Unsteady Progress – A History of Axminster from 1701 to 2000

Just as Covid-19 was laying waste to everyone’s plans for 2020, we received a copy of a hefty new local history, written by David Knapman, one of the volunteers at Axminster Heritage Centre. Now that life and business are starting to return to normal, Fergus Byrne caught up with David to find out more.

What prompted you to write your book?
As many Marshwood readers will know, last Easter Axminster Heritage Centre re-opened after a complete re-furbishment. I had been involved in providing our professional advisors with the raw materials they needed to tell the story of Axminster, from its earliest origins to the present day. Not surprisingly, many choices had to be made, and even key stories had to be boiled down to their very essence. Priority also had to be given to events and themes which could best be illustrated by artefacts, images and oral history.
I was conscious of thin patches in the story, and gaps in our knowledge. The history of Newenham Abbey prior to its dissolution by Henry VIII had been written by James Davidson, as had the comprehensive destruction of Axminster in 1644, during the Civil War. But no-one had documented in any systematic way how Axminster had then re-built itself, or what else was happening in the town as its fame was spread by Thomas Whitty’s carpets, from the middle of the 18th century.

When did you start your researches?
I had previously researched and written up several topics, including local farming, the challenges and politics of the town’s water supply, local industries other than carpet making, and the step-by-step 20th century expansion of the town’s footprint.
A few people told me that I ought to put everything I knew about the town into a book, and as the summer went on I started to think “what if …”. Once I had reached that point it was probably too late to turn back, though I wish that someone could have told me then just how much free time I would have in the first half of 2020.
So, when I started planning seriously, I already had some of the necessary building blocks, and I was also aware of the links between apparently separate themes. For example, as well as bringing brush making to Axminster at a time when new employment was desperately needed, James Coate supported many local institutions, and also harried the parish and district councils to improve the water supply, and in doing so laid bare the inadequacies of the local political arrangements. Knowing all of those facts affects how you respond to each one individually.

How did you decide on the very precise period, from 1701 to 2000?
From family history research which I have carried out in Devon over many years, I was aware of the growing range of county-wide digitised records from the 18th century. Whereas the rich and powerful can often be traced back to the 16th and occasionally the 15th century, it isn’t until the 18th century that most records concerning ‘people like us’ become more than simple lists of names and (occasionally) addresses. I was also very familiar with the British Newspaper Archive, which is a key source from the middle of the 18th century onwards, and one to which no earlier generation of researchers has had such ready access.
I wanted to cover a defined period, and to get as close to the present time as is reasonably possible without treading on too many very clearly living toes. I also saw the real benefit (reflecting my interest in family history) of telling a generation-by-generation story, rather than producing a series of topic-by-topic chapters. This is particularly important in a small town like Axminster, because at any one time, the same people pop up in all sorts of different contexts.
So, having settled on 30 years as a good proxy for a generation, it seemed sensible to go for a coverage of 300 years and 10 chapters. In reality, Chapter 1 really sets the scene for Chapter 2, and draws on some earlier references to explain how things came to be the way that they were in 1701.

What were the stories that most surprised you?
I was intrigued by the sudden rise of one local family, who may well have owed their large fortune to a lucky find of treasure at Newenham.
I was surprised to find how much the imposition of a national structure of local government disadvantaged Axminster, particularly in the Victorian era. The town and its needs were continually thwarted by a much larger rural hinterland whose voters declined to pay for things they saw as of little benefit to themselves.
I knew that the 1824 sale of the Manor of Axminster got bogged down in the law courts for decades, but none of the earlier histories reveal that this was mainly because the buyer was a serial embezzler.
I had no idea that the Workhouse was almost overwhelmed by the flood of refugees from the Irish potato famine.
I had not appreciated just how often the town had burned, sometimes losing up to 30 dwellings at a time. Two of the most spectacular fires even required appliances to be sent by special trains from Exeter.
The infrastructure that was not built (canals, railroads and railway lines) was as influential as what was (roads and the railway), and when.
I had not expected the depth of rancour between some of the clergymen and their parishioners, or the fact that two Victorian rectors of Axminster went bankrupt three times between them. Also, the church’s new organ remained locked for well over a year while a legal dispute was played out between the churchwardens and the organist (George Pulman, the founder of Pulman’s Weekly).
Even though I was brought up just outside Axminster at the time, I had forgotten how close traffic came to throttling the town in the 1970s and 80s. What seemed ‘just the way it was’ at the time was actually an extreme case when viewed from a wider perspective.

Finally, how does Axminster compare with its neighbours?
Honiton, Chard and Bridport were all poorer, but bigger than Axminster by 1801, but they all grew more rapidly. I believe that a significant factor driving their relative performance comes from the topography and lay-out of the towns. Honiton, Chard and Bridport are all less constrained by hills and flooding than Axminster, and whereas Axminster always had narrow streets and tight bends throughout the town centre, the other three all have long, straight, wide main streets, not to mention systems of governance which focussed on the towns much more than their hinterland. As in most local history, context is all!