To Dye For
at it today, you might think that Frome has always been like this - quiet, reserved, respectable, nice. The truth is, for most of the time, it seems to have been just that.
As has been said, Frome was already a prosperous town at the time of Domesday, when there were only a few towns in the whole of England, prosperous or otherwise.
As wool began to inject wealth into the English economy, Frome grabbed its share of the action - first by exporting the wool shorn from local sheep, later by spinning and weaving that wool into cloth, later still by importing fine wool for specialist cloths.
Frome did have a special side-line; dyeing the wool blue. In today's "United World of Colours", that sounds rather monochrome, but the early dyeing processes were tricky and required special expertise. If a particular locality found an effective way to produce a single colour of wool, they would have a good commercial product they could sell across Europe.
The Frome process used woad, a blue dye associated with Brits since Caesar visited.Besides, it was not unusual (I am reliably informed) for clothiers who wanted any final colour, to dye the wool blue, first.
Frome's expertise with dyeing gave the town an extra market for its cloth business - the production of military uniforms. Prior to the twentieth century, war was a fairly gaudy process. One Frome Dyer reckoned the Battle of Waterloo had hurt his business as much as it had Napoleon's.
The Pax Britannica which followed Waterloo, led Frome dyers and clothiers to concentrate on the production of grand liveries for wealthy families to dress up their servants in.
As the industrial revolution shook up the wool industry, Frome wasn't well placed to compete. The River Frome didn't provide enough of a "head" to provide consistent and reliable power to the water-driven mills. When steam power replaced water, Frome wasn't well-placed to acquire the coal needed to fire the furnaces (coal was mined at Radstock, only a few miles away, but it would have to be carried by pack horse). There was an attempt to build a canal to link with Poole harbour, but it was a dismal failure.
That said, the decline in Frome's wool industry was a slow one, and might have been even slower if the Frome clothiers had been just a little less conservative (one mill produced nothing but strong black cloth for the best part of a hundred years).
But Frome had long since ceased to be a one-product town. At the beginning of the eighteenth century Cockey's built a reputation as one of the best bell foundries in the region. Mind you, Cockey's didn't have it all its own way, despite putting bells in 23 of Somerset's spires and steeples, and in 40 more in Wiltshire and Dorset. Cockey's had a deadly rival on the other side of the Mendips, in Chew Stoke; the Bilbies.
Apart from casting damn fine bells, the Bilbie family had one other advantage - they were eccentric, and therefore much more interesting.
When a bell was about to be tuned, one of the Bilbie family would strip naked and stride into the Chew Stoke village pond, until only his head was above water. When all the ripples had disappeared from the pond's surface, the bell would be tolled, and the Bilbie would pronounce on its purity of tone.
I can't see that kind of behaviour going down well in Frome.