Frome

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Frome (/ˈfruːm/ froom) is a town and civil parish in northeast Somerset, England. Located at the eastern end of the Mendip Hills, the town is built on uneven high ground, and centres around the River Frome. The town is approximately 13 miles (21 km) south of Bath, 43 miles (69 km) east of the county town, Taunton and 107 miles (172 km) west of London. In the 2001 census, the population was given as 24,510. The town is in the Mendip district of Somerset and is part of the parliamentary constituency of Somerton and Frome.

In April 2010 a large hoard of third-century Roman coins was unearthed in a field near the town. From AD 950 to 1650, Frome was larger than Bath and originally grew due to the wool and cloth industry. It later diversified into metal-working and printing, although these have declined. The town grew substantially in the 20th century but still retains a very large number of listed buildings, and most of the centre falls within a conservation area.

The town has road and rail transport links and acts as an economic centre for the surrounding area. It also provides a centre for cultural and sporting activities, including the annual Frome Festival and Frome Museum. A number of notable individuals were born in, or have lived in, the town.

The name Frome comes from the Old English word ffraw meaning fair, fine or brisk and describing the flow of the river.

There is some limited evidence for Roman settlement of the area. The remains of a villa were found in the village of Whatley, 3 miles (5 km) to the west of Frome.

In April 2010, the Frome Hoard, one of the largest-ever hoards of Roman coins discovered in Britain, was found by a metal detectorist. The hoard of 52,500 coins dated from the third century AD and was found buried in a field near the town, in a jar 14 inches (36 cm) below the surface. The coins were excavated by archaeologists from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and some are now on display in the British Museum. The find was the subject of a BBC TV programme Digging for Britain in August 2010.

A monastery built by St. Aldhelm in 685 is the earliest evidence of Saxon occupation of Frome. The Saxon kings appear to have used Frome as a base from which to hunt in Selwood Forest and in 934 a witenagemot was held there, indicating that Frome must already have been a significant settlement. One of the first English Kings, Eadred (son of Edward the Elder), died in Frome on 23 November 955.

At the time of the Domesday Survey, the manor was owned by King William, and was the principal settlement of the largest and wealthiest hundred in Somerset. Over the following years, parts of the original manor were spun off as distinct manors; for example, one was owned by the minster, later passing to the Abbey at Cirencester, which others were leased by the Crown to important families. By the 13th century, the Abbey had bought up some of the other manors (although it did let them out again) and was exploiting the profits from market and trade in the town. Local tradition asserts that Frome was a medieval borough, and the reeve of Frome is occasionally mentioned in documents after the reign of Edward I, but there is no direct evidence that Frome was a borough and no trace of any charter granted to it. However, Henry VII did grant a charter to Edmund Leversedge, then lord of the manor, giving him the right to hold fairs on 22 July and 21 September.

The parish was part of the hundred of Frome.

Hales Castle was built, probably in the years immediately after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The circular ringwork is 120 feet (37 m) in diameter and stands on the northern slope of Roddenbury Hill, close to the Iron Age Roddenbury Hillfort. It comprises banks and outer ditches and has an unfinished bailey.

The manufacture of woollen cloth was established as the town’s principal industry in the 15th century, and Frome remained the only Somerset town in which this staple industry flourished. Families of clothiers gradually came to be the principal landowners in the town, with the manor of Frome itself finally passing into the ownership of a cloth merchant in 1714. From 1665 to 1725 major expansion, including the building of a new artisans’ suburb to the west of Trinity Street, occurred. Daniel Defoe remarked that the town had:

“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”
—Daniel Defoe, 1720s

On the 27 June 1685, the forces of the Duke of Monmouth camped in Frome, following their defeat in a skirmish with the Kings forces at Norton St Philip. Large numbers of his army deserted during the few days he stayed in the town before his eventual defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor. Following the putting down of the Monmouth Rebellion, 12 men were hanged in the town.

