England’s history in Honiton High Street
PUBLISHED: 07:00 10 September 2017 | UPDATED: 09:21 12 September 2017
Tony Simpson explores the hidden history of Honiton’s famous High Street by looking up at its past.
Honiton High Street has 15 blue plaques, but these provide only a glimpse into our town’s rich history.
Not only is it one of the South West’s longest avenues – almost a mile long – it is also one of its most historical, dating back to medieval markets and fairs. Near its centre is the famous lace and local museum but if you know where to look, the entire high street can seem like one long, living museum.
“Walked with Mrs Lott to a lace shop,” wrote Mrs Parry Price, of Chester, visiting Honiton in 1805. ‘After, we took a walk to the end of the town of Honiton, which consists of one broad handsome street, flagged on each side.”
Mrs Price noted very few shops but ‘houses in general small and low... others at the end of town have very convenient, pretty gardens and make a very genteel appreciation’.
High Street is a street of light and shade, ‘a sunny side and a money side’, though the original Honiton bank of Flood and Lott, now a bookmakers, once traded on the sunny side until it crashed in the mid-19th century. You can still see its fine wrought iron balcony, similar to the old Pannier Market (Betteridge).
The street still has its ancient market but is now also known for its antique and art shops, boutiques and banks, cake shops and coffee shops; Honiton is fast becoming the Café Paradiso of East Devon. In times past, it was home to a myriad of trades - butchers, bakers, chemists, clockmakers, drapers, doctors, dentists, grocers, horse outfitters, ironmongers, saddlers, etc.
Later, there were two cinemas, three garages, a printer, a fire station, a tax office, hotel and B&B’s, chapels, a ballroom, a cemetery, a grammar school and national school.
The street had five malt houses and more than 20 pubs and inns; the oldest three – Three Tuns, Vine and thatched Volunteer - still survive.
You could hire a coach and horses or later get your car, or anything else, fixed. When the hated tolls were done away with, and on VE Day, you could dance in the street.
High Street has been a street of fire, witnessing at least 30 conflagrations, the largest of which started in 1765 near what is today an ice cream parlour. 180 properties were burned down, most of them houses, which gives an indication how many people actually lived on our main street as compared to today.
It was also a street of water. In 1791, Edward Clarke of London described Honiton as ‘populous and flourishing’ with a ‘stream of clear water each side... should they again be subjected to fire, the dreadful effects of it might in some measure be avoided’.
Known locally as the ‘crystal stream’, serving people and animals, it ran in iron gutters - you can still see these the parish pump stood near what is now a traffic island.
It is the street of a lost and found church. When St Paul’s was built in 1838, dissident Honitonians protested that it was not needed - there is still affection for the 14th century St Michael’s. They complained the new church was too expensive, pointed the wrong way and would destroy what was left of All Saints Chapel, dating to 1327.
In 1847, a town poll to help pay for a new roof for St Paul’s spectacularly voted against the church.
Fewer spoke up for the small, living community that was also destroyed by the fire including two former inns, warehouses, offices and outbuildings, along with ten dwellings lost by Susan Loveridge, Richard Salter and fourteen others, some of whom may also have lost their livelihoods.
High Street has witnessed wars and civil strife. In 1549 the Kings Army, under Lord John Russell, assembled there and marched with beating drums and pipes to Fenny Bridges where they mercilessly cut down the Prayer Book rebels.
It is said that when William of Orange’s army came to Honiton in 1688, so many officers of the King’s army deserted to Col Tollemarch at the Dolphin Hotel, that it caused King James to flee his throne.
It is the street of martyrs. Near the main traffic island once stood the famous Shambles with its pungent mix of horses, livestock and butchers’ stalls.
After the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, the remains of John Oliver, Henry Knight, John Knowles and Henry Potts were hung there on polls, so that all could learn the justice of King James II.
It is the street of social struggles.
In 1792, Honitonians petitioned against the slave trade.
High Street witnessed some of England’s most colourful and corrupt elections, where electors were paid for ‘boiling a pot’.
During the Cider Tax election of 1763, the gutters ran with the blood of cider drinkers and temperance campaigners.
In the early 20th century, Juanita Maxwell Phillips moved on to High Street, held Votes for Women meetings and later became eleven times mayor, one of Devon’s most famous movers and shakers from the suffragette generation.
It is the street of victory.
Down High Street on November 5, 1805, galloped Lt John Lapenotiere with the first reports of Nelson’s famous victory making High Street part of the famous Trafalgar Way.
Thirty years later, Charles Dickens’ coach from Exeter stopped at the Golden Lion (Manor House) before thundering to London with election news for the London papers.
It is the street of great processions, pageants, carnivals , fairs and markets. The Ceremony of the Glove and dispensing of ‘hot pennies’ still begin in this remarkable avenue of dreams, though I have yet to test the town crier’s joyful announcement that ‘no man shall be arrested’.
In 1724, Daniel Defoe wrote, ‘coming down the hill and the entrance to Honiton, the view of the county is the most beautiful landscape in the world – a mere picture and I do not remember the like in any one place in England’.