(this contribution by Lynn and Brian Baxter – keep looking – continually being extended)

The search for the full story of our village is ongoing. Whilst some information is in the public domain, there will be lofts and bookcases, photo albums and memories holding precious details to share between those fortunate enough to call this lovely village their home.

Please feel free to contact me email link with material, no matter how modest you may feel it is.

Our story takes much from official sources, local historians, and even an anonymous typescript found in a cupboard.


The earliest known settlements in the area of Great Elm were the hill forts of Tedbury and Wadbury with Newbury Hill next to them and the Barrow Hill, an Anglo-Saxon burial site also on a rise nearby (strictly in neighbouring Buckland Dingham). Tedbury and Wadbury camps are Scheduled Monuments of national importance. They stand facing one another at the head of a narrow valley looking towards the area of Spring Gardens

In prehistoric times, Spring Gardens straddled the narrow gap between the chalk downs and the Mendips and became a meeting place of trade routes.

Tedbury Camp is a “large multivallate hillfort” from the Iron Age. There are only around 50 examples of this type recorded in England. It survives despite some quarrying and reduction of the heights of the ramparts. Historic England notes that, like Wadbury Camp, it will contain “archaeological and environmental evidence relating to its construction, longevity, trade, agricultural practices, social organisation, territorial significance, domestic arrangements and overall landscape context”.

Collinson, the Somerset historian writing in 1691, reports that a pot of coins was discovered there, mostly dating from the time of Emperor Constantine, who ruled from 306 – 337 AD. (The date of the find does not therefore appear to be 1961, as a number of publications suggest.)

Wadbury Camp is a “slight univallate hillfort”, one of around 50 examples recorded in England. The type dates from between the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age (8th – 5th centuries BC). History England reports that hillforts of this type are generally interpreted as stock enclosures, redistribution centres, places of refuge and permanent settlements. Wadbury survives fairly well, though there is evidence of quarrying and building.

Tedbury and Wadbury camps together must have given protection to the locality.

The site of Great Elm itself could be defended easily because it is on a hillside above Mells Stream, with the top of the hill, where the church stands, commanding the approaches from Frome via Egford and Hapsford.

Parts of the village are currently designated as `of high archaeological potential’, including areas on which the Gothic Villa, Elmhurst stood, and to the right side of Elm Lane as you descend to the Mill Pond, which we now commonly call the “duck pond”.

Two barrows west of Bedlam, a field system north of Great Elm, terraced strip fields to the south, and a deserted farm site north west of Great Elm, are on record. (Mendip District Council Local Plan 2002 App. 8)


Great Elm existed as a settlement before the Norman Conquest. The earliest documentary reference is found in the Geld Inquest of 1084, a list of returns made in response to a levy of geld, or land tax. It is registered in the Exon Domesday which covered the south west, and was so detailed that it included details of livestock. The Domesday Book of 1086 is based on this – though it omits the livestock information, as people complained about the degree of intrusiveness involved in compiling it, and the book was already big without it.

It is worth dwelling on this remarkable document, completed in a matter of months, just at the end of William the Conqueror’s reign. The detailed picture of the English landscape is unparalleled, says G. H. Martin. It is valuable, not just for the picture it allows local historians to reconstruct of their area, but also as the foundation document of the national archives. It has been used down the ages as evidence of title of land and last consulted for legal precedent in 1982.

The King’s commissioners, some seven or eight panels of bishops and earls, each took a circuit of several counties to make “a survey of all England; of the lands in each of the counties; of the possessions of each of the magnates, their lands, their habitations, their men, both bond and free, living in huts or with their own houses or land; of ploughs, horses and other animals; of the services and payments due from each and every estate” (Robert, Bishop of Hereford.).

It was called the Domeday Book because “it is not permissible to contradict its decisions, any more than it will be those of the Last Judgement” (Treasurer of England, Richard fitzNigel, 12th Century).

At that time, Great Elm was called Telvye and the land was owned by Osbern Gifferd. The fullest information we have from the Domesday censuses is given below:

“Osbern himself holds Telvye. Dunna held it TRE and it paid geld for 5 hides. There is land for 4 ploughs. In demesne are 4 hides ande 1 virgate and 1 plough and 2 serfs; and 3 villeins 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. 2 mills rendering 100d, and 14 acres of meadow, and 16 acres of scrubland and 14 acres of pasture. Formerly £3; now £4.”


TRE: `at the time of King Edward’ i.e. before the Conquest of 1066.

Geld: a land tax assessed on the hide, a standard unit based notionally on the amount of land which would support a household.

Virgate: A quarter of a hide and the equivalent of the English Yardland.

Villein: a peasant of higher economic status than a bordar and living in a village, notionally unfree because subject to the manorial court.

Bordar: a cottager.