Poverty, the decline of the wool industry in the mid-18th century, increased industrialisation, and rising food prices led to some unrest amongst the inhabitants of Frome, and there were riots during the century. By 1791, the town was described in less flattering terms than those Defoe had used 70 years earlier. In the early 19th century, plans were developed to reinvigorate the town and once again elevate it to its former position as a more important town than Bath. These plans, the idea of a local businessman, Thomas Bunn, mostly failed to come to fruition, although some public buildings were erected and a wide new approach road to the town centre from the south was cut (named Bath Street after the landowner, Lord Bath of Longleat House).

Whilst wool remained an important part of the town’s economy into the 19th (and even 20th) centuries, other industries were established in the town. A bell-foundry started in 1684 by William Cockey grew to be a major producer of components for the developing gas industry and employer of 800 people. The J W Singer brass foundry and bronze-casting works, was a major employer and produced bronze statues. John Webb Singer was born in Frome and established his art metal work foundry in 1851. They made brass ornaments for local churches and became known through the Oxford Movement within the Church of England which lead to increasing demand for church ornaments. In addition to church ornaments the firm developed the facilities and expertise to create large statues. One of the first statues cast was a copy of General Gordon riding a camel. The firm was also responsible for the bronze statue of Boudica with her daughters in her war chariot (furnished with scythes after the Persian fashion), which was commissioned by Prince Albert and executed by Thomas Thornycroft. It was not cast in bronze until 1902, 17 years after Thornycrofts death, and now stands next to Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, London. The statue of Lady Justice on the dome above the Old Bailey was executed by the British sculptor, F. W. Pomeroy and cast by Singers. She holds a sword in her right hand and a pair of weighing scales in her left. The statue is popularly supposed to show blind Justice; however, the figure is not blindfolded. The statue of Alfred the Great at Winchester was a further commission. The statues from Singers have also been exported around the world. Printing was another major industry, with the Butler and Tanner printworks being set up in the middle of the century. Brewing was also a source of employment.

During the 20th century the old wool industry in Frome declined, although the last fabric mill at Wallsbridge did not close until 1965. As a result the population fell and in the 1930s it was slightly smaller than it had been in the mid 19th century. Other industries such as printing, light engineering, metal casting, carpeting and dairying continued, many taking old premises from the cloth mills and others being sited at the new Marston Road Trading Estate which led to growth after World War II, including the construction of council houses.

Frome is the largest town within the Somerset non-metropolitan district of Mendip, although the administrative centre is Shepton Mallet. Prior to 1974 it was administered by Frome Urban District.

The town elects three members to Somerset County Council, each from a separate county division. Frome also has eleven councillors on Mendip District Council.

The civil parish of Frome has adopted the style of a town, and there is a Town Council of 17 members. Frome has three twin towns: Château-Gontier in France, Murrhardt in Germany and Rabka-Zdrój in Poland.

The town was not represented in Parliament until given one member in the House of Commons by the Reform Act of 1832. Separate representation was abolished for the 1950 general election, with Frome itself being transferred to the Wells division, whilst most of the remainder of the constituency formed the bulk of the new Somerset North constituency. Further changes took place for the 1983 general election when the current Somerton and Frome constituency was created. Frome is within the South West England European Parliamentary constituency which elects six MEPs.

The town rests on Forest Marble which dates back to the Middle Jurassic, and has been used for local building. The area surrounding the town is Cornbrash, Oxford Clay and Greensand.

Frome is unevenly built on high ground above the River Frome, which is crossed by the 16th century town bridge in the town centre. The town centre is approximately 65 metres (213 ft) above sea-level, whilst the outer parts of the town are between 90 metres (295 ft) and 135 metres (443 ft) above sea-level.

The main areas of the town are (approximately clockwise from the north-west): Innox Hill, Welshmill, Packsaddle, Fromefield, Stonebridge, Clink, Berkley Down, Easthill, Wallbridge, The Mount, Keyford and Lower Keyford, Marston Gate, The Butts, Critchill, Trinity, and Gould’s Ground.

Although the royal forest of Selwood no longer exists, the nearby countryside is still richly wooded, for example on the Longleat, Maiden Bradley and Stourhead estates.

