A very short history of Frome!
The word Frome comes from the ancient British Celtic word 'frama' which means fine or fast moving and described the flow of the river which cuts through the bottom of the town (and shares its name).
Frome in the pre-medieval period
Although the town is thought to have originated as a Saxon settlement sometime after 600AD, there is plenty of Neolithic evidence that this part of the Mendips was occupied earlier than that and, logically, people would have chosen to live close to the river. The very word frama pre-dates the Saxons’ appearance in Britain, so Frome’s origins are certainly far earlier than the arrival of St Aldhelm, who ‘marked’ the Saxon presence with his church of 685AD.
Selwood Forest, which surrounded the town, was a noted hunting location and Saxon noblemen are likely to have based themselves in Frome while in the area to hunt. Of course, at that time the areas we now call Selwood, Oakfield, Egford etc would have been regarded as well outside of Frome itself.
In 934 a witan (abbreviation of witenagimot – a sort of early parliament) was held here, suggesting that the town was considered important and that it probably had some form of aristocratic, perhaps even royal, accommodation.
The Domesday book shows that Frome was an important regional town. The river provided power for several mills and, at least as far back as the 12th Century, there were regular markets. Frome was the centre of the wealthiest administrative area (‘hundred’) in Somerset.
Frome in Medieval times
Medieval Frome, like many towns with a powerful enough river, was an important centre for the wool trade. In her work Woad to This & The Cloth Trade of Frome (2018) Carolyn Griffiths cites a significant bulk purchase of woad (a popular blue dye used in the cloth trade) in the latter 14th Century; clear evidence that Frome was an important centre for this industry. Incidentally, the circular part of what is now Black Swan Arts Centre was formerly a wool drying house.
Rebellion and Treason in Renaissance Frome
In June 1685 the Dutch-born James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, and the eldest illegitimate son of Charles ll, took his father’s death as a cue to lead a rebellion against his uncle, the catholic King James ll. Frome was the first English town to declare itself behind Monmouth, and his men camped here following an unsuccessful run-in with the King’s forces at nearby Norton St Philip. Monmouth’s rebellion was an ill-managed affair and he was defeated at The Battle of Sedgemoor (near Bridgewater) later that month and executed the following week.
Black Swan Arts Centre - formerly a wool drying house
Frome’s industrial history
The wool / cloth trade was behind continued growth of Frome which, by the early 18th century, was one of the wealthiest towns in England. The number of houses built between 1400 and 1800 (by which time the population was estimated at over 12,000), most of which we believe survive to this day, is evidence of the town’s prosperity.
Old Butler & Tanner Building
Frome also made a notable contribution of men to both World Wars and a splendid memorial statue (also cast by Singers) stands outside the Memorial Theatre.
Frome’s current prosperity is arguably due to a revival which began after the early 1990s recession and which, with a couple of hiccups has continued to this day.
You can read about Frome today below.
However, early 19th Century mechanisation of wool and cloth production hit employment hard and mills closed as a result of cheaper competition from elsewhere (although the very last mill to close hung on until 1965).
Fortunately, other industries grew. Notable are: J W Singer a foundry and bronze caster which achieved major fame as a producer of ornaments and statues (it produced the bronze statue of Boudica that now stands next to Westminster Bridge, the statue of Justice that is on the dome of the Old Bailey and that of King Alfred in central Winchester) and Butler and Tanner a printing company which occupied the massive building that dominates Selwood Road.
Although there are no major industrial employers in the town today, Frome remains a centre for skilled trades.
Frome's Memorial Theatre
Frome is the largest town in the Mendips and lies at the eastern end of that famous hill range. Its population is approximately 30,000. The ‘official’ history states that the town dates from a Saxon settlement in the 7th Century but Neolithic evidence shows people were living in the area well before then.
The town is centred around the river which shares its name. It’s roughly 105 miles West of London and 14 miles south of the nearest significant City; Bath (with apologies to the inhabitants of the very much smaller and lovely city of Wells,11 miles away!)
Architecture in Frome
A good stroll around Frome will soon reveal numerous delights. For enthusiasts of architecture and, especially, architectural history there are hundreds of listed buildings. Most, of course, are in the central area of the town but not all of them, so some wandering about is necessary to take them all in. Fortunately, Frome was largely spared during the ghastliest period of British town-planning history, so there are no brutalist buildings in the town and mercifully little concrete!
The interest in restoration and sympathetic preservation (rather than demolition), using traditional materials like lime mortar, seasoned hardwoods and local stone is as strong in Frome as anywhere. St John’s Church and Christchurch have features to delight the ecclesiastical architecture enthusiast and it has been claimed that St John’s has the only external ‘Stations of the Cross’ carvings of any Anglican church in Britain.
There’s a real romance about Frome (in the artistic and literary sense). Pause in some of the twisting narrow, cobbled streets and it doesn’t take much imagination to picture yourself in a bygone era of wood and coal, of candlelight and horse-power, of flat caps, hard graft and coarse bread, baked in a fireplace bread oven.
Strolling about in Frome
Frome has several centrally-located car parks costing a fraction of what you’d pay in Bath or Bristol, enabling visitors to easily take in the town. Yes, we have a Costa, a WH Smiths and some other chain stores but Frome has an abundance of totally independent retailers offering gifts ranging from beautiful hand-made ceramics, through luxurious fabrics, to the quirkiest antiques and vintage books. Catherine Hill and Cheap Street are particularly strong here. And Frome has not gone chi-chi: if you want a broom or a tool box or a tin of boot polish they are all available in the town centre!
There are many good pubs, offering everything from the more gentle / gastro family-type to venues where you can shake your pants to some drum ‘n’ bass or proper hard techno (obviously check with each pub for the pant-shaking timetable as appropriate). Real ales are as easy to find as exotic continental pilsener. Frome also has several cafés – you’re never far from a refuelling stop!
Edged on two sides by some beautiful Victorian homes, the aptly named Victoria Park has open spaces, sports facilities, a children’s play area, a bandstand and some gorgeous trees. Frome also has a skate park, a cricket ground, a football ground and, of course, a leisure centre.
There’s a big performance venue on the edge of the largest car park called The Cheese and Grain, where, even if nothing’s on show, you can get a good snack or full meal in the café!
Another interesting venue is the Silk Mill. This substantial former industrial building is now home to a variety of very small businesses and has a ground floor space that can hold small concerts / workshops etc. On the Western side of the town centre is Rook Lane Chapel, another venue offering a substantial space for performance, education and exhibitions and in Whittox Lane sits ‘Rise’ (formerly the Hub Nub), a converted church offering two venue hire spaces, a contemporary art gallery, a shop, a cafe and garden for families to enjoy, plus offices and work space.
We still have a railway station, regular buses, and good road connections to Bath, Warminster, Westbury, Bruton and the A303 (but why would you want to leave?!). The town also has five primary schools, three middle schools and a community college, plus an ex-Steiner school (now known as Avanti Park) offering alternative provision.
Whilst it’s undoubtedly the case that Frome’s popularity is largely because of the things mentioned above, one of the other marvellous things about the town is the people: open and warm; visitors are welcomed here and the monthly Sunday market sees the town bursting. What’s more, the town has attracted an extraordinary array of talent: In addition to the large number employed in the mainstream skilled trades there are opera singers, cabinet makers, instrument restorers, artisan metal workers, mass drone choreographers (yes, really), jewellers, painters, authors and sculptors, to name just a few. More important than all that though, is that people here are nice to each other. What more could you want?
If you think we’ve missed out something important, please email us at: email@example.com.
All images and copy on this page by Garfield Austin.