Osbern Gifferd was a Norman rewarded for taking part in the Conquest by being given the manor of Telvye. Peter Belham, in research published in the 1970s, thinks that the manor was created specially in 1066. He suggests that before the Conquest the land had formed part of the larger manor of Buckland Dinham. Both places had been owned by the Anglo-Saxon, Dunno, before that.

It is not known when Telvye became Elme, then Elm and then Great Elm. Peter Belham noted a reference to “Clive” in a 14th century document. The change to Great Elm was to distinguish it from Little Elm (Chantry). The OS map of 1817 still refers to Elm, as do many of the deeds of properties in the village.

Some of the details below about people from the 14th to the 19th centuries are taken from Peter’s leaflet on the village, augmented by an anonymous local writer.

In the Middle Ages the manor of Elm was held by a variety of families after Osbern Gifferd. The lands were cultivated by tenant farmers of various ranks. The large number of sheep recorded in Domesday shows that the rearing of sheep was as important then as it became later.

In the later Middle Ages, the ownership of land became more widely distributed and villagers were able to take possession of their holdings, though some remained a 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 14th century the patron was William Portbrefe, a well-known land owner in Frome. Later in the same century, Sir William Cary, sheriff of Somerset from 1341 to 1351 held the manor. In 1420 Elizabeth DeBrecon, widow of Reginald, died whilst owning it. During that century, it passed to John de Edyndone, then to various others including Humphrey Stafford, Earl of Devon, who died in 1470. During Elizabeth 1’s reign the manor was owned by Henry, Lord Compton, and then passed into the family of Spencer, then sold to Robert Webb and Alexander Chocke, Frome men who had made good in the cloth trade. They sold the manor to Thomas Hodges and from him it descended in marriage to the Strachey family, who held it until the beginning of the 20th century.

Elm became not only an agricultural community but also an industrial one. In the 16th century it was one of many villages involved in cloth-making, primarily as an addition to families’ income from farming. The cloth was made in villagers’ homes and sent to Frome for collection and on to Blackwell Hall in London for sale.

Later in the history of the cloth industry, the introduction of simple machinery driven by water power, and the increasing need for water for the fulling and dyeing processes, gave prominence to Great Elm. Until the second half of the 19th century, various cloth mills flourished along the valley of the Mells Stream, between Elm and Hapsford.

One of the mills was owned by Sinkins & Wood, among the leading cloth manufacturers in Frome. In the later 19th century all the mills in the valley were closed down or converted, owing to the competition exerted by the more progressive Yorkshire cloth industry.

The story of Fussell’s Iron Works is told later.

With the decline of both the cloth and iron industries the number of inhabitants of the village crashed from 820 in 1841 to 163 in 1951, though the latter figure was affected by the creation of the parish of Chantry (Little Elm). The population in 2011 was 171.

Bedlam (account by Lynn and Brian Baxter)

Set in Vallis Vale, the hamlet of Bedlam has attracted many for its picturesque setting. People would stop to have their photographs taken in front of the cottages, old stone bridge and one of the two fulling mills originally existing in Vallis vale.

The name Bedlam is reputed to come from the shrieking of the wooden water wheels as they mechanically turned the thumping hammers which softened and thickened the woollen cloth. The cloth was then set to dry on racks nearby.

The account given below shows that there are difficulties with identifying which of the two mills is being referred to in official documents, and the censuses do not often indicate specific properties. The censuses, taken every ten years, do not have a standard name for this hamlet either.

The present owners, Bill and Anne Smith, think that Bedlam Cottage was probably originally three cottages. They bought the cottages and the ruined fulling mill in 1981. Anne records that, at that time, she met a “a very old couple who lived across the field. They told me that the lane over the river and past our house was once the main Bristol road and was now called Shep’s Lane. I believe this was because a family called Sheppard once owned the mill. In their day, carts from Frome used the lane. When we first came, the farmer would drive his cattle and sheep to the common and the hunt occasionally came across the bridge”. A field next to the cottages was a tenters’ ground for drying the fulled cloth.

This mill seems to have been the one referred to as Bedlam Bottom Mill by Ken Rogers in his book Somerset and Wiltshire Woollen Mills (1976).

According to his research, Thomas Hall owned it in 1810, with Rawlings & Co as leaseholders. Gilbert Rotton then owned it in 1826, and John French, a clothier of Gould’s Ground, in 1830.

In the 1841 census those recorded at Bedlam Mills are William Sheppard, fuller, and Mary, his wife, who was a dairy woman; James Pickford; James Sheppard, a clerk, his wife, Betsy, and children – Elizabeth, John and Walter. Eliza Stokes was a servant. Also at Bedlam were Henry Brown, a labourer and Elizabeth, his wife. There were also two unoccupied dwellings. However, it is not clear from the 1841 entry which mills are bring referred to.