To the west of the town, on the edge of the Mendip Hills, there are large active limestone quarries, such as Whatley Quarry and Merehead Quarry, along with disused quarries. The working quarries are served by a dedicated railway line which branches off the main line at Frome, passes through the town centre and out through the Welshmill and Spring Gardens areas in the north-west quadrant of the town.

The population of Frome was 12,240 in the 1831 census, however it then declined to 11,057 in 1901 and remained between 11,000 and 12,000 until the 1970s. Since then, it has expanded considerably, reaching over 23,000 in 1991. In the 2001 census, the population was 24,510.

The metal-working and printing industries which replaced wool as Frome’s main industry have declined but not left the town. Singers still has a presence in the town, as does Butler and Tanner, although the latter (now named Butler Tanner and Dennis following a take-over) hit major financial difficulties in 2008, and made two-thirds of its workforce redundant.

Almost half of the economically active population of Frome commute to work outside the town (in Bath, Bristol, Warminster, Westbury or further afield). About 2,700 people commute into the town. A substantial part of the workforce has no formal qualifications and is poorly skilled, leaving them vulnerable to a decline in manufacturing work. There is no major local government employment in the town, and the principal public sector employers are the Primary Care Trust and the schools.

Frome town centre contains a considerable number of independent shops, and a few chain stores. Retail is primarily aimed at serving the local population’s requirements for food (there are two large supermarkets on opposite edges of the town, and three smaller supermarkets in the town centre), basic clothing, health and beauty, DIY and some electrical goods. However studies show that only about a quarter of the town’s population do their non-food shopping in the town. Banks and building societies have branches in the town centre.

Markets are held on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the town centre: some in the Market Yard car park, and others in the former agricultural warehouse, the Cheese and Grain. The Saturday cattle market was moved from the centre of the town to nearby Standerwick in the 1980s. In 2003, Frome was granted Fairtrade Town status.

A Vision for Frome 2008–2028 has been developed following a consultation with local people in the spring of 2008 which received over 3,000 responses. Mendip District Council and Mendip Strategic Partnership have consulted on a Community Strategy and Local Development Framework for the period to 2026 which includes building 2,500–2,600 new homes, providing more employment and office space, developing a new secondary school and two new primary schools, remodelling the town centre and encouraging a wider range of retailers and leisure providers into the town.

There have been a number of significant housing developments within Frome, many on former industrial sites, and these are continuing with plans for the redevelopment of a site at Saxonvale and Garsdale to include several hundred dwellings, shops and a ‘cultural quarter’ containing workshops for artists.

Frome has a thriving arts scene. The high-point is the annual ten-day Frome Festival in July, which in recent years has included more than 160 events held at various venues in and around the town. The town is host to a number of artists, many of whom open their studios to the public during the Festival. An Artisan Market is held on Catherine Hill monthly between April and October.

There are two theatres in Frome: The Memorial Theatre was built in 1924 in memory of the fallen of the World War I, whilst the 240-seat Merlin Theatre is part of the Community College campus. Frome is also home to Somerset’s first and only pub theatre, with Nevertheless Productions promoting new dramas four times a year at The Cornerhouse pub. The Cheese and Grain, a former farm produce warehouse which was converted into a market and concert hall in 1997, has a capacity of up to 800 and hosts regular pop concerts. Locally based musicians include American saxophonist Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis and Irish folk singer Cara Dillon. Frome’s only cinema, the Westway, is in Cork Street in the town centre. There is also an arts centre, The Black Swan, and the town is part of the West Country Carnival circuit.

The Frome & District Agricultural Society holds an annual Agricultural & Cheese Show in September. This was formerly held on the Showground at Fromefield, but in recent years has moved to West Woodland, 2 miles (3.2 km) to the south of the town.

The Frome Society for Local Study was founded in 1958, and helped to establish and run Frome Museum.

Frome is served by two newspapers, the Frome & Somerset Standard and the Frome Times.

