New book on the history of Axminster covering three centuries

  Posted: 13.06.20 at 15:44 by Philip Evans

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Just as the country went into lockdown a new and extensive history of Axminster was about to be published.

Written by David Knapman and published by Axminster Heritage Centre, ‘Unsteady Progress, a History of Axminster from 1701 to 2000’ traces the town’s story over three centuries, starting at the point when accessible records become both regular and reasonably frequent.

The book is organised into 10 chapters, each one covering a period of 30 years. Each chapter then deals with several distinct themes which were particularly pertinent to that era.

“One of my main objectives,” says David Knapman, “has been to document my sources, so that anyone who is interested can dig more deeply for themselves. Also, by recording the ‘miscellaneous events’ as well as the broader themes, I have tried to create a reliable work of reference as well as a series of narrative reports.”

Among the big themes which run through the book are the practicalities of transport as they specifically affected Axminster; the break-up of the landed estates; changes to farming in the lower Axe and Yarty valleys; public health, and in particular the town’s water supply; the comings and goings of different industries and their importance to the town; Axminster’s tendency to suffer from serious fires, and the subsequent re-building process; and how decisions were actually made locally.

In between these recurring themes there are stories of the local effects of the Napoleonic wars and the relentless rise of one particular family at that time; and the impacts on the town of the world wars of the 20th century; among many others.

The author also provides analyses of what the national censuses tell us, from the first one in 1801 to the 2001 census.

Who would have thought that as early as 1851, before the arrival of the railway, over half of the town’s population had been born outside the parish, and over half of the people who had by then been born in Axminster had moved elsewhere? This contrasts strongly with the popular image of small Devon towns, as places where little changed for decades on end.

Copies will be on sale from Axminster Heritage Centre when it re-opens. If you would like to reserve a copy, or to enquire about whether a delivery during lock-down is feasible, please email [email protected]

David Knapman was born and brought up in Middle Westwater, a mile so outside Axminster, on the dairy farm which his grandfather had bought in 1934.

He went to Reading University to study agriculture and agricultural economics. There he met and married his wife.

After graduating, Mr Knapman worked in agricultural and environmental industries, latterly as a consultant on a wide range of environmental topics.

Soon after retirement in 2014, he and his wife moved to Axminster since when he has taken am active interest in the town and its history, including acting as a volunteer at the Axminster Heritage Centre.

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