Frome has been in the national news on numerous occasions. It has featured near the top of the list of the best places to live in the UK, and most definitely in the South West. Catherine Hill is a unique artisan quarter, which draws national and international visitors and of course our Independent market which draws up to 10,000 people a month from around the country.
Now Frome is in the news for being a social town. And this social aspect of the community has had a huge impact on the health and well-being of those living in the area. George Monbiot of the The Guardianreported (Wednesday 21st February 2018) that this feeling of belonging and the impact of connected living has had a positive impact on the number of emergency hospital admissions. And Frome may soon be recognised as a model for future programmes and projects in the UK.
As an only child, an adult orphan and with no children of my own, I have always had a strong desire to connect and to the bring people together. Frome Diary is not just about events, it is about that most human drive of being a part of something – the ultimate sense of belonging.
a fire smouldering
in the hearth
an occasional spurting flame
jazz notes from a flute
soaring into the air
a trumpet reaching up
to draw gem-stone colours
on the gathering dark
a keyboard scattering tunes
like pebbles on water
a guitar threading pickpocket music
into the mix
and a girl
swaying to the beat’
her voice rich with the words
wrapping the listeners
in the sound of sadness
their drinks forgotten –
then a growing silence
by a shower of sparks
By Moira Andrew
Born and educated in Scotland. Ex-Head Teacher, college and university lecturer. She has written several books on art and creative writing for primary teachers, published by Belair. Also books for children, the most recent Grandad’s Party, Poetry Space, 2016 and a collection Wish a Wish, 2014, Poetry Space. She has seven collections of poetry for adults: Light the Blue Touch Paper, Iron Press, Fresh out of Dragonflies, Headlock Press, This year, Next year, Marvin Katz Press, Firebird, IDP, Man in the Moon, IDP, Box of Sky, Integral, (parallel translation into Romanian) and most recently, Breakfast with Swallows, Austin McAuley.
In 934 Frome was already a place of significance in the Saxon kingdom of Wessex. As a religious missionary centre with church and monastery it had been established more than two centuries before by Aldhelm, a close contact of King Ine.
Its position in the forest of Selwood made it one of the central communities of the expanded Wessex which stretched from the present-day county of Kent to Devon. Cornwall and the last of the British kingdom of Dumnonia fell to the Saxons in the early part of the 10th century, making the whole of southern England a vast power base for the kings of Alfred’s dynasty, Edward the Elder, Athelstan, Edmund and Eadred.
We know that Athelstan attended a witan (parliament) in what would have been a palace building in Frome at the Christmas court of 934, after a campaign in Scotland which attempted to unite all Saxon and British kingdoms under his rule. The king of Scotland (Alba as it was called then) was brought back south to Frome to be made to accept his new position as a sub-king, like the Welsh kings.
The palace and monastery buildings are long gone and the only trace of Saxon influence to be seen in Frome today is the two Saxon cross shaft sculptures which have been incorporated into the wall of the restored church. The town has been built up over the thousand years since Athelstan’s time and there is a great depth of accumulated debris from building and rebuilding in the church area, likely to have been the site of the monastery and palace. It is thought that the original Saxon occupation would have been in the area between the river and Christchurch Street West (formerly called Behind Town). A medieval tythe barn stood on the site of St John’s school, which may have been a successor to earlier monastic buildings.
The town was, with Amesbury and Cheddar, one of the favourite places of Athelstan, who relished hunting in Selwood. It no doubt benefited from regular visits by the King and all the associated archbishops, bishops and courtiers who would have been present, together with their retinues. King Eadred died here in 955, perhaps in a hospital run by the monks. By the early 11th century Frome was important enough to have its own mint and was still owned by the Saxon kings at Domesday.
We think of the 10th century as being a backward time, the early Middle Ages or Dark Ages, in the period just after the Viking incursions of the late 9th century and before their second onslaught at the end of the 10th century, but there is a great deal of evidence of court life in documentary sources which when synthesised with archaeology can provide a flavour of what this area of Wessex might have been like. Add the secondary sources of near contemporary historians and later academics and a picture begins to emerge.
In central Wessex in 934 and the earlier centuries of the lost kingdom of the Britons, Dumnonia, there is a hidden history which remains in the landscape, the stories of the British locked into place-names. They reveal a relationship with the landscape which the Saxons conquerors could only guess at.
Drawing of the Saxon cross shaft sculpture which is built into the Victorian reconstruction of St John’s church, Frome.
Stourhead has a fascinating history. Only 10 miles from Frome and across the Somerset / Wiltshire border, the family home of the famous Hoare banking family, is not only a marvellous house, but is surrounded by wonderful gardens, farmland and ancient woods that make up the 1,072-hectare (2,650-acre) estate.
