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GENERAL EDWARD CHARLES FROME, RE, FRAS*
Army surveyor and engineer, artist
General Frome. Image source: Wikipedia.
The range of interesting people who have popped up in Epsom and Ewell never ceases to amaze me and here's another one. General Frome lived in Epsom Road, Ewell from at least 1876 until his death on 12 February 1890.
Edward Charles Frome was born on 7 January 1802 in Gibraltar where his father, the Reverend John Thomas Frome, was a military chaplain; his mother was Jane Baynes, daughter of military surgeon Alexander Baynes. Both John and Jane died in a yellow fever epidemic which decimated the Gibraltar Garrison in 1804. There were three other children - Georgina Margaret, who appears to have been born in that same year of 1804 (she died unmarried in Bayswater in 1869), Theodosia Maria (see note at the end) and Emily (died 1857 Guernsey, unmarried). In the 1841 census Theodosia and Emily were living with their uncle, George McLeod Baynes, in Guernsey and Edward also spent time on that island, so I would guess that George took responsibility for their upbringing. In 1817 Edward entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, being commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1825 (although this seems a long time, I understand that there were no commissions in the Royal Engineers until 1825 and that Edward didn't want to be in any other regiment). By all accounts he was an excellent student.
Canada and the Rideau Canal
In 1827 he was posted to Canada and, under Lt. Col. John By, surveyed much of the Rideau Canal, which, at 202 kilometres in length, joins Ottawa with Kingston, Ontario. Ottawa was originally a settlement called Bytown, named after Lt. Col. By. The canal was intended for military use, but has never been needed for such purposes since the opening in 1832 and today it is a hugely impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site - especially impressive when it freezes over in winter and the portion in Central Ottawa is used as a public skateway.
Brewer's Lower Mill: Masonry of the Lock nearly completed, Excavation for the Canal in progress, 1831-2 Image by Thomas Burrowes, 1831.
Image source: Archives of Ontario via Wikimedia Commons
Lower Brewer's Lock in the 21st century. Photo by D Gordon E Robertson via Wikimedia Commons.
This huge project was invaluable training for what he would do next, which became his major claim to fame. After a stint back at Woolwich and then Chatham he was offered a ten year term as Surveyor-General of South Australia and departed with his family in 1839.
At this point his family comprised Mrs Frome and three daughters. Mrs Frome was Jane Light (born c.1814 Northumberland), daughter of Alexander Whalley Light of the 25th Regiment and Jane Smart, and the marriage took place in 1833. The children were Emily Margaret (1834 Woolwich-1896 Rothbury House**, Chiswick; unmarried), Jane Marion Eleanor (1835 Chatham-1895 Funchal, Madeira; unmarried) and Susan Augusta (1838 Kent-1839 Adelaide). Three more followed in Adelaide - St John Thomas (1841), Dora Helena Theodosia (1847) and Eleanor Arundel (c.1849). We shall return to the children later.
When evaluating what Edward did during his 10 years in South Australia, it's important to appreciate that until the 1820s there had been very little European exploration of the country as a whole. The colony at Sydney (initially made up largely of transported convicts) was established only in the late 1780s.
View of Sydney Cove from Dawes Point c.1817 Image source: State Library of New South Wales via Wikimedia Commons.
By the date on the painting above, one might think that the country had been much colonised by then, but Sydney happened only because Captain Cook landed at Sydney Cove when he 'discovered' Australia. For example, Perth in Western Australia began as the Swan River Colony in 1829, the building of Adelaide did not start until the 1830s and Darwin only saw the light of day in 1869. The point is that all the main settlements were around the coasts, as are the big cities. So, if you looked at a map of Australia from around the 1820s/30s, it would have been fairly blank.
One man who did a huge amount of surveying was Captain Charles Napier Sturt and he was responsible for confirming that the site chosen for Adelaide was suitable; he subsequently became Surveyor-General of South Australia for a brief time and Edward Frome succeeded him (it seems that Sturt had been appointed locally but London had other ideas).
Adelaide North Terrace, 1839. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.
This next picture gives you an idea of what the port of Adelaide looked like as late as 1846.
Port Adelaide, 1846. Image source: Stale Library of South Australia via Wikimedia Commons.
We can now get on with Edward Frome, who was a Lieutenant when he arrived in Australia, but became a Captain in 1840. The purpose of all the surveying was, of course, identifying sites for immigrant settlements, which required accurate maps. Although I daresay that the engineer in Frome enjoyed that aspect, I would think he also found the exploring to his taste, since he painted the landscapes as he went. He has been described as a competent artist and you can judge for yourself at the website of the Art Gallery of South Australia (scroll down to Frome). Whatever you think of the paintings, they do provide a fascinating record of what South Australia looked like in the 1840s.
Photo of 'First view of the Salt Desert - called Lake Torrens'. A painting by E C Frome, 1843. Image source: Stale Library of South Australia via Wikimedia Commons.
The picture above is highly significant. Lake Torrens is not a lake as we normally think of it - rather it is a saltpan, which sometimes has water in it from rainfall. If I tell you that it is about 155 miles long, with an average width of roughly 19 miles, and has been completely filled with water only once in the last 150 years (according to the Lake Torrens National Park website), you get some idea of how dry South Australia is.
