The South-East Devon market town of Honiton has long been famous for lace, pottery and glove making, and Honiton still has numerous shops dedicated to lace or pottery. More recently the town has become a centre for antiques and antiquarian books. There are around thirty establishments connected with this trade and regular auctions are held in the town. Honiton has an extensive selection of restaurants, cafés and a wide choice of accommodation from luxury hotels to self catering cottages. It is an ideal base for a visit to this part of Devon.
Honiton was one of the centres for the medieval cloth trade, but eventually the town became most famous as a centre for lace. Allhallow’s Museum of Lace and Antiquities is situated in the town’s oldest building and contains numerous items of local interest and history, including a comprehensive collection of the famous Honiton lace.
For hundreds of years, lace making was the main industry of the town. Women would sit outside their homes to weaving highly complicated and delicate pieces in the bright sunlight. Lace making was a labour intensive craft, as to make even the smallest piece required a high degree of skill and precision. Eventually, machine made lace products became a cheaper alternative causing a decline in the local industry.
In 1841, lace makers from the area were commissioned to supply the lace for Queen Victoria’s wedding dress. The Queen was so impressed by the quality of the work that she commissioned the christening robe of her eldest son, later King Edward VII. The delicate lace gown is still in use today.
Honiton was the centre of trading, but lace making itself was multi-centred. The lace makers were mostly women working from their cottages, far from any market. Honiton was a centre for dispatch to far away markets. There was no specific body to oversee the quality of work and design and consequently inferior quality lace began to emerge, leading to a downward slide. This was accentuated by competition from the strictly regulated Flemish lace makers of the time.
From the early 19th century there was a decline in the industry although the Royal family tried to support production of local lace through patronage. During the second half of the century, lace motifs were appliquéd onto machine-made net. This reduced the cost of labour and made the decorating of veils and so on a much more economical proposition. However the industry never returned to its previous high point.
During the 18th century, fires destroyed many of the older buildings in Honiton. Consequently much of what we see today was built at that time. The town is attractive and prosperous with an excellent shopping centre, holding twice-weekly street markets.
The agricultural land around Honiton has been inhabited since Neolithic times as illustrated by the nearby massive hill fort of Hembury Castle. The fort was occupied and refortified during the Iron Age. The derivation name, Honiton, is Anglo Saxon and probably derives from Huna’s ton or the settlement of somebody called Huna.
When Daniel Defoe visited the town in the early 18th century, he described it as large and beautiful. A few buildings survived the fire in the 18th century, including 17th century Marwood House, built by John Marwood, son of the physician to Elizabeth I, and the previously mentioned Allhallows Museum. The latter building, in the High Street, was once a 13th century chapel and later became a schoolroom. It is the oldest building in the town.
The Parish Church of St Michael’s, Honiton is built on a small hill overlooking the town. It was rebuilt following a fire in 1911. St Paul’s Church, in the centre of the town was built in the mid 19th century by Charles Fowler, the architect, who was responsible for old Covent Garden Market in London.
Honiton’s main industry today is agriculture. The rich farmland is watered by the River Otter. Steep sided hills rise between the town and the sea and narrow lanes wind their way from Honiton through the local countryside. There are many attractive villages in the area.
Honiton Festival is held annually in May and features music by local artists and internationally known names. Art exhibitions are featured in many shops and galleries along the high street. Another annual event is the Honiton Agricultural Show - one of the largest and best supported shows in the country with both farming and trade exhibitions. Yet another local event is the Honiton and District Carnival. This event is held over a two week period, culminating in the Grand Evening Carnival Procession.
Honiton is one of the traditional gateways into Devon, providing an excellent base for people wishing to explore the county. It is within easy reach of Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks, and close to Exeter, the ancient capital of Devon. Much of the countryside surrounding Honiton contains areas designated as of outstanding natural beauty.