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Honiton (St. Michael)

HONITON (St. Michael), a borough, market-town, and parish, and the head of a union, in the hundred of Axminster, Honiton and S. divisions of Devon, 16 miles (E. N. E.) from Exeter, and 156 (W. S. W.) from London; containing 3895 inhabitants. This place is situated on rising ground, in a picturesque and fertile vale, on the south side of the river Otter, and on the line of the great western road from London to Plymouth. It possesses claims to high antiquity. According to some, it originated from a Roman settlement at Hembury Fort, contiguous to the present town, where, and at Dumbdon, about two miles to the north-east, are traces of extensive intrenched camps, supposed to have been the Moridunum of Antoninus. In the reign of Edward VI., Lord Gray quartered his forces at this place, the evening before he defeated the Cornish rebels at Fenny Bridge. During the civil war, Charles I., who passed and repassed through the town, slept at a house still standing, which had been given by Queen Elizabeth to Dr. Marwood, her physician, for recovering her favourite, the Earl of Essex, from a dangerous illness; it was subsequently visited by the parliamentary general, Fairfax, after his successful campaign in the west of England, in 1645. The town repeatedly suffered from fire; especially in 1747 and 1765, on which latter occasion 115 houses were destroyed, together with a part of the chapel, the damage being estimated at nearly £11,000.

It consists chiefly of one very wide street, running nearly from east to west, about a mile in length, lighted with gas, paved, and plentifully supplied with water; the street has a gentle declivity towards the west, and in the central part are some well-built brick houses and shops, the principal inns, and the public room where the business of the borough is transacted. This part of the town, with the exception of a few houses, is of modern erection, the buildings having been raised subsequently to the last great fire, and with so much attention to uniformity as to render Honiton one of the neatest towns in the county. Races are occasionally held on the hill of St. Cyrus, in the vicinity. The manufacture of serge was established at an early period; and the place was also noted for the large quantity of valuable lace made, some kinds of which were sold for more than five guineas a yard, being woven of thread imported from the Netherlands, and rivalling in fineness and beauty the genuine Brussels lace. The serge trade has long since declined; but lace is still made, particularly sprigs for the decoration of the patent net. Shoes and coarse earthenware are likewise manufactured, though not extensively. Honiton is famous as a mart for butter and cheese, a large quantity of which is sent weekly to the metropolis. About six miles to the north are the Black Down hills, in which is found a silicious stone intermixed with sea-shells, from which whetstones are formed for sharpening scythes. The markets, held by prescription, are on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, the last being the principal. A fair for sheep, oxen, and horses, takes place on the Wednesday and Thursday after the 19th of July; and there are great markets on the second Saturday in April, and the Saturday before October 18th.

The municipal affairs are under the direction of a portreeve, bailiff, and two ale-tasters, who, with three constables, two tythingmen, and other officers, are appointed at the court-leet of the manor, on Michaelmasday. Under an ancient charter granted to the lord of the manor, the portreeve has authority to hold monthly courts, and to make by-laws for the government of the borough; but at present he does not exercise it, the jurisdiction being vested in the county justices, who hold petty-sessions here every month. The powers of the county debt-court of Honiton, established in 1847, extend over the registration-district of Honiton. The town sent members to parliament in the reigns of Edward I. and II., after which the elective franchise was suspended till the 16th of Charles I., since which time it has been regularly exercised; the borough, for parliamentary purposes, comprises 2800 acres, and the portreeve is returning officer.

The living is a rectory, valued in the king's books at £40. 4. 2.; net income, £866; patron, the Earl of Devon. The old church, which stands on an eminence about half a mile from the town, is a fine edifice with aisles and a transept, in the later English style, having been built, or enlarged, about 1484, by Courtenay, Bishop of Exeter, who erected the beautiful screen, ornamented with carving and gilding, which separates the nave from the chancel: among several ancient monuments is one to the memory of Dr. Thomas Marwood, who died in 1617, at the age of 105. The new parochial church was consecrated in April, 1839, and contains 1300 sittings, whereof 720 are free; it is in the Norman style, with a tower, and occupies the site of All-hallows chapel, originally a chantry-house, and for the reparation of which, and other charitable purposes, Sir John Kirkham and the Rev. Elizeus Harding conveyed to certain trustees property at Honiton and Yarcombe, valued by the Commissioners of Charities at £174 per annum. Here are places of worship for Wesleyans and Unitarians. A free grammar school, founded at a very early period, was endowed with a small amount by the Rev. John Fley, in 1614; a national school was endowed with £300 by the Rev. James How, in 1816, and a diocesan commercial school has been established. St. Margaret's hospital, about half a mile westward from the town, was founded in 1589, by Thomas Chard, the last abbot of Ford, for four lepers: it now consists of houses for a governor and eight poor persons, who have small stipends: and connected with it is a chapel, in which the governor reads prayers twice a week. The union of Honiton comprises 28 parishes or places, and contains a population of 23,890. A battery was erected on St. Cyrus' Hill by the late General Simcoe. Captain Westcott, who fell in the battle of the Nile, and to whom a public monument was raised in St. Paul's Cathedral, was born here; and Ozias Humphry, R.A., an eminent painter, was also a native of the town.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.