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Frome by Clare Gathercole

This is one of a series of reports on the archaeology of the urban (and formerly urban) areas of Somerset commissioned by English Heritage as part of its Extensive Urban Survey (EUS). The reports were prepared by Somerset County Council in 1994-98. There is a brief history of the town extracted from the report or you can download the whole report and maps in Portable Document Format (PDF).

Download Frome report

A brief history of Frome

Frome is situated on steep hillsides sloping down to the flood plain of the River Frome, beside a river crossing within the area of the ancient Selwood Forest. Though important prehistoric and Roman routeways ran along the neighbouring ridges, and converged at other nearby fording points in the Frome Gap, there is no evidence of settlement on the site of Frome itself until the Saxon period. It is possible that the major fords and the routeways may have attracted some prehistoric or Roman settlement in the area (Belham, 1992), but there is as yet little or no archaeological evidence for this. Apparently isolated burial sites are known in the area, with the closest to Frome being the single Roman burial on North Hill and the neolithic burial site at Fromefield; neither of these necessarily indicates settlement.

The first documentary record of settlement at Frome relates to the 7th-century foundation of the Monastery of St John by St Aldhelm. This began as a missionary outpost in the heart of the royal estate of Selwood, but the strategic advantages of a situation giving access to abundant natural resources and to the Mendips and Salisbury Plain (where sheep farming was developing by the later Saxon period) may soon have become apparent. Though it was close to one of the old fords, the church site was in fact some way south of the more important fords, which were at Spring Gardens; it also lay on a north-facing hillside. The apparent strangeness of the particular siting of Aldhelm's establishment has given rise to the idea that the minster was located on an already sacred site, perhaps dominated by the spring which later provided its water supply (Mitchell, 1978). However, it is also possible that geology or mere historical accident dictated the site. In this place, rock platforms raised above likely flood levels, suitable for building and supplied with water by fast, clear streams, were available; but Aldhelm is also said to have picked the place where he rested before crossing the Frome on his journey between Sherborne and Malmesbury (Belham, 1973, 1984).

The close association between St Aldhelm and King Ine of Wessex makes it plausible that the Frome estate, which was certainly a royal possession by the later Saxon period (and was never assessed for Danegeld), may have been so from the 7th century. It served the Wessex kings as a hunting centre for Selwood, implying the existence of a royal residence, and there are sporadic records of royal visits there in the 10th century: a witangemot was held there in 934 by Athelstan, and Eadred died there in 955. At the Conquest the minster was associated with Reinbald, one of the most powerful clerics in the country. It is therefore clear that during the late Saxon period the settlement was of both administrative and economic importance. It was the head of the largest hundred in Somerset (and the wealthiest, according to the Geld Inquest of 1084), serving a vast hinterland of settlements in forest and marginal land: the agricultural statistics in the Domesday Survey imply that by the end of the Saxon period, considerable clearance had taken place. The existence of a substantial market (worth 46s 8d) is also recorded in 1086; there are other references from the late Saxon period to receipt of the 'third penny' (a tax on shire court profits) at Frome; and there may also have been a mint (McGarvie, 1980). Though all of these can be indicators of a burgeoning town, there is no indisputable evidence of Borough status in the Saxon period, and no burgesses are recorded at Domesday. Nevertheless, there must have been a settlement of some size around the church and market: the location and extent of this remains largely unknown.

By 1086 a number of secondary manors had been carved out of the Frome estate. Those which are contained in the present study area include St John's (the minster estate), Rodden, Berkley, Marston (in which Spring Gardens was included until 1885), and two small manors at Keyford. Some of these manors lay at times wholly or partly within the Royal Forest of Selwood, which was in existence at least by 1182 - though the limits of the area under Forest Law gradually contracted. The statistics in the Domesday Survey, and in later medieval documents, suggest that only small scale, and perhaps quite dispersed, settlement took place on these outlying manors.

The primary settlement at Frome was dominated in the medieval period by two main manor holdings. The rump of the royal manor was let out after the Conquest, initially to the Courcelles family, though from the mid 13th century onwards several changes of lordship took place. The minster lands came to form part of the endowment of Cirencester Abbey in the early 12th century, and were subsequently either managed by the bailiff or let out piecemeal. Almost inevitably, there was occasional conflict between the Abbey and the Lord of the Manor over domination of the incipient town and its growing profits. The Abbey in effect bought off the secular Lord, and continued to reap the rewards of the cleared fields and the market, and then later the cloth trade, which it deliberately fostered. In 1239 a market charter was granted, and by 1494 this had been confirmed and two annual fairs established. Though much estate land was let out by the Abbey, it did not loosen its hold on the town: there is no evidence that a Borough was ever established.

