The first ‘mansion house’ to be built in Corsham by a rich and successful clothier in the last great boom of the broadcloth and/or medley cloth industry in the first half of the eighteenth century was the ‘Mansion House’, as it was called at the time, and as it has been called ever since. Earlier successful clothiers had re-built or re-fronted their timber-framed houses with ashlar stone and sash windows, perhaps Venetian windows – smartening their houses up, but this was the first completely newly-built mansion house to proclaim the wealth and status of the clothier and his family. It was built with dispatch and with great expense in the years 1721-23.
It is a notable house, constructed on the then edge of the small market town of Corsham, grandly facing the important London to Bath road, a significant coaching road long before it was turnpiked. The house is oddly overlooked by Pevsner. ‘Corsham has no match in Wiltshire for wealth of good houses, and there are a few of really high merit’, wrote Pevsner. He noted the adjoining ‘The Grove’, the handsome mansion house that was next to be built, in 1737, along the coaching road to the east, strikingly facing north up Corsham’s High Street. But Pevsner’s eye failed to be caught by the Mansion House, rather down at heel by then, but evidently a house of distinction. The Neale family came to believe that Hawksmoor had designed it, or at least had a hand in it; there is not a shred of evidence for this, but on the visual evidence it is not totally implausible.
The Mansion House was built on two acres of land acquired in 1721 by Robert Neale from his father-in-law William Arnold; the land had cost £100, but it is not clear if this is what William Arnold paid for it before his death in 1719, or whether Robert Neale bought it for this sum from his father-in-law’s estate. At all events, the grand new house was speedily built in two years at a cost of £2,100. The completion was marked by the elegant datestone on the carriage-house with the initials of Robert and Sarah Neale and the date 1723.
On the stone surround of the front door there are some interesting graffiti recording the heights of the growing children of the Neale dynasty, as the family were evidently regarding themselves. (See photos on opposite page.) At the top ‘RN’ is recorded in 1722 – presumably the date the family moved in – at 6 feet and 1 inch. Immediately under him is ‘EH’, who must be his daughter-in-law Elizabeth, at over 5 feet 10 inches, and
then another ‘RH’ in 1732 at 5 feet 9 inches. The elder Robert Neale (1682-1733) was 40 years of age in 1722; his wife Sarah Neale, nee Arnold (1679-1745), was three years older, and she does not figure in these measured recordings. The second ‘RH’ was presumably his son Robert Neale (1706-76), aged 28 in 1732, and not to be married to Elizabeth Smith until 1735.
Presumably, the height of the son Robert is recorded aged 28 in 1732, perhaps when he returned home from working in London; after his father died the following year, he must have taken over the business and the house, getting married himself two years later, and having his mother continuing to live in the house along with his wife and their own growing family.
The recording of the growing family is difficult to interpret. The main initials recorded are ‘RN’ and ‘EN’, but they refer to more than two people. The three generations of the Neale dynasty in Corsham were led confusingly by three successive Robert Neales. And there were two Elizabeth Neales, a mother and a daughter. Besides the first and the second Robert Neales already referred to, there was a third – grandson of the first and son of the second. He was born in Corsham in 1736, and, like his grandfather, died young in1774,beforehewas40. His father lived for two more years, dying aged 70 in 1776. It is this Robert Neale, the third, who is recorded at 4 feet 3 inches aged 10 in 1746 (RNEAL) and 5 feet 3 inches in 1751 aged 15.
The second Robert Neale married Elizabeth Smith, heiress to her brother John Smith of Shaw House, between Corsham and Melksham, and Shaw House was inherited by the Neales in 1757; the second and third Robert Neales are subsequently as often referred to as ‘of Shaw House’ and as ‘of Corsham’. Robert the second and Elizabeth had a daughter Elizabeth, evidently a much-loved daughter who lived for the fourteen years from 1743 to 1757. This is the girl ‘EN’ recorded at 3 feet 5 inches in 1746 aged 3, at 4 feet 1 inch aged 7 in 1750, and 4 feet 3 inches in 1751 aged 8.
Robert the second had two other children between the surviving Robert and the short-lived Elizabeth; there were twins, Thomas and William, born in 1738, and who did not live long enough to reach measurability, William dying soon after Thomas as babies. Robert the second himself had four
brothers, only one of whom lived to maturity. William (1708-22) and Thomas (1712-28) both died aged 14, and George (1714-15) aged only one. James (1709-34) lived to be 25, itself quite an achievement in the smallpox-ridden 1730s, sadly dying after being set up with Littlecote Farm near Hilmarton, and soon after receiving affectionate bequests from his father – ‘£500, the best riding horse, bridle and saddle and my best pair of pistols and my silver-hilted sword and scarlet cloake and my watch’. Yet, puzzlingly, there is no ‘JN’ carved into the doorway. The dynasty is recorded in terms of eldest sons and a daughter.
The third Robert Neale had two daughters, aged three and one at the time of his death in 1774. The elder, Grace Elizabeth Neale, was baptised at St. George’s, Hanover Square, in one of the most fashionable parts of London. She grew up to become Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Charlotte and companion to Princess Amelia. She married Admiral Sir Harry Burnard in 1795, who promptly changed his name to Neale. He has a huge obelisk in his memory overlooking the Solent erected by Queen Adelaide in 1840; Lady Neale lived on in Blackheath in great style to 1855. There were no children, and no further direct heirs. Corsham and the making of cloth and the money to be made from making cloth had been left well behind.
The Mansion House sank to being let out as a school; revived for some years as a gentleman’s house by a lawyer who was a distant kinsman of the Neales in the years after 1891, it subsequently sank further into being a private hotel, and then fell into the dead hands of Wiltshire County Council. Down at heal it survives, the markings on the doorway recalling for us the vanity of once brave dynastic ambitions.
Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Wiltshire (1963, rev.ed 1975)
J.A. Neale, Charters and Records of Neales of Berkeley, Yate and Corsham (1906) Hugh Wright, The Story of Great Chalfield, 1553-1913 (2011)
I am grateful for the photography of James Methuen-Campbell, the careful study of which – in its enhanced form – will throw further light on the rather simplified account provided here.