Tracing The History Of Dorset’s Mad Tom Road Back To 11th Century England

Sep 6, 2019

Near Manchester, in East Dorset, there are a road, brook and notch all bearing the same name: "Mad Tom." Where did this name come from?

That's what John in Arlington asked Brave Little State, VPR's people-powered journalism project.

Editor’s note: Brave Little State is made for the ear. As always, we recommend listening if you can! You can hear the “Mad Tom Road” segment beginning at 4:05.

John's question is one of a bunch that Brave Little State received after an episode last summer, when we tried to decipher the origins of perplexing road names. In an attempt to establish a new tradition, we’re taking another road trip of inquiry to bring you more answers.

You can explore along with us on our various journeys – from Star Pudding Farm Road in Marshfield, to Hi-Lo Biddy Road in Putney, to Sawnee Bean Road in Thetford Center – or you can learn from Paul Gillies, our favorite road history expert and the author of Uncommon Law, Ancient Roads, and Other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History.

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Brave Little State host Angela Evancie takes on John's query about Mad Tom Road in Dorset.

Where did "Mad Tom" come from? It's a question commonly asked at Mad Tom Orchard, a few miles out of town. Think pick-your-own apples, with a view.

Sylvia and Tom Smith live at Mad Tom Orchard and run the business together. That's right: Tom Smith, of Mad Tom Orchard, on Mad Tom Road.

“Because my name is Tom,” he says, “we do get a lot of questions in terms of, ‘Did they name the road after you?’ and this type of thing.”

Sylvia and Tom Smith own and operate Mad Tom Orchard in East Dorset. Tom is often asked if Mad Tom Road was named after him. It was not.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

It’s a popular theory among the kindergarteners from Northshire Day School — they come to pick apples in the fall.

“They’ll often come in and say, ‘Are you Mad Tom?’” Sylvia says. “And he’ll say, ‘Yes, but I’m not mad today!’”

As charming as it is, this is not the origin of the name Mad Tom Road. The orchard was established in 1940, long before Tom and Sylvia Smith took over. And the road itself was named long before that. 

Road name expert Paul Gillies points to “Madam [Esther] Swift,” the “expert of all roads.” In her book, Vermont Place Names: Footprints Of History, Swift writes that "Mad Tom" derives its name from the “tumbling rush it makes as it comes down out of the mountains.”

In other words, Mad Tom Road is named for Mad Tom Brook — so called, evidently, because of its mad, unpredictable waters. (We’ll get to the "Tom" part in a bit). According to Jon Mathewson, the curator at the Dorset Historical Society, the name first appears on the map in 1856. 

Mad Tom Brook appears in the upper right corner of this 1856 map of East Dorset.
Credit Rice & Harwood Map of Bennington County, Vermont / Dorset Historical Society

“I did find an interesting article from the Manchester Journal of October 3, 1912," Gillies says, "that said there is a hope that ‘the old notch road,’ which was Mad Tom Road, ‘may be given up. ... [E]very flood that rushes down that narrow canyon washes out both road and bridges, about three miles of it. ... Several thousand dollars was expended for bridges and road there this summer only to be destroyed in the recent flood. ... [T]his steep, narrow, hard and dangerous road can be abandoned with little inconvenience to the public.'”

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So has that dire prediction — that this road’s going to keep flooding over and over — come to pass?

Rob Gaiotti is Dorset’s town manager. It’s a rainy morning and he’s driving me along Mad Tom Road in his Toyota Tacoma.

“So the storm we had in April, the water was on both sides of this road,” he says. “It was overtopped, and the whole road really from here back to where it crosses was underwater.”

The Mad Tom Brook, which has a habit of washing out Mad Tom Road.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

The part that flooded last April actually runs along a second waterway: the headwaters of the Otter Creek.

Down a ways, Gaiotti shows me where the Mad Tom Brook comes out of Mad Tom Notch and cuts close to the road.

“We’re gonna go over a little bridge here, the Mad Tom goes right underneath it,” he tells me, pointing out a large debris field where the brook takes a hard right.

In addition to the April flood, Gaiotti says there was also damage to this road during Tropical Storm Irene, in 2011, when the Mad Tom caused some wash-outs on Mad Tom.

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“And both of those events kind of ended up being FEMA disaster storms,” he says.

So this would explain the “Mad.” But what about the “Tom”?

To answer that question, I hop on Skype and talk to Dr. Simon Cross, a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at Nottingham Trent University in the U.K. 

"There is no individual Mad Tom," says Cross. "Mad Tom really is a cultural figure."

And this is where the story gets super interesting. Because "Mad Tom" isn’t just a random phrase — it originated centuries ago, in England.

The cultural figure Mad Tom of Bedlam originally referred to someone who had spent time in England's Bethlem Hospital. Mad Tom took the form of a wandering beggar, and appeared Shakespeare's King Lear, and and ballads such as this one.
Credit British Library, Courtesy

Cross says the full phrase is “Mad Tom of Bedlam”— and it all started in a place that came to be known as the Royal Bethlem Hospital.

"It began life in and around the 11th century, in England," Cross explains. "And for hundreds of years, Bethlem was the only public institution housing the insane. It was a very small institution based in London, but at the same time it loomed large in the popular imagination. And in that sense, 'Bethlem' becomes corrupted in popular language as 'Bedlam.'"

Bedlam — as in, the word we all use for a chaotic situation. That's where that comes from.

"And Tom, or the figure of Mad Tom, emerges sometime around the 15th or early 16th century as somebody who has spent time in Bedlam-slash-Bethlem," Cross says.

This stereotype takes hold in early modern England, and it sticks. It appears, for instance, in Shakespeare’s "King Lear." There also were poems and ballads written about Mad Tom — some are still sung today.

Simon Cross has written a fascinating article about all this called Bedlam in Mind: Seeing and Reading Historical Images of Madness. But he was surprised to hear that Mad Tom had made it all the way to Vermont.

“It’s gotta be a rarity,” he says. “It seems to me that you might be the only place in the world that has a Mad Tom Road or a Mad Tom River!”

And of course there’s our more well-known Mad River Valley, too. “Mad” is obviously an antiquated term when we talk about mental health today, but Simon Cross says it’s a quality to be celebrated.

“You get the sense with your ‘mad’ references in Vermont that there’s something about the landscape," he says. "There’s something about the interior of the region that lends itself to the idea that it is wild and unpredictable and fascinating and idiosyncratic, peculiar — but enjoyable even."

It seems to me that that description of the Vermont landscape is spot-on.

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Support for Brave Little State comes from the VPR Innovation Fund. Additional credits for this story here.