West Country Rebels

FROME: West Country Rebels

Frome – home to radical weavers, spinners, printers and metal workers – has a rich history of independent artisans and political activism. The rebellious eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw regular food riots in the town, as decline in the cloth industry precipitated many into poverty. How does the town’s spirit of independence thrive today?

The public toilets near the Cheese and Grain and Black Swan Arts

It is great that Frome still has public toilets. According to a survey conducted in 2013, some 700 public toilets have been closed since 2010 alone. 11 council areas, including some big cities, have no public toilets at all. That said – are these Britain’s most oppressive public toilets? When you lock the door, to the booming of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’, you hear the following message: ‘Welcome. These facilities are protected by a security system. The time to use these facilities is limited. You will be asked when to leave.’

Black Swan and Library

The Black Swan was once a hostelry. After WWII it fell into disrepair, until an active group of local residents fundraised to turn it into arts centre and affordable studio space for emerging artists. It was opened in 1986. The library, was also opened in 1986. In 2012 alone the UK lost over 200 public libraries, and campaigners predict that 1000 public libraries will have been lost in the period 2009-2016. These closures will be the result of the further 10% cut in local government funding to come in 2015-16. This is despite the fact that in January 2014 a YouGov poll showed that around 47% of the population had used a library in the last 12 months.

Frome Market Place (War Memorial)

In 1926, during the National Strike miners from the North Somerset pits marched to Frome to rally support for their cause. Mining is an important industry in this part of Somerset, especially in Radstock and surrounds, and large numbers of mines were opened in the 18th and 19th Centuries, owned by families such as the Waldegraves and the Rees Moggs. Other industries in the town included the bell foundry, established in 1684, which evolved into producing gas industry components and employing around 800 people. The JW Singer brass foundry and bronze casting works was established in 1851; they developed the capacity to cast large statues, the first being a giant replica of General Gordon riding a camel, and also the statue of Boudicca which is by Westminster Bridge in London. The market place in Frome has always been a meeting point for sedition, bread riots and protest. The town hit hard times in the 18th and 19thCenturies with the decline of the wool industry.

Cheap Street

Cheap Street means ‘market street’, and one of the most significant products marketed in Frome was cloth. The manufacture of woollen cloth was already well-established in the town by the Middle Ages. In fact woollens have probably been manufactured in this part of the world for over 4000 years. Much is written about the independent spirit of these cloth manufacturers – some historians see them as nascent capitalists (cloth makers were exempt from certain laws so key was their industry); the alternative narrative of E.P. Thompson and others reads them as sturdy artisans whose lack of incorporation into factory systems would resist early capitalist models more vigorously than many trades. Families of clothiers became amongst the most significant in Frome (along with min owners) and the Manor of Frome passed to a cloth merchant in 1714.

Catherine Hill

Catherine Hill is now home to a several independent shops. We are losing independent retail at a terrifying rate but Frome’s Independent Council has decided to counter this trend by actively supporting and encouraging independent retail. A key area of independent retail in Frome has been the influence of the Cooperative Movement. Locally initiated in Radstock in 1868, after a preliminary meeting in the Workingmen’s Hall, the Society now stretches from Peasedown St John and Timsbury, to Frome and Farrington Gurney. The cooperative movement here is inextricably intertwined with the local mining industry, mentioned in the market place. It was founded collaboratively by a group of working men and women, to provide fair trading in food and other services (the cooperatives movement was closely aligned to the Friendly Societies), and crucially was controlled by locals and subscribers for the benefit of users and the community.

Sun Street – Primitive Methodist Chapel

Frome’s dissenting and non-Conformist religious scene is extraordinarily vibrant for a relatively small town. We have stopped at the Sun Street Chapel, which was built by the Primitive Methodists in 1834, but we could equally have paused at the Rook Lane Chapel, or the Zion Congregational Church, the Quaker Meeting House, one of the two Baptist Chapels, or the other Methodist churches at Gorehedge or Portway. In addition there is a Dissenters cemetery with chapel at Vallis Road, founded in 1851 and the site of over 6000 burials. There are strong links between dissenting religions and the model of independent artisanship that formed the backbone of Frome’s economy. MP for Frome during WWI John Barlow was a Quaker (and a pacifist). There are also deep links between Non-Conformist religion and early trades unions and social movements: ‘The Labour Party owed as much to Methodism as Marx’. This is in part inspired by their non-hierarchical and self-organising appeal; as well as their general ‘reformist’ approach (often being far more progressive than the state-sponsored Church on issues such as women’s suffrage, abolition of slavery and so on).

Whittox Lane and The Griffin

The Trinity area of Frome, built during the late 17th and early 18th Centuries is a fine example of 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 of this was demolished in the 1960s, as part of a slum clearance programme, the remainder were saved, and are now recognised as an important part of industrial and social history. As a further testament to Frome’s vigorous independence, local people successfully resisted the development of housing on the Orchard Street allotments in Trinity.

The Griffin pub belongs to the Milk Street Brewery. Established in 1999, Milk Street was a former porn cinema situated behind a pub. It now houses a brewery, which was expanded in 2005, and is capable of producing 30 barrels a week.