In 2008, a ‘not for profit’ company called Frome Community Productions was formed by members of the community in order to develop and deliver FromeFM, an internet based community radio station. The station broadcasts 24 hours per day and is completely staffed by volunteers who produce features, interviews and music shows. In 2009, FromeFM commenced a service to stream the broadcasts to mobile phones. In late 2011 FromeFM was granted a broadcast licence and on 16 July 2012 began broadcast on 96.6FM in the Frome area.

FromeTV, another ‘non-profit’ organisation, runs an online TV channel presenting Frome’s own Question Time format program, interviews and short films relating to local current affairs.

Frome’s Cheap Street is a location in episode six of the first series of BBC TV comedy The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Frome has also provided the backdrop to historical dramas, such as Drover’s Gold, filmed by BBC Wales in 1996.

Frome restaurants include the Archangel on King Street, which received a 9/10 rating in The Sunday Telegraph. The Archangel was formerly The Angel Inn and is believed to date back to before the Protestant Reformation, and is a Grade II listed building.

The older parts of Frome – for example, around Sheppard’s Barton and Catherine Hill – are picturesque, containing an outstanding collection of late 17th and 18th century small houses. The Trinity area, which was built in the latter half of the 17th century and first half of the 18th century, is a fine (and rare) example of early industrial housing. Over 300 houses were built between 1660 and 1756 in a very unusual early example of a planned grid-pattern. Although about half the area was demolished in the 1960s under a Slum Clearance Order, before its historical importance was realised, the remainder was saved and was restored at a cost of £4 million between 1980 and 1984. Also in this area is the elaborate former Selwood Printing Works.

Stoney Street, which leads into Catherine Hill, is a steep, cobbled road climbing out of the town centre. Also in the centre of the town, Cheap Street contains buildings dating to the 16th and 17th centuries, and has a stream running down the middle, fed by the spring at St John’s Church. Cheap Street has never been used for vehicular traffic and its layout is based on land plots dating to approximately 1500. Despite a fire in 1923, the buildings have remained substantially unchanged since 1830, apart from shop-frontages.

The town bridge, which was originally built in the 14th century, was rebuilt in the 16th century and widened in the 18th century, at which time houses were built on it.

The Tourist Information Centre in Justice Lane is contained within a circular dye-house, known to have been in existence by 1813, one of two surviving in the town (the other is in Willow Vale). It was restored in 1994.

In the 1990s and first few years of the 21st century, Frome benefited from considerable investment in the restoration of its historic buildings through the English Heritage Heritage Economic Regeneration Scheme and the National Lottery Townscape Heritage Initiative.

Frome has over 500 listed buildings, three of which (including the parish church) are grade I listed.

The Blue House, located adjacent to the town bridge, is a Grade I listed building and was formerly the Bluecoat School and Almshouses, so named due to the colour of the school uniforms. Built in 1726 at a cost of £1,401 8s 9d, it replaced a previous almshouse dating from 1461 and rebuilt in 1621. The Blue House provided a home for twenty widow women and schooling for twenty boys. The front of the building is adorned by two statues, one of a man and the other a woman, indicating the building’s dual purpose. They are colloquially known as “Billy Ball” and “Nancy Guy”. The building’s role as a school came to an end in 1921, and it now provides studio and one-bedroom flats for seventeen elderly residents.

Rook Lane Chapel was a noncomformist chapel built between 1705 and 1707 by James Pope. The chapel had a gallery around three sides, and the centre of the ceiling was domed and supported by two tuscan columns. Rook Lane ceased to be used as a chapel in 1968 and there followed twenty-five years of neglect. In the early 1990s the building was compulsorily purchased by Somerset County Council and transferred to the Somerset Buildings Preservation Trust who carried out repairs and restorations. In 2001 it was converted by a firm of architects, the ground floor becoming a community hall and arts centre, managed by Rook Lane Arts Trust, and the galleried upper floor becoming offices for the architectural firm, NVB Architects.

Frome is reputed to have one or more systems of tunnels beneath the streets of the older parts of the town. Some entrances are visible above ground; for example, in the wall at the top of Stony Street, with other entrances in the cellars of shops and houses. Their purpose and full extent remains unknown, but they have been under investigation in recent years by at least one local group and a documentary has been made.

