Corsham was historically a centre for agriculture and later the wool industry, and remains a focus for quarrying Bath Stone. It contains several notable historic buildings, such as the stately home of Corsham Court. In World War II and the Cold War, it became a major administrative and manufacturing centre for the Ministry of Defence, with numerous establishments both above ground and in the old quarry tunnels. The early 21st century saw some growth in Corsham's role in the film industry.
Corsham apparently derives its name from Cosa's hām, "ham" being Old English for homestead, or village. The town is referred in the Domesday book as Cosseham; the letter 'R' appears to have entered the name later under Norman influence, when the town is reported to have been in the possession of the Earl of Cornwall.
One of the towns that prospered greatly from Wiltshire's wool trade in mediæval times, it maintained its prosperity after the decline of that trade through the quarrying of Bath stone, with underground mining works extending to the south and west of Corsham.
Numbers 94 to 112 of the High Street are Grade II* listed buildings known as the "Flemish Weavers Houses", however there is little cogent evidence to support this name and it appears more likely to derive from a handful of Dutch workers who arrived in the 17th century.
There was once a priory in Corsham, which was destroyed, then replaced with a Georgian house (now Heywood School) located on Priory Street. Corsham also contains the historic Georgian house, The Grove, opposite the high street, a typical example of upper middle-class Georgian architecture.
The stately home of Corsham Court can also be found in the town centre. Standing on a former Saxon Royal Manor, it is based on an Elizabethan manor home from 1582. Since 1745, it has been part of the Methuen estate. The house has an extensive collection of Old Masters, rooms furnished by Robert Adam and Thomas Chippendale, and parks landscaped by Capability Brown and Humphry Repton. The house is open to the public all year round excluding December and is famed locally for its peacocks, which freely wander about the streets. The owner of Corsham Court in the mid-seventeenth century was the commander of the Parliamentarian New Model Army in Wiltshire. His wife built what came to be known as the Hungerford Almshouses in the centre of town; they were featured on the BBC's Restoration television series in 2008.
Corsham is the site of the disused entrance to Tunnel Quarry, which used to be visible off Pockeredge Drive.
The town has its own festival. Corsham also started a jazz festival (separate from the town festival) in 2004, which included a performance by the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. The event however was not as successful as the organizers would have hoped, bands across the seven venues had to compete with each other and turnout was lower than expected. In 2005 the festival was reduced to just two venues and a much reduced lineup. In 2006, the festival reduced in size once again, with only the Royal Oak Pub hosting the event, and the Stan Tracey Trio as principal headliners.
Corsham was the inspiration for Charles Dickens' novel The Pickwick Papers; it is thought that he borrowed the name from Moses Pickwick, a coachman who was born in Pickwick, lived in the "Hare and Hounds" inn, and ran coaches between Bath and London.
Pickwick Manor was noted by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as an "unusually impressive example of a late 17th century manor house", having remnants of a 14th century wing. More recently it has been the residence of architect Harold Brakspear and his descendants.
Beechfield is a late Georgian house in Middlewick Lane, and was used by the Bath School of Art and Design, formerly the Bath Academy of Art, moving there during the Second World War. It was extended in the early 1970s to provide additional accommodation and the Academy moved back to Bath in 1986. The house itself was split into residential accommodation while part of the grounds were split off in 2002 under the auspices of the Town Council to provide a Nature Area where local flora and fauna can be seen.
Pickwick is also noted for "The Two Pigs", a real ale pub which is a Grade II listed building. Formerly named "The Spread Eagle", it is now known for live blues bands, but at the end of the nineteenth century Pickwick did not have a mortuary, and the dead were laid out on the bar of the pub until they could be transferred to Corsham mortuary.
Corsham Town Council's boundaries include several neighbouring settlements: Biddestone, Chapel Knap, Easton, Gastard, Hartham, Leafield, The Linleys, Neston, The Ridge, Thingley, part of Rudloe, and a small part of Chippenham south of the A4 road.
Neston village was established around Neston Park, a country estate whose house was built c.1790. Neston Park is home of the Fuller family, who give their name to the Fuller, Smith and Turner brewery in London, known for Fuller's London Pride cask ale.
Corsham's lowest level of government is Corsham Town Council, which was founded as a Parish Council in 1895. Although Corsham never had its own town charter, in May 2000 it voted under Section 245 of the Local Government Act 1972 to become a Town Council. There are currently twenty Councillors, and the four Council committees are
Normally regarded as largely apolitical, Corsham made headlines in April 2007 when a British National Party candidate, Michael Simpkins, was elected unopposed to the council. The following year, the party's candidate came fifth in a by-election.
