We must all have been very relieved to see the demolition of those badly abused buildings take place over the last few months. Just to have the eyesore removed from the entrance to Corsham can only be an asset to how the town might be viewed by passers by on the A4.
The site will become predominately another housing estate, and hopefully the services currently provided in the town can continue to support it’s new inhabitants.
But perhaps we can just have one last nostalgic look at what this site provided to the town whilst in existence for almost 50 years.
The Royal Naval Stores Depot opened at Copenacre in 1942 at a cost of £308,500. initially to house underwater (SONAR) equipment underground. These old quarries provided a safe and stable environment for electronic stores, and in 1945 another quarry was acquired at Spring (now Spring Park) in Westwells Rd. Between 1951/55 Copenacre was extended to twice it’s original size, and by 1955 another quarry had been obtained at Monks Park .
This expansion allowed for the storage of hundreds of other items, and also the transfer of many other people from the north, who came in 1959/60 to help run the stores, the testing facilities, and issue the items to the Fleet. To accommodate them a wide housing programme was developed, council estates in Chippenham and Corsham were allocated as ‘Admiralty’ houses, and Corsham became their home.
In 1962 Copenacre got it’s first computer, a massive piece of kit which would be laughed at today, however it served the site well for 12 years, and there were many subsequent installations until we arrived at the computer sytems we recognise today.
By 1966 there was a transfer of Headquarters staff from London and in 1968 another department from Foxhill Bath, was posted to Corsham. By this time the organisation was one of the largest Government establishments in the country and employed some 1700 people both above and below ground.
Many same family members worked at the Depot for many years. Fathers, Mothers, sons, daughters, aunts and uncles, and in-laws centred their lives around this organisation. It did not do to criticise a colleague – you may be speaking to a relative!
There was one ‘blip’ in the story, when in 1969 there were one or two disastrous fires in other storage facilities in the UK, which highlighted the possible risk to underground storage. An investigation concluded that yes, there were risks, but Copenacre had an excellent fire prevention record, but three options were put forward:- a) part storage above ground, b) complete storage above ground, or c) find an alternative above ground MOD site.
It was known that RAF Hartlebury in Worcester was being vacated, and it was proposed that the 3 sites known as RNSD Copenacre should be transferred to Hartlebury, Worcesteshire. This caused an outcry, with many local dignitaries and organisations backing the local unions; the media became interested, and the case was made that Corsham and the surrounding district would be left bereft with the departure of such a large and strong organisation. At the instigation of the then Bishop of Bristol, there was a public enquiry held in 1973, but is was not until October 1974, and after considerable work undertaken by the campaigners, that the decision not to close the Depot was made.
So things quietened down, until July 1991 the Secretary of State for Defence announced a reduction in the surface and submarine fleets, which would naturally reduce the need for supporting and supplying these vessels – Copenacre was to close by March 1997. Despite renewed efforts by many, the ‘ writing was on the wall’, a new office block was to be built at Abbey Wood Bristol, and the underground storage areas were to be closed.
The unravelling and relocation of so many interconnecting bodies within this massive organisation was considerable, and the impact on the familes in the town was surely traumatic. It would take some time to re-locate so many people.
The underground facilities were sealed at Hartham, and the land above ground put up for sale, which brings us to the present. The sites at Spring quarry and Monks Park are in new hands.
There is a new MOD facility at Westwells Rd, (locally known as Basil Hill) so Corsham has not quite lost it’s connection with the Military.
But this was certainly an important chapter in the town’s history.
Source: The History of RNSD Copenacre by Pat Whalley