Category Archives: Frome Story

Saxon Frome

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.

Annette Burkitt, October 2017

Frome Cloth Industry

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.

Image source:


The Noble Blue House

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

Somerset Bandits & Outlaws

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.

This Frome story was published in the Frome Times on 17th January 2013 –

Frome – A Good Cheap

Frome (pronounced Froom), gets its name from the meandering river on which it sits –  the River Frome – and it get its name from the evolution of the Welsh word, ffraw which meant fair or brisk.  But the River Frome has only  had a brisk flow during heavy rain, so ffraw probably just referred to running water.

Pedestrianised Cheap Street is one of Europe’s best preserved medieval shopping streets.  As with Cheap Street in all market towns in England, its name comes from the word ceap, which meant “to sell”.  The word evolved and “ceap”  became markets which were places for “good ceap” and eventually the word became to be used as we do today for ‘inexpensive’.

The layout of the street is still based on  a medieval street plan and is evidenced in land plots dating back to about 1500. Beautifully flagstoned, Cheap Street is surrounded by buildings almost unchanged from the 16th and 17th centuries.

We are also reminded of the medieval water system by the leet or runnel that still runs down the centre of Cheap Street, rising from the spring at St John’s Church…this makes Frome history almost tangible.

The street was also famously used as a television set by the BBC in the 1970s for episode six of the first series of the comedy “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin”.

Walking down Cheap Street, you can almost feel the centuries of history, the thousands who passed through the town from its first settlement as a mission station in about 685 to the modern, arty and yet untouched town centre Frome has today.

This Frome story was published in the Frome Times –

The Market Town of Frome

Frome has always benefitted from its geographical location – steep hills around its river, and a place where many trade routes converged. It was thus a market town before the Norman invasion of 1066 when ‘sales’ were done primarily by exchange.

By the mid eleventh century the population of Frome may have been almost 600 (the average town at that time probably had a population of between 100 and 150), which made it a busy and important centre. The Domesday Survey of 1086 recorded Frome as having three mills (for grinding grain) and a weekly market worth £2 6s 8d. Although the function of the town changed through the ages (a wool centre, a railway junction, a milk collecting centre), the market remained an important feature.

Frome market stalls were always piled high with products manufactured in the town as well as countryside products. But a big draw to the market was the wandering pedlars who were selling trinkets from distant and exotic places.

In the early 1700s, the population of Frome was almost 10,000, which was four times the population of nearby Bath. It became a valuable employer for the surrounding towns and villages in all areas including the market.

Market Place was for centuries owned by the King as lord of the manor.  Later the manor was granted to a succession of families and market rights went with it. But each transfer of ownership had to be authorised by the king and a Royal Charter had to be obtained to hold the market from 1239 when Henry III granted William Braunche rights to hold a market in Frome every Saturday. By 1494 the market day had changed to Wednesdays.

Today, the markets still draw people from all over Somerset to spend their money in the market town of Frome.

This Frome story was published in the Frome Times on 11th October 2012 –

How did Frome get its Name?

Frome DiaryThe town of Frome was originally located on the edge of a large wood, which was known as ‘coit mawr’, or ‘the great wood’. The area was characterised by swamps and littered with willows.  Through the English and Saxon languages, the name evolved into ‘Seal wuda’ and eventually into ‘Selwood’ and became home to a collection of tribes.

The Selwood ridge not only separates Somerset from Wiltshire, it also provides a home for the seeping stream, which we today call the River Frome, which to the ancient people was sacred. It is believed that the Welsh adjective of ‘ffraw’, meaning ‘fair, fine or brisk’ gave us the first name for the river – the word coming from the language branch called Brythonic, specifically Briton and not Gaelic or Anglo-Saxon. Thus the town name of Frome was first recorded in 701 as ‘From’.