even included a pub called the Rose and Crown. Until recently the facility was maintained by a small staff.
In 1833, 27-year-old Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed Chief Engineer of the Great Western Railway and, in 1836, following an initial survey of the proposed GWR route between London and Bristol, work commenced on Box Tunnel.
By May of 1841 only the Chippenham to Bath section of the London to Bristol route remained to be done, but this was acknowledged as being the hardest link to forge. This section included much deep cutting, embankments, another crossing of the River Avon at Bath, viaducts at Chippenham and Bath and the diversion of the Kennet and Avon Canal. Above all, though, was that ‘monstrous and extraordinary, most dangerous and impracticable tunnel at Box’ still to be completed.
The work had started with the sinking of eight 28-foot diameter access shafts (the one by the Bradford/Colerne road being some 300 feet deep) and, for the next two-and-a-half-years, a ton of gunpowder and a ton of candles were consumed each week. Men and horses provided labour and many pumps were necessary to maintain acceptable water levels. In November 1837, though, water overcame the pumps, filled the tunnel and rose 56 feet up the shafts. Imagine the conditions in the tunnels: working in the dark apart from spluttering candles; the fumes and noise resulting from the constant blasting operations; the wet and the dirt – and also remember that modern health and safety regulations were a very long way off.
The tunnel was projected to finish in August 1840 but as this date began to slip Brunel poured in all his resources with some 4000 men and 300 horses working round the clock. Imagine how the local inhabitants viewed the comings and goings of such a crowd.
Every available bed in the neighbouring villages and hamlets was occupied and these beds were seldom allowed to go cold! There was no local police force and the off duty drunken navvies (navigators) were 'controlled' by their foreman.
In June 1841 the great tunnel was opened at a cost of £6,500,000, this being well over twice the original estimate. On the last day of the month a decorated train pulled out of Paddington and arrived at Bristol some four hours later but many people were highly suspicious of 'high speed' train travel and especially of the unimaginable dangers of passing through a two mile unlit tunnel.
Discussions had started in June 1839 on the location of the GWR locomotive depot and repair facility and despite the rival claims of Didcot and Reading it was decided the site should be in the fields below the small market town of Swindon where the Cheltenham Railway joined the main line, the rail gradients being an important factor in this decision.
After completion of the Box Tunnel, it is believed that several of the now unemployed stonemasons stayed in the area and used their skills by mining the stone for building purposes, hence starting a new local industry.
Brunel died of a stroke at the tragically young age of 53, but left a huge engineering legacy that includes the SS Great Britain, the Clifton Suspension Bridge and, of course, Box Tunnel. It is said that, at sunrise on 9 April – Brunel’s birthdate – the sun shines right through it.
a) remember that the gauge of the Brunel railway was 7 feet and our modern rail gauge is 4 feet 8 1/2 inches dates from around 1846, and,
b) it is reputed that at sunrise on the 9 April, Brunel's birthday, the sun shines right through his tunnel.
After completion of the Box tunnel it is believed several of the now unemployed stonemasons stayed in the area and used their skills by mining the stone for building purposes and hence starting a new local industry.
Thanks to Corsham Tourist Information and Heritage Centre for this information.
As much as anything history is about people, and Corsham has been associated with a number of families who have had longstanding connections with the town.
At Hartham, the Goddards and the Ducketts co-existed within 200 yards for over 400 years. Latterly Hartham Park was the home of Sir John Dickson-Poynder, the MP for Chippenham who became Governor of New Zealand and was created Lord Islington.
At the heart of the Town have been the Methuens, and at Neston the great brewing family the Fullers.
The Hungerfords are commemorated as the original benefactors of the Almshouses and still retain a close relationship with Corsham through Guyers House.
The Goldneys once owned much of Pickwick (the lion's share of the estate was sold in 1948) and the Hulbert's ran Pickwick Brewery.
The Spackmans contributed a magnificent early photographic legacy, the Brakspear's added to the Town architecturally.
The Pictor family were principle characters within the stonemining industry in Corsham. On Dorothy Joan Pictor's death she bequeathed her house to Corsham Parish Council.
Sir Michael Tippett lived in the High Street, and in its day the Academy of Art attracted some of the leading artists of the 1960s and 70s.
And some families have contributed to the Town without fame or fanfare, but as residents and personalities for even longer periods. The Hancocks, and we all know one, can trace their Corsham heritage back over 600 years.