This section focuses on ‘the rural Axminster and local farming’. Links are given, both within the overview below and in the column on the right, to more detailed information on the subject.
Farming has been central to Axminster for centuries, helping to define the character of the town and form the basis of its economy. The ‘agricultural revolution’ had laid the foundations for modern farming by 1800 but the real revolution did not happen until later in the 19th century when growing industrialisation and widespread emigration of farm labourers forced greater agricultural productivity. This brought growing levels of mechanisation, attention to soil fertility, scientific animal breeding and improved animal nutrition. By the late 19th and early 20th century family farms and owner-occupation started to become more widespread. Today farming is highly technical and to remain profitable farmers either have to scale-up or diversify into other businesses such as cheese, ice cream making or tourism.
Research has indicated some 90 farms in the immediate neighbourhood, some of which still exist. Defining exactly what is a farm is open to discussion but what is certain is that most of the farms around Axminster have (or had) dairying as a core part of their business.
Dairy farming is focused on producing milk. The East Devon climate has long produced grazing conditions favourable to milk production from dairy herds. Back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries butter was the main product of the dairies, with most of it sent to London. One visitor to Axminster in the 1780s was reported as being unable to obtain any butter, because all the larger dairies were under contract to London dealers.
Since the 13th century, when it was first granted the right to hold markets, Axminster has sold animals. Livestock auctions were held in the town from the 19th century until the foot and mouth outbreak of the early 21st century forced closure.
By the time that Thomas Whitty started to make carpets in Axminster in 1755, Devon had been a leading centre for sheep farming, wool production and cloth making, for over 200 years based on a tradition going back at least 400 years before that. Sheep and their wool provided the foundation for the wealth which became increasingly widely spread throughout England in the 15th and 16th centuries. Home to a number of different breeds of sheep Devon’s wool and cloth production prior to the 1830s was considered somewhat inferior but the invention of the water-powered fulling (or tucking) mill helped change the county’s fortunes. Devon produced a range of types of cloth most of which were rather coarse in texture.
Before the 18th / 19th centuries, Devon’s textile production was characterised by widespread small-scale craft spinning and weaving by monks and home-workers. This was unlike the large-scale capital-intensive industry that developed primarily in Yorkshire in the 19th century. There was a period of 50 years or more when the two systems operated in parallel, but from the late 18th century Devon’s textile industry was collapsing. In Axminster the weaving of hand-knotted carpets provided some relief from this decline but it was a craft process rather than an industrial one. When the carpet factory closed in 1835 that was the end of commercial weaving in Axminster for around 100 years.
Further Information and Research
If you are interested in finding out more about the history of Axminster, a list of more comprehensive documents on this site is given on the right. If you are interested in doing your own research, please see our selections of the best books about Axminster and its surrounds. We also offer help with locating and interpreting old maps and relevant online resources.
Our own collections include objects, documents, images and photographs that have direct links to Axminster and 10 other surrounding parishes. We have a particular interest in the history of carpet making in the town, as well as the other local industries and businesses, people, public services, civic bodies, clubs and societies which have shaped the present character of the area.