It is clear from 15th and 16th century sources that the cloth industry was already well-established by the Dissolution. Surnames such as Webbe (weaver) or Tayllor appear in the early 14th century (Belham, 1973) and there are explicit references to cloth makers in 1475. Leland (1542) describes a town of "fayre stone howsys" built on the proceeds of the cloth trade and the markets, and Henry VIII's commissioners also describe Frome as a great market town. It does not appear that the Dissolution of the monasteries had greatly disrupted Frome's trade, since so much property had by then been let out by Cirencester Abbey.

During the 16th century the woollen trade became firmly established as the basis of Frome's post-medieval economy. Despite the depression of the later 16th and early 17th century, and the political troubles of the mid-17th century, a number of important clothier families were becoming established at this time: the Smiths, for example, bought the lands of the Chantry of St Catherine in 1607; and the Sheppards either arrived or became prominent in the 1640s. Though Monmouth's rebellion touched the town in the 1680s, the bulk of the populace was indifferent to him (Belham, 1973) and in the more settled conditions of the later 17th century, the clothiers flourished. Towards the end of that century, the town tried for incorporation, but the attempt failed. Nevertheless, the merchant clothiers (including a good number of dissenting families) gradually overtook the old landowners in importance in the town, and eventually in 1714 the manor of Frome passed into a cloth merchant family (the Seamans) through marriage.

By this time, the workers' suburbs to the west of the town were being laid out across earlier field enclosures, and the town itself had been much altered. In the 1720s Defoe described the town as "so prodigiously increased within these last 20-30 years, that they have built a new church, and so many new streets of houses, and those houses are so full of inhabitants, that Frome is now reckoned to have more people in it than the city of Bath, and some say, than even Salisbury itself, and if their trade continues to increase for a few years more ... it is likely to be one of the greatest and wealthiest towns in England"[quoted in Bond]. Indeed, Frome is now considered to have been a cloth town of national, if not international, importance in this period.

Nevertheless, in the same decade in which Defoe described the grand new town, there were riots in Frome. Poverty amongst the workforce had been a recurrent problem, and as the 18th century progressed, the social stresses of increasing mechanisation and of competition, and then of rising food prices, led to further disturbances, in the 1750s and again in the 1790s. By this time, the cloth trade was in decline in the south-west. Collinson noted this fact, whilst describing the town, in 1791, as a not particularly elegant place of unpaved, narrow streets and rough housing, lightened by occasional fine buildings. The industry was reprieved for a while in the early 19th century, as it was supplying the cloth for the uniforms used in the French wars, but even so the local resistance to new machinery led to cloth being sent into Gloucestershire to be finished.

When this lifeline expired, competition from the northern textiles industries began to overcome Frome's resistance (though the last cloth firm did not close until 1965)[Belham, 1973]. Nevertheless, other secondary industries, including major foundries and the printing works, as well as smaller concerns like the breweries, were established and continued to thrive, throughout the century. In 1831 the town was certainly still holding its own:

"At the Census of 1831, the last before Reform, the population was 12240, the largest after Bath in the whole county; over a thousand greater than Taunton, and almost as big as Bridgwater and Wells put together. Frome was, moreover, the greatest of all the cloth towns of the West, substantially more populous than Bradford-on-Avon, Trowbridge or Westbury; half as big again as Stroud, and surpassing even the county-town cities of Gloucester and Salisbury" (Harvey, Foreword to McGarvie 1980 p9)

Frome became a Parliamentary Borough the next year, following the Reform Act. But the population of 12240 was the peak in the 19th century and the population subsequently hovered in the 11000s in that century (and indeed for much of the 20th century). In the second half of the 19th century the town had almost ceased to expand and many of the buildings were falling into decay. But the percentage of the hundred's population resident in Frome continued to rise throughout the 19th century (Belham, 1992, p144), and an Urban District Council was established in 1894.

Changes in markets in the first half of the 20th century led to a further industrial crisis in Frome, but again the failed ventures were replaced by others, this time firms expanding from elsewhere, and the town did not suffer unduly. At the beginning of the 1970s, Frome's population was still between 11000 and 12000. Since then, the population has expanded greatly (in 1991 it was over 23000), as a result of high-level planning decisions to develop Frome's housing and industry, partly in order to protect the green belts of the neighbouring cities of Bath and Bristol.