Above: Axminster Heritage Centre, Thomas Whitty House on Silver Street. Copyright: Axminster Heritage Centre
Although recognised globally as the birthplace of the world-famous carpets, Axminster in Devon is a town with a rich and varied history and a visit to its popular Heritage Centre will confirm it is most definitely, ‘more than just carpets.’
Following the successful 250th anniversary celebration of the first Thomas Whitty Carpet in 2005 Axminster Heritage created plans for a heritage centre. Bringing their enthusiasm for the story of Axminster Carpets and the existing museum collection they were able to purchase the former Whitty family carpet factory building in Silver Street in 2012. Various grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund (now the National Lottery Heritage Fund), Making it Local and East Devon District Council allowed the building to be developed to include office space for rental, a meeting room to hold up to 50 people and, after a temporary museum in 2016, to reopen in April 2019 with a fully refurbished museum.
Although the museum states itself within its gallery that, ‘Axminster Is Not just Carpets!’ It nevertheless still celebrates the industry that was, and still is important to the town and its residents. As such, as you walk through the museum you will come across numerous references, text panels and artefacts relating to the founder of Axminster Carpets, Thomas Whitty, his grandson, Samuel Ramson Whitty and the man who in May 1937 began manufacturing the famous carpet brand once again after over a 100-year gap, Harry Dutfield.
The museum is a wonderful mix of old and new and as you stand outside the building and admire the 18th Century Georgian architecture it is easy to imagine the figures of its past looking down from one of its upstairs windows. Once inside, rows of cobblestones lead you into the main entrance and the front desk area which is spacious and airy with plenty of natural light. Here you are greeted by friendly and knowledgeable volunteers who are happy to answer any questions visitors might have.
The museum’s story of Axminster follows a chronological timeline and so we begin our tour with an introduction to the geology of the town and its surrounding area here in East Devon. In this part of the world no exhibit would be complete without mention of the Axminster born English geologist and palaeontologist, William Buckland (1784 – 1856) who famously wrote the first full account of a dinosaur fossil he named Megalosaurus. Also featured in this section of the gallery is the rather disgusting sounding Roman delicacy, ‘mice on toast’ or ‘toasted mice’ which Buckland is said to have partaken of for breakfast. The image of three adorable mice curled up on a steaming slice of toast has however proved extremely popular with the museum’s younger visitors and is available to take away as one of a choice of four stickers children can choose from when they complete the Centre’s Children’s Trail Booklet.
On the opposite side of the geology display is a display on the archaeology of the area beginning with the Stone Age including the ‘Broom Axes’ which were found in a gravel pit beside the River Axe, two miles from Axminster in the 19th Century. In total over 1,800 axes have been found with some dating back to 350,000 years ago. As we follow the path of time through the Bronze and Iron Age, past the Roman invasion of 43AD, Romano-Britons and Saxon periods and the Norman invasion we reach another famous person connected to Axminster – this time, the historian James Davidson (1793 – 1864) who although London-born, settled in Axminster in 1820.
Further along we find panels on the Axminster Market Charter and the significance of the charter as well as a wonderful collection of artefacts and information on the foundation of Newenham Abbey. The Abbey, which was twice the size of the town’s Minster Church, was founded in 1246 by brothers Reginald and William de Mohun and inhabited by monks from Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire. Newenham Abbey remained occupied until 1539 when it suffered the same fate as many other abbeys and religious houses during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII.
Moving on we reach the area of the museum dedicated to water with an exhibit entitled, ‘Fish, Eels and Otters’ which features a photograph of local gamekeeper, Charles Honeybun proudly holding a magnificent salmon which is nearly as big as he is! The panel also mentions another Axminster-born gentleman – this time, author and founder of the newspaper, Pulman’s Weekly News, George Pulman. Next to the panel in a freestanding glass display case is a copy of the 4th edition of his well-known book, ‘The Book of the Axe’ on the left-hand side of the case and the author’s original manuscript copy on the right.
On the far-left hand side of the exhibition gallery is where you will find a panel on Weycroft Mill in the 20th Century with two models – one small one showing the setting of the mill and one large scale replica. The latter is interactive, and children have great fun watching as the ‘mill’ come to life with the press of a button. Opposite the mill model is a panel dedicated to, ‘Notable Events, From the Civil War to the Victorian Era,’ celebrating such events as the visit of the soon-to-be second president of the United States, John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams who came to Axminster in 1787 to visit Abigail’s cousin.
