St Patrick’s Church has not always been a church – it was originally built as Pickwick School in 1848 on land gifted in 1846 by Lord Methuen and his tenants, Sir Gabriel Goldney and Arthur Knapp.
The Deed of Covenant defines the gift as
“all that piece of land now marked out, containing one acre, part and parcel of a certain close called Curtis’ lying at Pickwick in the County of Wilts.” The purpose was
“for the education of children and adults of the poorer classes of the labouring and manufacturing people in the district of Pickwick.” It was to be conducted in accordance with the principles and practice of the Established Church.
The architect was Henry Edmund Goodridge of Bath whose brief was to provide accommodation for 48 boys, 48 girls, 50 infants and 200 adults to use the school on Sundays and Good Friday. The design was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857. The school as built, is illustrated in the stained glass window to Sir Gabriel Goldney in Chippenham Parish Church.
The building was designed in the Victorian Gothic style with gables and a bell tower and had therefore an ecclesiastical aspect from the outset. The two porches opened respectively onto the London and Bradford roads and were equipped with primitive washing facilities and pews. The school was opened in 1858 and placed under Government Inspection in June 1860. The original managers of the school were Mr & Mrs Goldney of Beechfield House, Pickwick. The picture below was discovered in the parish ‘archives’ and shows teacher and pupils from a dim and distant past’.
Teaching was conducted in a large room partitioned by a curtain, while the infants were taught in a gallery also surrounded by a curtain. Windows were placed well above the pupils’ heads to avoid distractions. Heating was by Tortoise stove and lighting first by oil lamps and later by gas. Most entries in the school logbooks of 1863 and 1887 refer to the progress of pupils but some entries are more illuminating:
“Commenced the week by giving William Fido a sound flogging for his impudence. The school visited by a lady-friend of Mr Goldney’s who was most gratified.”
“Sorry to write that Stephen Hancock again grossly misconducted himself, The necessary fruit of over-indulgence at home.”
“Work going on very well in all the classes. All the teachers present.”
“Ink spilled through Fanny Bezer’s disobedience for which she was severely cautioned.”
“The afternoon of every Friday during the winter finds the school very thin, so many children being sent by their parents to Hartham Park for soup.”
Financial problems led to deterioration in the building which was criticised by His Majesty’s Inspectors for poor ventilation, bad lighting and damp. Finally, the school was closed in 1922.
Twixt School and Church
By 1928, the state of the building coupled with a fall in the population at the end of the Great War caused the Trustees to seek permission from the Charity Commissioners to sell the building at an agreed price of £900. The property was sold locally, but the purchaser died before she could make use of it and it stood empty for several years, a prey to local children who purloined it as a playroom.
Gloves and Gas masks The next owner was a Mr Woods of Corsham who used the building as a glove factory for a while and then when war threatened. it served as a gas mask factory. When this task was completed the building was sold to a Mr Peat of London who lived in the school house with his wife until his death when, on her re-marriage it again came onto the market.
Corsham was a village of about 3,000 people before World War II. At this time there was only one practising Catholic in the village! The war made a big difference to Corsham. as the three Armed Services established permanent units here. The Ministry of Works took over the vast disused, underground quarries and spent over £40,000,000 turning them into Ammunition Storage Depots, Factories and Radar and Signal Stations, so that the population went up to over 32,000. A very large number of the workers building the new depots were Irish. Bishop Lee of Clifton requested McAlpines to provide a large temporary Mass Centre at Neston. This was served from the Catholic Parish of Melksham.
It was soon found necessary to open a second Mass Centre at Corsham. Father Denis Ryan of Chippenham celebrated Mass in the British Legion, later in Priory Hall and then in a wooden hut in Fuller Avenue. Meantime the workers collected over £1,000 to start a permanent Mass Centre.
In 1944 Mr Bert Merritt of Corsham informed Father Ryan that the disused gas mask factory in the Bath Road at Pickwick was up for sale for £800. It was in a deplorable state of dilapidation but had spacious grounds and great possibilities. The building was duly purchased and Bishop Lee blessed and opened the church on 17 April 1945. It was dedicated to Saint Patrick as a tribute to the Irish workers and Father Ryan said the first Mass. “Saint Patrick’s Church of Corsham will be a memorial for all times to the faith of the humble Irish workers”, declared Bishop Lee at the opening service. One Mass was said each Sunday by visiting priests from Chippenham until 2nd September 1957 when Father John Supple was appointed as the first resident Parish Priest of Corsham since the Reformation. He stayed at Mrs Eden’s house in Pickwick and later at Miss Sheppard’s of Meriton Avenue. Subsequently he lived for a year in the cottage attached to the church. A debt of £1,000 was paid off and new stained glass windows, seats, pulpit, altar rails and carpets were acquired. The church was enlarged to take in the whole ground floor of the old school and a “fine new Rectory costing £5,000” was completed in 1959.
Stations of the Cross are in wood and were carved by a nun of Henbury and the statue of Our Lady, Mother of God, was carved in 1980 by Michael Penny of Atworth. An oil painting of the Nativity records the passage of Italian prisoners-of-war (inscription).