By Tim Lambert
Frome began as a Saxon village. The name Frome is believed to come from a Celtic river name fram, meaning, brisk or fair. The history of Frome begins in the 7th century AD. About 685 the Abbot of Malmesbury, St Aldhelm, founded a monastery there. Soon a settlement grew up by the monastery.
In the 9th century, Alfred the Great created a network of fortified settlements across his kingdom. In the event of a Danish attack, all the men in the area would gather in the local burgh to fight them. If Frome was a burgh a ditch and an earth rampart would have surrounded it with a wooden stockade on top. In 934 the king held a meeting of the Witan (a kind of Saxon parliament) at Frome.
Frome in the Middle Ages
By the time of the Domesday Book (1086), Frome had grown into a busy little town. It probably had a population of about 600. That would seem tiny to us but settlements were very small in those days. A typical village only had 100 to 150 inhabitants. There were 4 watermills in Frome for grinding grain to flour so it must have been quite an important place.
There was also a weekly market in Frome and from 1270 Frome had a fair. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. People would come from all over Somerset to buy and sell at a Frome fair. In 1492 Frome was granted the right to have 2 more annual fairs.
In the 14th century, Frome became famous as a wool town. In the town, wool was woven. It was then fulled. That means it was cleaned and thickened by pounding it in a mixture of clay and water. Wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded the wool. There were at least 5 fulling mills in Frome. When it dried the wool was dyed. Furthermore, woad for dyeing cloth was grown in the Frome area.
In the late 15th century an almshouse was built on the site of the Blue House (the present building is 18th century).
The monastery seems to have disappeared from Frome by the end of the 11th century. However, in the 13th century, a chapel was built dedicated to St Catherine. It gave its name to Catherine Hill. Cheap Street gets its name from the old word ceap meaning to sell. In the Middle Ages and Tudor times, by law, every man had to practice archery on Sunday afternoon. They practiced at the place called the Butts, which has survived as a street name.
In the 16th century and 17th centuries, the manufacture of wool remained the main industry in Frome. However, from the late 17th century bells were cast in Frome.
Meanwhile, in 1685 the Duke of Monmouth led a rebellion against the king. A number of men from Frome joined his rebellion. However, the rebellion was crushed at the battle of Sedgemoor. Subsequently, 12 men were hanged in Frome.
However, during the 18th century, the wool industry in Frome boomed. In 1721 a writer said that Frome was ‘very famous for the manufacture of broad and woolen cloths’.
Frome grew rapidly in the 18th century and it became one of the largest towns in Somerset with a population of over 8,000. In 1726 a writer said that Frome ‘is now reckoned to have more people in it than the City of Bath’. Rook Lane Congregational Church was built in 1707. Blue House was built in 1726. Until 1926 it housed the Blue School (it was called that because of the color of school uniforms).
In 1757 a body of men was given powers to widen and repair certain streets in Frome. In 1797 they were given powers to pave and light the streets (with oil lamps). In 1797 North Parade was created to provide another entrance to the town center. John Wesley visited Frome several times in the later 18th century but he described it as a: ‘dry, barren and uncomfortable place’.
Frome in the 19th century
In the early 19th century the wool industry in Frome continued to flourish but later in the 19th century, it declined. However new industries came to Frome. There were iron foundries. From 1845 there was a printing industry.
In 1801 the population of Frome was 8,748. By the standards of the time, it was a fairly large and important town. It was larger than Taunton and Bridgwater and much larger than Yeovil. However, during the 19th century, Frome grew more slowly than other towns. By 1851 the population of Frome was just under 12,000.
Bath Street was created in 1810 and Christ Church was built in 1818. A covered Market Hall was built in Frome in 1819. Holy Trinity Church was built in 1838.
In the 19th century amenities in Frome improved. From 1831 Frome had gaslighting. The railway reached Frome in 1850. In the late 19th century sewers were dug under the town and a piped water supply was created.
In 1894 Frome was made an urban district council. (It remained one until the local government was reformed in 1974).
Frome in the 20th century
In the 20th century amenities in Frome continued to improve. Victoria Hospital and Victoria Baths were both built in 1901. The Memorial Theatre was built in 1925. A new library was built in Frome in 1990.
In the 20th century, the old wool industry in Frome petered out. The last maker of cloth closed in 1965. However, some industries thrived in the 20th century. Industries in Frome included printing, light engineering, metal casting, carpeting, and dairying.
In the early 20th century the population of Frome actually declined. In the 1930s it was slightly smaller than it had been in the mid-19th century. However, Frome began to grow again after 1945. After 1947 the first council houses were built in Frome.
By 1971 Frome had a population of 15,000. It then began to grow rapidly. In 2022 the population of Frome was 27,000.