There are other lakes like this in South Australia and one of them, 62 miles long and 24 miles wide, lies next to the Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park: this lake is now part of an eponymous Regional Reserve, covering almost 186,000 acres (approx. 290 square miles, roughly the same size as the Exmoor National Park here in England). This place is called the Lake Frome Regional Reserve, which is not a coincidence. It was our Edward Frome who first surveyed the area, in 1843, and it is named after him.
The photographer comments: 'Lake Frome is a beautiful pink salt lake that is rarely seen as people don't pass this way often': it is in a remote spot and only really accessible by four-wheel drive vehicle down a rough, stony track. Access hours are restricted to allow the local Aboriginal people to hunt.
Lake Frome Sunset, photographed by Ben Cooper in 2005. Image source: flickr.com
We need to move on, as we have more places to visit, but there are just a few other things to mention. Firstly, Edward Frome was for a time a member of the local Council of Government, served on the hospital and cemetery boards and was a Justice of the Peace. And secondly …
North Terrace/Frome Road, Adelaide, photographed by brotherlywalks. (Do you think the police car is being beamed up to an alien space ship?) Image source: flickr.com
Frome Street, Adelaide, photographed by brotherlywalks. Image source: flickr.com
The Fromes came home in 1849, with Edward still only a Captain after all his important work and at the 1851 census all of them except St John, who was at boarding school in Twyford, were living in the Engineer's House, Gosport. One of his tasks on the South Coast was to blow up part of Seaford Cliff to form a breakwater, a job which took three months of planning and 16 tons of gunpowder: it was the biggest single explosion ever at the time. Possibly, though, he was not quite as good at engineering as surveying, since, although the explosion went well, the sea soon washed away the detached rocks. (And even now the local council is forever shifting the adjacent shingle with a fleet of diggers to protect the town.)
Later in 1851 Edward was appointed Collector of Customs in Trinidad and became a Major in the process. Selected further postings were to Mauritius (mid-1850s), Heligoland (1858, now a Lieutenant-Colonel), Gibraltar (Commanding Officer of the Royal Engineers there - appointment finished in 1862), then he was Director of Military Works and Inspector-General of Engineers, and finally Lieutenant-Governor of Guernsey from 1869-74. Retirement came along in 1877, which must have been a relief, given that he was 75, by which time he had set up home in Ewell. Sadly, his wife, Jane, had died in 1876, but three of his daughters, Emily, Jane and Eleanor, lived with him. Dora may have been there too, but in 1881 she was with an elderly aunt in Berkshire. St John had been in the Army since 1861 and we will come to him now.
By the time of the 2nd Afghan War St John Thomas Frome was a Captain in the 72nd Regiment (Duke of Albany's Highlanders), which shortly afterwards became the 1st Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders. He had seen a lot of action during this war, including the storming of Peiwar Kotal in 1878, the Battle of Charasiab in 1879, and in the late summer of 1880 he was part of a force under General (later Lord) Sir Frederick Roberts.
Having occupied Kabul, Roberts marched 10,000 men 300 miles to Kandahar, which was under siege by the Afghan leader Ayub Khan. Kandahar was relieved and the war then ended, but during the last battle St John Frome was killed in action at Baba Wali Kotal on 1 September 1880.
In 1887 Dora married civil engineer Frank George Wynne, who was the son of General George Wynne RE, a friend of Edward Frome's; she died in 1930, then living in Bagshot. Touchingly she left £5,000 to her long-time 'dear nurse and companion', plus £25 for each year of her devoted service since 1914.
Edward died at Ewell on 12 February 1890, having just turned 88, and his three unmarried daughters then moved away. Jane died whilst in Funchal, Madeira in 1895, followed by Emily in 1896. Eleanor ultimately ended up as an inmate of a private lunatic asylum at Hadlow, Kent and died in 1900. Edward was buried with his wife in Epsom Cemetery (Grave A11A); Emily and Eleanor were subsequently interred in the same grave.
As an aside, I was surprised that Edward never received a knighthood or some other high honour and a clue may be in a few lines published similarly in several newspapers in 1868: they were 'The public is ignorant of the reasons which have led to General Frome's appointment, the announcement of which was received with astonishment in military circles. Nothing can be said for the General's merits and qualifications for the offices, for the best of all reasons, namely, that they are entirely unknown.' Still, at least Australia valued him and put him in their Dictionary of National Biography, which is not the case for the British equivalent. He did, however, get a decent obituary in The Times.
*Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society
**Rothbury House, on Chiswick Mall, was the London home of the Smart family, whose main family seat was at Trewhitt, Northumberland. Mrs Frome's mother was a Smart, so I imagine that is how Emily Margaret Frome came to be living at Rothbury House when she died.
Note: During the time I have been writing for this website, I have wondered how several retired Generals came to be living in Ewell. We know that Sir John Stokes was a friend of Robert Barlow McCrea and that the latter came from a Guernsey family, so did he have links with Frome? He did. Frome's sister, Theodosia Maria, was married to George Dobrée of Guernsey, who was the first cousin of Charlotte Dobrée, mother of General McCrea. No coincidence then that Ewell had so many retired Generals on its books!