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An account of the history of Great Elm - by Peter Belham (local historian)

Perhaps Great Elm’s greatest asset is the natural beauty of its surroundings. Today, this is attracting more people to the village and helping to counteract the decline in its population which has occurred during the last one hundred years. At the beginning of its history, the nature of its site and its surround­ings were equally important and were indeed the cause of its establishment.

The earliest known settlements in the area of Great Elm were the Iron Age hill forts of Tedbury and Wadbury. These camps stood facing each other at the head of the narrow  valley looking down towards the area of Spring Gardens and they formed a difficult obstacle for any invaders who wished to penetrate into the Mendips. perhaps in search of lead In prehistoric times. spring Gardens Straddled the narrow gap between the upland areas of the chalk downs ns and the Mendips and so it became a meeting place of trade routes and also a means of passage for conquering tribes. It was im­portant to the people who inhabited the Mendips that the way from Spring Gardens should be defended-hence the two hill forts. In later times, these forts were evidently used by the Romans; a  hoard of their coins dating from the fourth century was discovered at Tedbury in 1691.

Wadbury and Tedbury remain as evidence of early  settlement in the area of Great Elm and they also attracted further settlement because of the protection they afforded. The site of the village of Great Elm itself could also be de­fended easily, with the steep hillside ascending from the Mells River and the top of the hill, where the church stands. commanding the approaches from Frome by way of Hapstord and Egford. So the cottages of the early settlers clung to the steep hillside and cloistered together for protection while the top of the ridge above them was used for cultivation in more peaceful times.

Elm existed as a settled community before the Norman Conquest although it was not known by that name The earliest documentary reference to it is found in what is known as the Geld Inquest of 1084 and the Exon Doomsday. The former was a list of returns made in re­sponse to a levy of geld, or land tax, and the latter consisted of a transcript of the original returns made by the Doomsday Commissioners on which the Doomsday Book of 1086 was based.

Elm was then known as Telvye and the extract relating to it reads as follows:

Osbern himself holds Telvye. Donna held it in the time of King Edward (The Confessor) and paid geld for 5 hides. There is land for 4 ploughs. In demesne are 4 hides and 1 virgate and I plough and 2 serfs and 3 villains and 4 bordars with 3 ploughs and 3 virgates. There are 1 riding-horse and 15 beasts and 16 swine and 250 sheep and 30 she-goats. There are two mills paying 100 pence and 14 acres of meadow and 16 acres of under­wood and 14 acres of pasture. Formerly worth 3 pounds. Now 4 pounds.


Osbcrn was Osbern Gifford, a Norman who had evidently taken part in the Conquest and in consequence was rewarded with the manor of Telvye. I think that this manor was created deliberately for him and that before the Con­quest the land had formed part of the larger manor of Buckland Dinham.

Certainly both places had been owned before the Conquest by the same man (Donno) and the Doomsday reference to Buckland shows that it was smaller in 1086 than it had been in King Edward's reign by exactly the amount of land shown in the Doomsday Book as composing the manor of Telvve. The fact that Elm and Buckland Dinham now share the same priest seems in a sense a compensation for the act of separation which was carried out in 1066.

Quite how or when “Telvye” became 'Elme' and then 'Great Elm', I do not know. I have seen a reference to `C L I V E' in a fourteenth­ century document, a reference that was clearly to the village of Elm, and so I would guess that a series of mistakes in transcribing documents caused Telvye to be written first as 'Clive' and then as Elme', the final 'e' eventually being dropped. The 'Great' was presumably added to distinguish the village from the neighbouring hamlet of Little Elm (i.e. Chantry). It was a comparatively recent addition; the Ordnance Survey Map of 1817 refers simply to 'Elm'.

There is no place in this argument for the legend that the village took its name from a great elm tree which was growing on the green by the church. No doubt such a tree did stand there — there would have been nothing unusual about that, but the village has been called Elm for much longer than any tree could have sur­vived. The presence of the tree produced a justification for the name which already existed, in much the same way as the Church of St John the Baptist in Frome became known as St Peter's because for a time in the eighteenth century a picture of St Peter was present on the altar there.

In the middle Ages the manor of Elm was held by a variety of families from Osbern Gifford onwards. and the lands of the manor were cultivated by tenant farmers of various ranks in the social hierarchy—villeins, bordars, etc. The unusually large number of sheep re­corded in Doomesday showed that then, as later, the rearing of sheep for wool was important.

During the later Middle Ages, in Elm as elsewhere, the ownership of land became more widely distributed and villagers were able to obtain possession of their holdings, although some remained as tenants and there was still a manor. a manor house and a family who owned the manor and, with it, the right to be patron of the church. In the early fourteenth century, the patron was William Portbrefe, who was a well-known landowner in Frome at that time. Later in the same century, Sir Thomas Cary held the manor. From him it passed to John de Edyndone and then to various owners, in­cluding Humphrey Stafford, the Earl of Devon, who died in 1470. In the reign of Elizabeth I the manor was owned by Henry, Lord Comp­ton, from whom it passed into the family of Spencer and it was then sold to Robert Webb and Alexander Chocke, both of whom were Frome men who had made their wealth through the development of the cloth trade. They sold the manor to Thomas Hodges and from him it descended by marriage to the Strachey family, who held it until the beginning of this century.

