The coaching days finished when the railway reached Chippenham around1840 and right up to 1926 visitors the King’s Arms had its own bus to collect visitors from Melksham station.
The Wilts and Berks canal linking the Kennet and Avon canal with the Thames opened in 1819 and gave Melksham added importance. It ran almost through the centre of town and traces remain such as the Wharf House adjoining the hump that was the canal bridge in Spa Road, and the relics of a bridge at the junction of Forest and Sandridge roads. The canal was abandoned in 1914, and the area was redeveloped. However, there is now a Trust working to promote the reopening of the canal along its whole length, which could mean a new route being excavated around Melksham.
In 1813 several local gentry who had prospered from the woollen industry, the Awdrys, the Longs, the Methuens and the Phillips formed the Melksham Spa Company with a capital of 7,000 guineas to exploit the chalybeate spring discovered in 1770 to the south of Melksham. A well more than 300 feet deep was sunk and six semi-detached boarding houses and a hotel were built. The Spa was intended to rival Bath but within a few years it had failed.
With the advent of the profitable Great Western Railway from London to Bristol via Chippenham a committee was formed, chaired by Walter Long of Rood Ashton near Trowbridge, to raise money for a line line from Chippenham to Salisbury via Melksham, Trowbridge, Westbury and Warminster, with branch lines to Bath and Frome. Designed by Brunel it was to be known as the Wiltshire and Somerset Railway . The land was acquired, lines were laid and stations were built, all for £1 million, and it opened to the public in September 1848.
Earlier, in 1846 the railway contractors erected workshops in Melksham. The Cheese Market, built in an orchard acquired from the owners of Place House by the Melksham Market Company, was a particular attraction. (This building was later to become the Town Hall.)
century saw the growth of many industries in Melksham. In 1803 Charles Maggs bought a former cloth mill adjoining Spa Road and used it for making rope, matting and tarpaulins. A subsidiary factory was built at Alleppey in southern India, and the business flourished right through two World Wars with two shiploads of matting coir arriving in Melksham every month. It eventually declined and the Rope Walk housing estate now commemorates the business.
In 1850 Benjamin Sawtell founded a business in Challymead, on the Bradford on Avon road, filling palliasses with straw for the army. By 1875 he had moved to a disused cloth factory in the Town. In 1892 he began purifying feathers for pillows and eiderdowns. Feathers were imported from all over the world and in the 1960s it was one of the largest feather firms in the country. Unfortunately man-made fibres began replacing feathers and the Weavers Croft housing estate was built on the site.
Today, the largest employer in Melksham is Cooper Avon Tires, previously Avon Tyres, a rubber company in Limpley Stoke between Bradford on Avon and Bath, making special parts for the booming railway companies. In 1890 it took over the last cloth mill in Melksham, the Matravers Mill alongside the river Avon and changed its name to the Avon India Rubber Company. The factory buildings now cover more than 28 acres. It was taken over by the American tyre company Cooper at the turn of the century.
Melksham is well known to many members of the Royal Air Force who learnt their trade at RAF Melksham, which at its peak accommodated over ten thousand personnel. The official title of the station from when it opened in 1940 until it closed in 1965 was No.12 School of Technical Training. Many local people remember seeing aircraft on display at the annual open days, but it was never an operational flying base because it had no runway. The aircraft were used for training purposes for ground crew and technicians and were dismantled before arrival and departure.
The station also housed No 10 School of Recruit Training and it averaged an intake of 100 a week of mainly National servicemen until August 1953 when the last trainees passed out and the unit closed.
Melksham remains a bustling and friendly place true to its proud trading traditions although housing estates have extended the town’s limits. The original core alongside the ancient parish church of St Michael still survives as a corner of quiet charm. The church carries traces of Norman work and there are some interesting tombstones in the churchyard.