The Reading Room: Benjamin Baker and 19th Century Frome
Baker was born in Frome in 1840 and what is now the Frome Museum was, in his day, the Scientific and Literary Institute.
Here on North Parade, one could find, not only a library of interesting and valuable books, but also local newspapers; the Liberal Somerset and Wilts Journal and it’s Conservative competitor, The Frome Times, (which became the Somerset Standard in 1886). Local self-made businessmen, like John Webb Singer and Joseph Tanner could browse copies of The Times and also the hugely popular Illustrated London News (sample pages from which can be viewed below) - an interesting mix of current news, romantic stories, poetry and engravings. They would have undoubtedly come across reports of Baker’s projects throughout the world.
The Institute itself was started two years after Baker’s birth - largely through the enthusiasm of Thomas Bunn, but it was the generosity of John Sinkins, that enabled this fine building to be built in 1869. With its museum and library it became the cultural centre of Frome. Here one might have seen Baker’s designs for the cylinder that transported Cleopatra’s Needle from Alexandria to London in the March 1877 edition of the Illustrated London News. Five months later, the same paper carried a fascinating report by Captain Henry Carter, the commander of the Cleopatra, with his accounts of the abandonment of the obelisk in the Bay of Biscay during a storm (it was later retrieved and continued its journey to London without further incident). The opening of the Forth Bridge by the Prince of Wales in March 1890 was awarded front page honours with a lengthy description of the ceremony and the speeches at the banquet luncheon which followed.
The Scientific and Literary Institute was made possible by industrial wealth. The same industry, central to Benjamin Baker’s childhood, made Frome an altogether noisier and dirtier place, than it is today. People lived cheek by jowl with the heavy industry which had replaced the weaving workshops that had made the town wealthy in the Eighteenth Century. In Cobbett’s words, Frome was, ‘ a sort of little Manchester’, because of it’s many iron foundries. The fact that Baker’s father came here from an ironworks in South Wales, means that it must have been known as an industrial centre of some repute. The family firm of Cockey’s had been casting bells since 1685, likewise the Fussells foundry, on the outskirts of Frome, was responsible for agricultural implements that were sent all around the globe. It is believed that Baker Snr came to work as a manager at the Butts Hill Iron Works, still of some size as it had a rolling mill as well as a foundry. If this is so, then he had less than a five minute walk to work from the site of the family home (where the fire station now stands).
It was also in the Butts Hill area of Frome, that John Webb Singer was born in 1819, opposite the very same foundry where Baker’s father worked. He is said to have shown a great interest in the work done there and no doubt this was a major influence on him starting his casting business of J.W. Singer & Sons in 1848. It is an amazing coincidence that both Frome men did important work within yards of each other on the Embankment in London: Cleopatra’s needle, brought from Egypt in Baker’s cylinder is there to this day, as is Singer’s Boadicea, both by the Thames in Westminster.
Illustrated London News
View sample pages of the Illustrated London News. Note that the pages are not in any specific order.