Continuing onwards, you reach the area of the museum devoted to the mixed crop and livestock farming popular within this particular region of East Devon. Here you will find a selection of traditional farming implements adorning the natural stone walls and display cabinets housing artefacts relating to dairy farming such as butter pads, churns and floating thermometers that measured the temperature of the milk. Above this display case sits one of the Centre’s most recent, and personal, acquisitions – a cabinet containing a small selection of pressed (as opposed to cast) horse brasses donated to the museum by its long-standing supporter and volunteer, the late Douglas Hull.
As you turn the corner you come across the first of the Centre’s two carpet looms – this one, the smaller of the two, is Georgian and was designed for making hand-knotted carpets. Opposite the loom is a fascinating panel on, ‘Notable Events From The Victorian Era Onwards’ which includes facts on Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, the re-establishment of Axminster Carpets by Harry Dutfield in 1937 and the Millwey Rise housing development in the 1950s on the site of the former American military hospital and army base just off the Chard Road. As well as being the site of the second carpet factory, the building inhabited by the Heritage Centre today was also a hospital and the panel also gives details about how in 1886, Emily Conybeare (1852 – 1920) obtained the lease to the building and converted it into a hospital and her subsequent support of it over the years.
The museum makes good use of the buildings original stonework and as you walk under a stone archway you are greeted by the second, and much larger, of the two looms. This one is a 1930s Crabtree Gripper loom, made in Bradford and used by Axminster Carpets, which, before Covid-19, visitors could witness in action for an hour every Thursday morning at 11am. Behind the loom, secured on the wall, is an original Thomas Whitty Axminster carpet made in the 1770s for the dining room at Rockbeare Manor, near Exeter. An interactive screen in front of the loom and carpet (now available via QR codes and YouTube) details all the surviving Whitty Axminster carpets and the work undertaken conserving and mounting the Rockbeare carpet at the Heritage Centre in 2019. On the opposite side are information panels and displays cases featuring artefacts relating to the many other industries that have existed, and continue to exist, within Axmimster and the surrounding area. The most notable of these are the two brush factories – Bidwells and Coates who in their heyday were known to produce up to three thousand toothbrushes daily - all by hand!
As you turn the corner from the main gallery you reach the entrance to the outdoor area containing the Dye House Garden and the Dye House. The garden is lovingly tended and is a haven of tranquillity featuring many of the plants used by Whitty for dyeing the carpets with the Dye House containing panels and artefacts that tell the story of its numerous incarnations as a dye house, a washroom for the hospital and as an armoury during the Second World War when the museum building was used by the Home Guard. Stepping back inside, directly in front of you is an area used as a temporary exhibition space which changes regularly to engage the interest of the local community and is sometimes used by members of the local community to create exhibitions themselves.
As we come to the end of our tour we arrive once more at the front desk where there is a small shop selling locally produced crafts, traditional children’s toys and items made from recycled bobbins along with a selection of books, cards, maps and other novelties.
Axminster Heritage Centre certainly is a fascinating place to visit and does an excellent job of faithfully telling the story of Axminster. If you have never been before I highly recommend you come along and spend an hour or two wandering its gallery and discover for yourself why Axminster is so much ‘more than just carpets.’
Axminster Heritage Centre is currently open on Tuesdays and Thursdays 10am – 4pm and Saturday 10am – 1pm. Entry costs £3 for adults, kids go free with the last Saturday of each month free to local EX13 residents.
The museum is currently operating a one-way system that adheres to 2m social distancing. All dressing up points and interactives have been taken down and where possible replaced with QR codes that link up to the Axminster Heritage Centre’s YouTube channel.
For the latest information and to plan your visit check out their website, www.axminsterheritage.org or telephone 01297 639884 during opening hours.
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Rebecca Green is a freelance writer and photographer originally from Kent, who now lives in the south west of England and works as a consultant in the heritage sector specialising in marketing, oral history and environmental sustainability. Rebecca is particularly interested in the maritime history and archaeology of the UK and Caribbean during the Colonial Era.