The house and land came into the hands of the Hoare family in 1717, when Henry Hoare I bought it for the family home, far away from the hustle and bustle of London, where his father, Sir Richard Hoare had founded a bank in Fleet Street. The bank had been so prosperous that he had been knighted by Queen Anne and became Lord Mayor of London.
“Henry the Magnificent”, or Henry Hoare II, was responsible for the enchanting gardens and he no doubt got a helping hand from his friend Capability Brown, who, in 1764 was appointed to the position of Master Gardener at Hampton Court Palace in Surrey. In a country that celebrates the art of gardening, Stourhead is the most admired example of an 18th-century English landscaped garden.
The house is full of family heirlooms and items that reflect the different personalities of the many generations of the Hoare family.
The Hoares are even more interesting than their house:
In 1676 the Hoare family founded the Hoare’s Bank, which today has the oldest purpose built banking hall in Britain
In 1798 and 1810, some of the first recorded excavations of Stonehenge were done by Richard Colt Hoare and his archaeology companion William Cunnington
Richard Hoare was elected Lord Mayor of London (three Hoare’s have held the position of Lord Mayor of London) in 1712 and during the Jacobite Rebellion, he mobilised the local guard to defend London from Bonnie Prince Charlie, if he were to reach the City
1763 the Hoare Bank issued the first printed cheque
Due to the bank’s location, temporary balconies were erected for the staff and customers to watch Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession
Customer ledgers were written by hand until 1962
Lord Byron (poet) and Jane Austen (author) were customers of the bank
Today the bank is still in the Hoare family and run by 10th and 11th generation, they have three West End branches, 350 staff, a balance sheet of almost £2billion and apparently a partner or member of the family has to stay in the bank overnight (but who knows if this is true).
Henry Hugh Arthur Hoare was completely devoted his beloved Stourhead. He was devastated when his son died in World War I and feared the house and estate would not preserve the history of his family, and so in 1947 he gave Stourhead to the National Trust for us all to enjoy.
The cloth industry began in Frome in the fourteenth century. The industry helped the town become more prosperous than Bath. Entrepreneurs were given another opportunity to develop their businesses when church land was sold off a century later during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This gave Frome an additional economic boost.
Froome Selwood was a sheep farming area and provided most of the wool to support the industry. The wool was supplied to the mills and workshops along the River Frome. At its peak, there may have been two hundred cloth mills on a six mile stretch of the river and dying became big business too.
A postcard which may be of the early 1900s, depicting Willow Vale in Frome
Blue was the most popular colour of the time and some of the wool obtained by the clothiers was dyed by specialist blue dyers before it was spun. In 1808 a visitor to Frome reported “all the people of Frome being dyed purple with the manufacture of blue cloth”. Most of this production happened on Willow Vale and on Justice Lane. Some workshops were owned by dyers themselves and others were rented by cloth makers.
When the water level of the river dropped during dry spells, business was of course affected. There are records to show the religious community got involved in praying for rain to get production up and running again.
At the end of eighteenth century there were forty seven clothiers in Frome. Nineteenth century industrialisation brought coal technology to generate stream and slowly Mendip coal was used to replace the numerous water mills, but with the availability of cheaper labour in the north of the country, the cloth trade started to decline.
The industry did not die out completely until the 1960s when light engineering, plastics and printing replaced the business that shaped the architectural landscape of the town of Frome.
A carving from a tree trunk outside the Blue House
John Betjeman, said of The Blue House that it ‘is situated where an almshouse ought to be – in the centre of town.’ The idea was to keep the residents close to the market and involved in the life of Frome.
The original building was erected in the mid-1400s when William Leversedge, the compassionate Lord of the Manor, wanted to do something about the homeless of Frome. He built a hall, a chapel, and twelve separate rooms in a 4½ acre garden.
Over the years, the Blue House enjoyed many benefactors and charitable donations (some anonymous) which have included six cows left for the relief of the ‘poure people’ as well as 4d ‘to (be given to) every poor person of the Almshouse in Frome’. A wealthy London City merchant, who was born in Frome, left £30 to be shared weekly by the residents as well as a loaf of bread each. This money was also to be spent on sermons at St John’s, dinner and a gift of gloves for the vicar and the trustees of the Blue House.
‘Nancy Guy’ & Billy Ball’
In about 1690, James Wickham, married into the local Whitchurch family and became very involved in the community. It is believed that he was related to William of Wykeham, founder of Winchester College and who was the first to use the expression ‘manners maketh man’. In the 1720s Wickham raised £1,401 8s 9d for the renovation of the almshouse for 20 female widows and a new school for 20 boys. An additional £12 8s was raised for the two statues at the front of the Blue House – ‘Billy Ball’ and ‘Nancy Guy’ – to represent the widows and the school boys.
The school closed in 1921 and today the noble Blue House is home to 16 residents and is symbolic of the town of Frome.
