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MoD CORSHAM: Quarry Operations Centre (QOC) Murals

A Grade II* Listed Building in Box, Wiltshire

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Coordinates

Latitude: 51.4215 / 51°25'17"N

Longitude: -2.2207 / 2°13'14"W

OS Eastings: 384751

OS Northings: 169187

OS Grid: ST847691

Mapcode National: GBR 1RF.WXN

Mapcode Global: VH96H.GJCN

Entry Name: MoD CORSHAM: Quarry Operations Centre (QOC) Murals

Listing Date: 20 March 2013

Grade: II*

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1409132

Location: Box, Wiltshire, SN13

County: Wiltshire

Civil Parish: Box

Built-Up Area: Corsham

Traditional County: Wiltshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Wiltshire

Church of England Parish: Box

Church of England Diocese: Bristol

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Summary

A series of murals contained within the worked out chambers of a former Bath Stone quarry. The quarry was adapted to use as an underground aircraft factory in the early 1940s. This part of the factory was a canteen area. The murals were painted by Olga Lehmann (assisted by Gilbert Wood), and show a number of themed scenes, including a racecourse, a fairground, sporting scenes and cartoon-like depictions of primitive cultures. The majority of the murals are in a mess hall, although there are isolated examples in outer rooms and corridors.

Description

PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS: a collection of 32 wall murals of 1943 by Olga Lehmann, painted by brush and spray using oil paint and solvents. The majority are in a large group in one area, while others are spread through neighbouring areas, either in groups or as individual works.

DESCRIPTION: most areas in the Quarry Operations Centre (QOC) have no visible murals, although some may remain on walls that have been over-painted. The 32 known murals were designed in themed groups, and are located in the canteen or mess hall area in the west half of QOC (18 murals), and in the former RAF operations rooms and stores at the east end (11 murals). The remaining murals are located between the two locations (3 murals).

THE CANTEEN: this area retains the majority of murals: Jo Brown (Wall to west of M52), Umbrella (Pillar M51), Racehorses (Pillar M27), Photographers (Pillar M27), Red Racehorses (Pillar M27), Three Barmaids (Wall to west of Pillar M25), Winning Horse (Pillar to south of Pillar M16 – mural covers all sides of pillar), Mayor (Pillar M16), Spectators (Pillar M16), Red Spectators (Pillar M15), Horses (Pillar M3), Bar Scene (Wall to west of Pillar M7), Jockey Weigh-In (Pillar M16), Gypsy Caravans (Wall to west of Pillar M9), Dice Game (Pillar M9), Indian Rope Trick (Pillar M19), Shove Ha'Penny (Pillar M18), Find The Lady (Pillar M17).

THE RAF CONTROL ROOMS: Cricket (Room 51), Boxers (Room 37), Wrestlers (Room 37).

STORAGE AREA: Bride and Groom (Room 42), Houses (Room 42), Drunk with XXX Barrel (Room 42), Salvation Army (Room 42), Drunks (Room 43), Dominoes (Room 43), Cycling Drinks (Room 44), Snooker (Pillar M31).

CORRIDORS AND BARRACKS: Cannibals (Room 15), Eskimos (Pillar M31), Sunday Roast (Room 32).

A number of other murals in QOC are of lesser design interest, notably ethereal figures of horse heads and horse shoes, and wavy borders on walls and pillars. Furthermore, in some locations minor details of murals show through on heavily over-painted walls.

History

The Corsham Mines are a multi-layered historic site near Bath, beneath the southern end of the Cotswold Hills in Wiltshire. Quarrying of Bath Stone in the wider area took place from Roman times, and by the C18 Bath Stone had become a highly sought after building material. The opening of the Kennet and Avon canal in 1810, and the subsequent construction of the Great Western Railway in the 1840s, made the transportation of the stone to farther locations easier and cheaper, thereby increasing its popularity. Brunel's cutting of the Box Railway Tunnel, beside the village of Corsham, revealed a rich seam of high quality stone beneath the hills. Intense quarrying followed, leaving a network of quarries with worked-out chambers and air shafts, including Spring Quarry. By the time mining ceased in 1940, there were over 60 miles of tunnels across 3,000 acres, located at depths between 80 and 100 feet below ground.

The Bristol Aeroplane Company (BAC) at Filton, near Bristol was bombed in September 1940. In response, Lord Beaverbrook, of the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP), issued an urgent plan to relocate all production below ground, which was endorsed by Churchill. The limitations of time, suitable sites, and wartime resources quickly saw the scheme scaled back to the relocation of Filton's engine plant. In December 1940 four quarries were requisitioned by the Ministry, including Spring Quarry, to the south of the Box Tunnel. It covers a vast 3,300,000 square foot area (or 76 acres). It was intended that BAC would convert Spring Quarry for engine production in 6 months, at an estimated cost of £100,000.

However, the scale of the Ministry's factory construction project was enormous, involving the removal of thousands of tons of rubble stone, the levelling of floors, and the strengthening of pillars and roofs using steel and concrete. Lifts, escalators, and an extensive ventilation system were installed. Furthermore, BAC became doubtful about the practicality of the project, and their involvement was scaled back. The factory was not ready for use by the end of 1942, when German bombing had largely ceased, and the need for the underground factory programme had all but vanished. The MAP factory was reclassified as a shadow factory, and proposed production was switched from the Hercules engine to the less vital Centaurus. In 1943, the scenic artist and portraitist Olga Lehmann (1912-2001) was invited by Sir Reginald Verdon, owner of BAC, to paint murals in the various canteens in the factory, in order to brighten the surroundings for the c10,000 workers that would be on shift underground.

By 1945, the factory was still incomplete to its original specifications, and its cost had risen to c£20 million. Engine production figures throughout the war were low, and the factory closed at the end of the war. MAP itself was abolished in 1946. Spring Quarry was bought by the government in 1954, when the north-east area was allocated for conversion to a secret CGWHQ for use in the event of nuclear conflict. As part of this conversion, some rooms in Quarry Operations Centre (QOC) were reconfigured, including the subdivision of some rooms with concrete block walls which cut through murals. Further alterations were made by the RAF when they used the area as a communications centre from 1979, following the reduction in size of CGWHQ and the subsequent removal of QOC and other western quarry areas from the newly-redefined citadel. The RAF vacated the area in the 1990s, and QOC has been unused since that time.

Spring Quarry was de-commissioned in the early 1990s. It was de-classified in 2004.

Reasons for Listing

The Quarry Operations Centre (QOC) Murals, in CGWHQ, below MoD Corsham are designated at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:
* Artistic: a prolific and accomplished artist of the 1930s and 1940s (latterly a film and television designer), Olga Lehmann's mural work was celebrated at the time, this specially-commissioned series in particular, where each mural has a very striking and highly distinctive design;
* Historic interest: the murals are an exemplary illustration of the fashion of the period for secular murals, the need to improve the welfare and morale of staff working underground for the war effort, and clearly show the style that Lehmann continued to popularise in the pages of the Radio Times and elsewhere;
* Rarity: the only known surviving murals by Lehmann (fragments also survive in other parts of QOC and the wider Corsham mines). Murals were a popular form of public art in hotels, offices, etc in the interwar years and very few remain from this era;
* Intactness: although many of the murals have faded or flaked over time, to varying degrees, the majority clearly retain their theme, strong palette and spirit. They survive remarkably well;
* Group value: the themes of English pastimes and rituals, including a wedding, cycling holidays and a day at the races have an intense interrelationship, granting a higher level of special interest of the individual murals.

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