Tag Archives: Somerset

What the Frome Diary Means to Frome

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 Guardian reported (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.

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

Hoare Bankers

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:

  1. In 1676 the Hoare family founded the Hoare’s Bank, which today has the oldest purpose built banking hall in Britain
  2. In 1798 and 1810, some of the first recorded excavations of Stonehenge were done by Richard Colt Hoare and his archaeology companion William Cunnington
  3. 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
  4. 1763 the Hoare Bank issued the first printed cheque
  5. Due to the bank’s location, temporary balconies were erected for the staff and customers to watch Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession
  6. Customer ledgers were written by hand until 1962
  7. 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.

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: http://users.breathe.com/djsteward/cards2.html


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