The Noble Blue House

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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.

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‘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

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Go Forth from Frome

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.

31st December 1873

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.

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 – www.frometimes.co.uk

5th December 1815

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.”

7th October 1850

A dinner was held at the George Hotel to celebrate the arrival of the railway.  This was the start of more dramatic industrial developments in Frome and many industries sprang up around the station which was, in those days, outside of the town centre.

When the Radstock railway branch was built, a siding was added to access the Frome market hall so that produce, such as cheese could be transported out of Frome to markets around the country.  This is how the Cheese & Grain got its name.

The Blue Boar Inn

The Blue Boar Inn was erected in 1691, built by Theophilus Lacey. 1691, if written in some fonts, shows the same number upside down. William III and Mary II had only been on the throne for three years.  In 1677, the 26-year-old William, described as being humourless, surly, with a crooked nose and black teeth, married a distraught 15-year-old Mary, who at the time had a crush on an older woman. Charles II had given Mary away, and when he put the newlyweds to bed, William refrained from removing his under garments – he said he always slept with them on.  Charles was having none of it and he drew the curtains around the bed saying, “Now, nephew to your work! Hey! Saint George for England!”

By the 1720s in Frome, the Town Bridge was being renovated and the Blue House was having a partial rebuild. With some left-over money, a new guardhouse or ‘lock up’ was built on the Blue House grounds, adjoining the Blue Boar Inn.  It apparently replaced the Blindhouse in the St John’s churchyard.

Most communities had a Blindhouse.  The one in Frome was a vault-like underground stone cell with a barred opening for concerned relatives to lower food to those interned. Disruptive, unruly drunks were often thrown into the Blindhouse, which of course had no windows, where they slept it off to sober up.  When they awoke, it was so dark they thought they were blind. We thus get the expression ‘blind drunk.

By 1774 there were forty three inns on the Frome map, excluding those slightly further out like the Royal Oak, The Crown in Keyford or even The Vine Tree. The Blue Boar Inn is one of those older survivors and was much larger than it is today.  The back yard of the pub was large enough to provide for coaches and carriages coming in and out of the town centre.

When the Frome police station opened in 1857, the ‘lock up’ possibly moved to the police station and the guardhouse was converted to men’s conveniences, being demolished in the early 1960s. Corner stonework may be seen today in the walls of the Blue Boar Inn. 

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 – www.frometimes.co.uk

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 – www.frometimes.co.uk

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’.