This Frome story was published in the Frome Times on 11th April 2013
The iconic Forth Bridge in Scotland has a very interesting connection with Frome, Somerset. It was completed in 1890 and was named as a World Heritage Site in July 2015 by UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). The bridge was identified as an ‘important milestone in bridge design and construction during the period when railways came to dominate long distance land travel’.
As the world’s first steel bridge, it is still the longest multi-span cantilever bridge and the longest illuminated railway bridge in the world. According to legend a man fell into one of the caissons during the construction of this remarkable bridge. Workers tried in vain to get the poor man out. They eventually decided to feed him poisoned sandwiches. He sadly died and his body remained in the caisson, where it is to this day.
Together with Sir John Fowler, the bridge was designed by Sir Benjamin Baker who was born on 31st March 1840 in Keyford, which is now part of Frome.
After attending school in Cheltenham, he went on to become an apprentice and later an associate partner in iron works companies. He was instrumental in the construction of the Aswan Dam, the transportation of Cleopatra’s Needle from Egypt to the Embankment in London and in the development of the London underground system, especially the Metropolitan Line.
Although William Morris said that the bridge was “the supremest specimen of all ugliness”, and “a testament to robust and conservative over-engineering”, the Forth Bridge is an engineering marvel that was considered an eighth wonder of the world when constructed and is today proudly featured on the Scottish twenty pound banknote…and it all started in the market town of Frome.
The Bridge Hotel, at 3 The Bridge, was originally a three-story house on the bridge over the River Frome. In 1872, the Bridge Hotel was quoted in a police report as being ‘the worst conducted house in Frome.’ It was a challenging pub to run and manage, and when Charles George Tucker and his wife took over the pub, they did all they could to clean it up. A very hard-working couple, Mr and Mrs Tucker supplemented their income with their own hearse hire company which rented out a ‘shillibeer’ – a horse-drawn hearse which had additional seats for mourners.
One of the biggest and most regular problems the Bridge Inn had, was customers who refused to leave when they had had too much to drink. There are many recorded incidents, but on New Year’s Eve in 1873, a young labourer, Samuel Dartnell got into an argument with Samuel Hinton in the pub. Dartnell stabbed Hinton six times. In a panic Dartnell went on the run and travelled along the railway line to Wiltshire and then made his way to Hampshire, where he finally handed himself in. His guilty sentence came with seven years hard labour. Thankfully Horton recovered to see many more New Years Eves.
Saxon bandits and British outlaws sheltered in the dense Selwood Forest. The forest had been a barrier to settling much of Somerset, but by the mid seventh century, the Saxons, not unused to forest conditions (in German forests), moved in after a number of local battles and brought with them Christianity, and not their earlier religion of paganism.
Aldhelm, the apostle of Wessex, (who became Abbot of Malmesbury), heard of the ungodly conditions of the Selwood Forest and decided that he would ‘civilise’ and convert the people of the forest to Roman Orthodox Christianity.
It is believed that in about 690 on a journey from Sherbourne to Malmesbury, Aldhelm and his men rested on the Frome River bank. It was here, that according to his biographer, Faritius, that Aldhelm built a monastery ‘in honour of St John the Baptist on the river which is called Frome.’
The location chosen for the mission was not perfect. Further upstream, at today’s Spring Gardens, the river crossing was easier, but where Aldhelm decided to set up his monastery the river could be forded nearby (where the town bridge is today), and the spring provided a healthy water supply (which still feeds the leat on Cheap Street). The land was probably drier and easier to clear of shrubbery, and it was on high ground to provide a lookout.
The mission quickly became the heart of the community as it provided not only protection but labour and trading opportunities for the local and surrounding settlements.
The heart of Frome still lies in the ethos of community that Aldhelm established. He gave the gifts of music, song, volunteering and learning, and on the 25th May he is remembered every year when the community celebrates the Saint Day of Aldhelm, the Patron Saint and founder of Frome.
The Black Swan, which was originally called ‘The Swan’ was a busy inn on Pig Lane, as Bridge Street was called in 1815. Constable Isaac Gregory recorded in his journal that he has had a run-in with Mrs Butcher, the wife of the landlord of ‘The Swan’.
Constable Gregory’s apprentice, Bartlett, had gone to the Swan, where he presumably over-indulged on beer. Gregory found him in the inn and reprimanded Mrs Butcher for serving him. Mrs Butcher was a tough cookie who said she would “give any person two or three quarts of beer anytime (she) saw proper.” Gregory was fuming and threatened her with a report to the magistrates if she insulted him again. According to Gregory “she would not keep her saucy tongue still, although insisted upon by her husband.”
Their relationship continued to be sparky when five years later Gregory recorded that, after he had sworn in the new special constable, Mr Candy, he took him around to the public houses, and was “ill used by Mrs Butcher at the Swan.”