The parish church of St John the Baptist, was built between the late 12th century and early 15th century replacing a Saxon building that had stood since 685. The building was in very poor condition by the mid-19th century, and major restoration work – almost a complete rebuilding – was carried out in the 1860s, at a cost of almost £40,000. One of the more unusual pieces of work carried out was the construction of the Via Crucis, which is thought to be unique in an Anglican church. Another unusual feature are the carved roundels above the nave arcades depicting parables and miracles, which were added later in the century. Outside the east end of the church is the tomb of Bishop Thomas Ken. The tower has eight bells, which bear inscriptions indicating that they were cast at various points between 1622 and 1792.

A daughter church of St John’s, Christ Church, was built in 1818 by George Allen Underwood, although considerable changes were made throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The third Anglican Church, Holy Trinity, was built in 1837–38 by Henry Goodridge in the style of Commissioners’ Gothic. It is unusual in that the altar is at the west end due to the position in which the church was built. The stained glass windows are near-contemporary copies of windows designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

Finally, St Mary’s at Innox Hill was built in 1863, by C.E. Giles, as another Chapel of Ease to St John’s. It is small with a decorated sanctuary ceiling.

In 1853, Irvingite Catholics (Catholic-Apostolic) began worshiping in a building in the West End until the church was closed.

The Roman Catholic church began in Frome after the building of a temporary church in Park Road in 1928, and a new church, St Catharine’s Catholic Church, was finally built on the site in 1967 and 1968.

As well as Rook Lane Chapel, there were other Nonconformist religious houses in Frome. In 1773, a split in the congregation of Rook Lane led to the establishment of another Zion Congregational Church in Whittox Lane. This building was replaced in 1810, and was extended in 1888 (a separate, octagonal school room with a conical roof having been built on the grounds in 1875).

A Quaker Meeting House existed in Sheppards Barton, now South Parade, from 1675 to 1856. The original building was replaced around 1730 with a simple unadorned stone building comprising a single meeting room with wrought iron gallery above. The building became a school, the town library, Red Cross centre and, since 1999, the offices of a software company. The present chapel-like appearance was created in a 1993 refurbishment by the Red Cross.

Baptists had also been worshiping in the town since 1669, and had two churches. One was built in Sheppards Barton (now South Parade) in 1708. This was demolished and replaced by a new building in 1850, which was itself closed in 2001. Part of this building was converted to residential use but the main church, with a baptism pool, remains disused. A second Baptist Church was built in Badcox Lane (now Catherine Street) in 1711. It was replaced with a new building in 1813, which was embellished with a Doric portico in 1845. It closed in 1962 (later serving as a library, before being converted into flats in the 1980s).

The Methodists built themselves a church in 1812 at Gorehedge, which is still in use (after considerable additions in 1863, restoration in 1871 and major internal rearrangement in the 1980s). Sun Street Chapel was erected by the Primitive Methodists in 1834, and closed in 1982, although it was used by another religious group afterwards. It is now used as a Community Centre. There is another Methodist church on Portway, built in 1910.

Finally, there is a Dissenters’ Cemetery with Chapel at Vallis Road, which was founded in 1851 by Frome’s ‘Free Churches’, mainly Baptist, Congregational and Methodist and has been the site of over 6,000 burials.

Frome is served by the Bristol to Weymouth railway line which passes the eastern edge of the town. Frome station was opened in 1850 and is one of the oldest railway stations still in operation in Britain, now with direct services to London Paddington. Trains are operated by First Great Western. A freight line, which branches off through the town to serve the quarries on the Mendip Hills, is mainly used by Mendip Rail. A continuation of this line, which previously linked Frome to Radstock, is now the route of National Cycle Route 24, otherwise known as the Colliers Way.

Frome is served by a by-pass road, the A361, which passes around the southern and eastern edges of the town, while the A362 passes through the centre of the town from north-west to south-east.

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