Long before this, the village of Elm had become not merely the centre of an agricultural community but also the scene of some in­dustrial activity. In the sixteenth century, it was one of the many villages in the Frome area in which cloth-making became an important occupation, although primarily as an addition to the family's income which came mostly from tanning. The cloth was made in the villagers homes and sent to Frome for collec­tion and onward transmission to Blackwell Hall in London.

Later in the history of the local cloth in­dustry, the introduction of simple machinery driven by water power, and the increasing need for a plentiful supply of water for the fulling and dyeing processes, gave prominence to those areas such as Great Elm where water power was available. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, various cloth mills flourished along the valley of the Mells River between Elm and Hapsford. One was for a time owned by the firm of Sinkins & Wood, who were among the leading cloth manufacturers in the Frome district. Competition from the more progressive Yorkshire cloth industry affected the Somerset industry badly in the later nineteenth century, and all the mills in the Mells River valley were closed down or converted to other uses.

In the nineteenth century the area also became closely associated with the iron in­dustry. Iron ore was discovered in the valley, coal was near at hand and the valley bottom itself was constructed of carboniferous lime­stone. All these factors made it a very suitable site for the opening of Fussell's Iron Works in 1831. This firm, which is still well remembered, specialized in the making of edged tools and acquired a national reputation. A number of tool mills were opened along the valley and Fussell built houses for his workers as well as Wadbury House for himself. Although the firm had such a reputation, it operated on too small a scale to meet the growing demand for its products in the late nineteenth century or to face the competition of firms in the Birmingham area, and so in 1894 it was bought out and closed down.

The decline of the cloth and iron industries had an obvious effect on the size and pros­perity of the village community. The popula­tion, which had been 820 in 1841, fell to 163 in 1951, although this fall must have been partly due to the creation of the parish of Chantry, much of which came out of the parish of Elm. Of late, the population has revived somewhat, partly perhaps because of the con­tinuing prosperity of the quarrying industry­ which is at least one hundred years old-but more particularly because the scenic attractions of the area have made it popular as a place of residence.

Through all the changes which the village of Elm has seen over the centuries, the Church has stood as a symbol of permanence and a centre of community life. One of the most obvious features of the Church of St Mary Magdalene is that there have been virtually no additions to its external structure since the fourteenth century. This shows that the population of the area was virtually static for a long period. The Church as built in Norman-or possibly Saxon -times remained large enough for the number of worshippers throughout the centuries and is large enough now. The lack of additions has added to the sense of permanence and stability which the building possesses-it has a com­pleteness of style which evokes the past. The last major addition to it was made about the year 1240, when the saddle-back tower was constructed. Inside the Church, a notable and unusual feature is the Elizabethan gallery, which was added for the musicians who assisted in the post-Reformation services. The Jacobean box pews also present a feature not usually to be found in churches today and their continued existence also contributes to the atmosphere of stability which the Church as a whole presents.

The list of Rectors of the Church begins in the year 1318, when Roger de Derinton was instituted, although there must certainly have been a church (and rectors) before this date. The list, which can be seen in the Church, con­tains some points of interest. For example, it was necessary to appoint a new rector in December 1348 and another in June 1350. This was an unusually brief interval of time­ (one rector remained for forty-nine years) and it was no doubt due to the death of the former in the Black Death, a notorious plague which it is known was particularly virulent in the Frome area in 1349 and 1350. Throughout the country it was common for the clergy to be hard hit by the plague, because they were so directly in contact with it as they worked to help and comfort the afflicted.

Geoffrey de Canston, who became Rector in 1352, had previously been the Chaplain of the Chantry Chapel of St Catherine, in Frome. This was the oldest chantry in the town and was established in the early years of the four­teenth century by the lord of the manor, William Branch. It was situated where Shep­pards Barton now is and it gave its name to the hill on which it stood. Another point of interest relates to the Tudor period. The same man (William Clyffe) was Rector from 1502 until 1556. This meant that he remained there through all the changes brought about by the Reformation in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI and presumably therefore acquiesced in them. Possibly he objected to the return to Papal authority in Mary I's reign because he was replaced in 1556. His successor, however, did not remain long, since he too was replaced in 1561, by which time Elizabeth had become Queen and had revoked her stepsister's attempts to restore Roman Catholicism in England.

During a similar period of religious and poli­tical turmoil in the seventeenth century (that is, during the Civil War, the Cromwellian period and the Restoration) there was again a continuity in the local church. The same Rector held office from 1645 to 1669.

These points suggest that neither the Rector nor the people of Great Elm were particularly interested in the affairs of state which are so much stressed in the history books. This is hardly surprising in so small and remote a com­munity; even in the larger community of neighbouring Frome, the story is much the same. Centuries were to pass before the improvement in communications brought Elm more closely into touch with the outside world, and even today one could hardly claim that Elm is in the mainstream of national life. Perhaps that is one of its attractions.

This remoteness, in early times at least, gave the village community a cohesion which had its advantages as well as its drawbacks. If it was perhaps too inward-looking, it was at least a genuine community, with its social life made by the residents and for the residents. The hub of this social life was the Church, the Rectory and the Manor House, and in later times the village school. The Church in parti­cular was a focal point for the religious and secular life of the community because it repre­sented permanence and stability in changing times, and it is appropriate therefore that the activities now being arranged to mark 650 years of the history of Great Elm should be so closely linked with the Church.