The first official census of 1801 showed Corsham having 2402 inhabitants, while the most recent of 2001 lists 10,780. No census was taken in 1941 due to the Second World War, but the rise in population (from 3754 in 1931 to 9268 in 1951, a rise of 147%) is attributable to the influx of military personnel. The increase shown for 1840 is due the influx of stone workers and the arrival of the Great Western Railway.
The 2001 census demographics of the SN13 postcode area, of which Corsham comprises the major part, do not differ markedly from national figures; the unemployment rate is 2.0% compared to a national 3.2%, and there is a marginally higher rate of retirees (at 23.3% as against 22%). 23% of adults are educated to degree level, against a national average of 20%.
Corsham School, The Tynings, is Corsham's only secondary school; it was opened in 1972 as a comprehensive school and is now a specialist Visual Arts and Maths and Computing College with approximately 1400 students. Catering for students from 11 to 18, its DCSF educational statistics are generally better than for Wiltshire as a whole. Its most recent Ofsted inspection, in 2005, assessed it as Good or Outstanding in all areas.
The Heywood Preparatory School, Priory Street, is an independent school providing education from ages 2 to 10, and has about 190 pupils. It achieved a favourable assessment when last inspected in June 2008, being described as "successful in meeting its aims and outstandingly so in many areas. It meets the needs of all pupils who are well educated in the widest sense".
Corsham is connected to Bradford on Avon by the B3109 road, to Melksham by the B3353, and to Chippenham and Bath by the A4 Bath Road, a former turnpike from London to Bristol. Four public car parks in the town centre are operated by North Wiltshire District Council for a small fee. Bus companies, including Coachstyle, Faresaver and FirstGroup plc, operate local services, as well as buses to all nearby towns.
The Great Western Main Line railway from London to Bristol passes through Corsham, though the local station closed in the 1960s. Nearby stations, and most passenger trains, are operated by First Great Western. Some local services call at the nearest station at Melksham (4.5 miles, 7.2 km) while Chippenham station (4.7 miles, 7.5 km) offers frequent express services and connections. The eastern portal of Box Tunnel, built as the longest railway tunnel of its time, by Isambard Kingdom Brunel for the Great Western Railway, is at Hudswell on the western edge of the town. Corsham Railway Cutting carries the main line westward through Corsham to Box Tunnel; in 1971 of land in the cutting were designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest for notable geology.
Corsham holds an annual twinning event in which musical and charity events occur, accompanied by French food and wines. There is also a boules competition for the Peter Henderson trophy which is named in memory of a local doctor and former chairman of the twinning association. As part of the 2008 event, a mock Storming of the Bastille was staged to celebrate Bastille Day, Corsham Town Hall standing in for the Parisian prison.
The Rudloe Site was formerly RAF Rudloe Manor, which was established during the Second World War as a non-flying station for administrative and command & control purposes. It was home to HQ Number 10 Fighter Group, RAF Regional Command, Headquarters RAF Police & Security Services, No 1 Signals Unit, Controller Defence Communications Network and 1001 Signals Unit. By 1998 it had become mostly administrative, housing the RAF Provost and Security Services, which dealt with security and criminal investigation services, the Defence Communication Services Agency, while the detachment of 1001 Signals Unit of the RAF remained. It closed as an operational site in about 2000.
RAF Rudloe Manor was the location of Headquarters Southern Area Royal Observer Corps from 1952 until 1980 when it was relocated to Lansdowne near Bath. Co-located with the ROC was Headquarters Southern Sector United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation responsible for the now defunct Four-minute warning in the event of nuclear attack during the Cold War.
A number of defence contractors are either co-located or in the vicinity of the MOD sites, such as Chemring Energetics UK Limited and Serco Defence, Science and Technology.
The UK military communications satellite constellation called Skynet, a PFI arrangement, is controlled by contractor, Paradigm Services, from the location of the former 1001 SU Det on Skynet Drive. The ground segments in support of the constellation are located at Bordon, Hampshire and Colerne Airfield, Colerne, Wiltshire (formerly RAF Oakhanger and RAF Colerne.)
Disused quarries have been redeployed for other purposes; apart from defence usage, there is a wine storage facility at Eastlays, near Gastard, and storage of magnetic media for off-site data protection at Neston.
Early 21st century growth of period drama location filming followed the examples of neighbouring Lacock and Atworth parishes. Neston Park hosted major outdoor film sets for the 2008 BBC television adaption of Lark Rise to Candleford, and the BBC also filmed scenes for a 2008 version of Tess of the D'Urbervilles in Church Street and Corsham Court grounds.