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How Axminster has been shaped by water and by fires (History Section)

Fri. 11 November 2022 at 10:45 am

£5 – £7.50

A talk by David Knapman “How Axminster has been shaped by water and by fires”.


  • 10.45a.m. tea/coffee
  • 11.20a.m. David Knapman’s talk
  • After lunch (members to make their own arrangements) from 1.30p.m. the Axminster Heritage Centre will be open for members to visit.
  • 2p.m. Formal guidance to signpost main displays, audios etc focusing on (for example) Newenham Abbey, two eras of carpet making and other industries. Q&A as appropriate, and further guidance on request.
  • 3.30p.m. depart.

The Heritage Centre is fully accessible.

Cost: £5 DA members, £7.50 non-members.

Booking is essential. Please book before 1 November by emailing the organiser (as below) including “DA History visit” in the subject line.

Report on the talk

The History Section enjoyed a day at Axminster Heritage Centre on Armistice Day. In the morning after a two minutes’ silence, David Knapman gave an interesting talk entitled “How Axminster has been shaped by water and fires” and in the afternoon he gave a guided tour of the Heritage Centre.

David began by outlining the geology and landscape of Axminster which has determined the development of the town. The river Axe runs to the west of the town and the streams to the north and south with their flood plains kept settlement severely restricted until mechanical drainage methods were available. There is evidence of human habitation from before the Roman invasion and the Romans built a fort in the area. The Anglo-Saxons built the first Minster here on the site of the current Parish Church. All were influenced by their place in the landscape and formed the “water” part of David’s talk.

The “fires” described by David began with the English Civil War. Although there were no battles around Axminster, Parliamentarians from nearby burned the whole town. The townspeople either fled or gathered in the church which was the only building left standing. All the wooden houses were burned, Axminster being the only town in the Civil War to be completely destroyed. The first half of the nineteenth century was marred by many fires, indicating the closeness of the wooden houses of the population. In 1836 there were four serious fires, one being arson when an apprentice baker set fire to his master’s property.

As the population grew, drinking water and drainage became a problem. Open sewers were causing illness everywhere which culminated in the Public Health Act 1848. In 1853 a public enquiry was held in Axminster to assess the progress of the Act, this included looking into sewerage, drainage and the supply of water. However because of opposition from local ratepayers who would have to foot the bill, nothing was done. A second inspection was held in 1874 but it was not until 1876 after the postmaster died of typhoid that any action to improve the situation occurred.

During the 1950s Axminster rapidly expanded. New houses were built, roads widened and it became the vibrant town that it now is.

In the afternoon David gave a guided tour of the Heritage Centre which is housed in Thomas Whitty’s old carpet factory – a beautiful building in itself. The Centre displays artefacts from prehistoric to modern times, including a 250 year old Axminster carpet from a local mansion; this covers a whole wall of one room in the Centre. There is also a small training loom and a large mechanical loom displaying the carpet history of the town but there are many other exhibits covering all aspects of the history of Axminster.

Chris Reader
November 2022


Fri. 11 November 2022
10:45 am
£5 – £7.50
Event Categories:


History Section (Chris Reader)
07769 335 506 (leave a message)


Axminster Heritage Centre
Thomas Whitty House, Silver Street
Axminster, Devon EX13 5AH