The History of Honiton
The South-East Devon market town of Honiton grew up along the line of the old Roman road, the Fosse Way, that links Exeter to Lincoln . Archeological evidence suggests that the countryside around present-day Honiton has been inhabited since Neolithic times. Standing near the town is the massive hill fort of Hembury Castle. The hill fort was occupied and refortified during the Iron Age . Honiton is mentioned in the Norman Domesday Book of 1086 as Honetone, meaning a farm belonging to Huna. Honiton grew into a thriving town and became famous for lace, pottery and glove making. More recently the town has become well known for antiques and antiquarian books.
Honiton developed into one of the country’s main centres for the medieval cloth trade. Lace making was originally introduced to the town by Flemish immigrant lace makers during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I . This trade developed and the town started to specialise in lace, for which it became widely renowned. Although Honiton was considered the centre of lace trading, the actual lace making itself was multi-centred. The lace makers were usually women who worked from their cottages, often far from any market. Honiton acted as a hub, receiving the finished lace and dispatching it to far away markets. In 1841, lace makers from the area were commissioned to supply the lace for Queen Victoria ’s wedding dress. The monarch appreciated the quality of the work so much that she subsequently commissioned the christening robe of her eldest son, later King Edward VII . The same Honiton-made delicate lace gown is still in use today. The lace trade was carried out in the town for hundreds of years. The town’s women would sit outside their homes weaving the highly complicated and delicate pieces in daylight. It was a very labour intensive craft requiring skill and precision. This made the lace expensive and when machine-made lace products arrived they were much cheaper and started the decline of the local industry.
During the 18th century a serious fire ravaged the town, and many of the original buildings in Honiton were destroyed. Visitors to Honiton today are mainly faced with Georgian and Victorian buildings constructed after the fire. Daniel Defoe visited Honiton early in the 18th century when he described it as “large and beautiful”. The handful of buildings that survived the fire include the 17th century Marwood House, originally built by John Marwood who was the son of the physician to Elizabeth I. St Paul's Church is a mid 19th century structure that was designed by Charles Fowler, the architect responsible for London’s famous Covent Garden’s Market. The church is situated in the centre of the town and forced the demolition of half of the adjacent Allhallows Chapel when it was constructed. The 13th century chapel next to the church is now Allhallows Museum . It stands in the High Street and has previously been used as a schoolroom, as well as a place of worship. It is considered to be the oldest surviving building in the town. St Michael’s Parish Church, which enjoys a prominent on a small hill above the town, was rebuilt in 1911 after a fire.
Honiton’s lace industry is long gone and the area’s main industry today is agriculture. Rich farmland surrounding the town is fed by the waters of the River Otter producing a very fertile land well suited to farming. Tourism is now an important part of the town’s economy, as it is to much of the county of Devon. The market town of Honiton and it’s famous antiquarian shops is now a popular visitor destination.
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