Ken Rogers tells us that nothing more is known of Bedlam Bottom Mill from the 1850s when the mill had probably become defunct. The censuses from 1851 to 1881 refer only to a single mill, which was probably Rifford’s Mill, further east along Mells stream from Bedlam Bottom Mill.

Riffard’s Mill (note the variant spelling) according to Ken Rogers, was occupied by, first, John and then James Sheppard in the early 19th century. Riffard’s Mill was referred to in an advertisement in 1838 when James Sheppard was in business as a fuller.

By the 1851 census the children of James and Betsy Sheppard, together with Elizabeth Sheppard, a 30 year old “simster”, and her brother, Walter, a 16 year old labourer, are specifically mentioned as living at “Rifford’s Mill”.

William Sheppard, aged 66 years, a fuller, is at “Rifford’s Cottage”. We assume that, whilst he is recorded as a bachelor, he is the same William Sheppard that had been married to Mary in the 1841 census.

In the 1861 census, there is a reference to “Bedlam Fulling Mill” occupied by Robert Harding, a 56 year old fuller, born at Sutton Veny, with wife Eliza and two grown sons. By the 1871 census Robert is a widower with a servant and grandson living with him. Ken Rogers noted that Robert Harding was a fuller in Elm parish in 1875 (presumably this is from a Trade Directory). This Robert Harding appears to have died in Bath in 1884, by which time Rifford’s Mill was probably out of use as the 1881 census concludes with a note “Factory – cloth. Not Used”.

Ordnance Survey maps of 1887 – 1889 and 1904 show both redundant mill sites.

An anonymous writer, in A Short History of Frome Selwood, (c. 1890) spoke of both mills at Bedlam as fast falling into decay. One he thought was ancient, perhaps contemporary with the nearby manor of Vallis, which is late medieval.

The other had a date of 1676 on a gable, and may tentatively be identified as the building illustrated in a drawing of 1899 labelled “The Old Factory, Vallis”. This shows a shell of a three storey building with a façade of four gables”.

The ruins of Rifford’s Mill can be seen in a post card, labelled “ A Bit of Vallis, Frome”, published in The Archive Photograph Series: Around Frome, compiled by Michael McGarvie (1997). A similar photograph exists in the homes of people now living in the cottages at this site.

The cottages either still exist, have been extensively renovated, or were built later using stone from the mills. George Chedburn says that his property “was originally a pair of quarry-worker’s cottages and has been used as a single dwelling since the 1970s. The cottages were built in two phases, with the rear section being the oldest and dating from the early 19th C, whilst the larger, front section dates from the 1890s. The front, south-facing elevation, is constructed of lightly rusticated ashlar (from the Doulting quarry), which is thought to have been salvaged from the redundant mill situtated in the valley below [i.e. Rifford’s Mill]. All other walls are of plain masonry construction, incorporating local Forest Marble”.

We have already mentioned some of those living in the valley who were associated with the particular mills. The censuses don’t make clear where exactly individual families lived and one has to surmise where they worked. Thus, in 1841 at “Vallis”, William Stokes lived as a 73 year old Fuller with his wife Ann and a cloth worker, Elizabeth Spencer can be found in the household of William Lansdown, a 53 year old pauper

The Henry Brown noted as being at “Bedlam” in 1841 is recorded in 1851 with his wife and three children, at “Vallis Vale”, near to Benjamin Cornish, an unmarried Blacksmith born in Mells. This Benjamin Cornish is still plying his trade in 1861 but his place of residency is recorded as “Bedlam”. The two addresses are likely to mean the same thing.

Also at “Bedlam”in the year of 1861 are William Willcox, a 30 year old Great Western Railway Policeman, born in Leigh on Mendip, his wife and two children; Joseph Starr, 37, a Cloth Dresser, Clothman, born in Dilton Marsh, with his wife and three children; Martha Lansdown a widow of 73, who was a wool weaver, with her son, Charles, a labourer, and Thomas Parsons, a 40 year old Edge Tool Maker, with his wife and niece.

In 1871, the hamlet of “Bedlam” shows Joseph Coombs, a 50 year old labourer born in Great Elm, and his wife, Mary; Thomas Wollen, a 48 year old Edge Tool maker of Great Elm with a wife and five children; James Wise a brush manufacturer, aged 30 with his wife; Charles Lansdown, labourer in a stone quarry, born in Great Elm, and living with his wife together with a lodger; George Vines, 46, a labourer in a cloth factory, with wife and two children, and Thomas Edwards a gardener from Marston Bigot with his wife and two children. There are four uninhabited houses recorded in “Hamlet Bedlam”.

Contributions would be welcomed from local historians, people with long memories and those living at Bedlam, who may hold house deeds and other documents


To be continued.