The mystery of the meaning behind Honiton's town seal

The Honiton seal

The Honiton seal - Credit: Honiton Museum

For at least two centuries people have speculated, debated and written their interpretations on the origin of images depicted in the Honiton town seal or crest. Views have often been repeated and both the details and the images have gradually changed over time.

The original seal was given to the town when William Pole was elected as Member of Parliament for Honiton in 1640. When Honiton became a Borough in 1846 the council modified the shape of the seal and changed the wording around the edge.

The earliest description of the seal was written in 1793 by John Feltham. He praised the beautiful scenery in the area and announced that the cheese was defective in Honiton. He told the legend of barren women praying at St Margaret’s Chapel and described the borough seal as a “pregnant female in devotion to an idol auspicious to parturient women, obstetric hand above, beneath a honeysuckle, the whole surrounded with beads”.

In 1840, G Oliver wrote that it was a mermaid, with a young female, above them an enormous human hand, and below the mermaid a flower. Farquharson repeated what Feltham had written and added “the plant which is without doubt, a honeysuckle in bloom”. Kelly’s directory in 1889 said the seal was a representation of Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist.

Comparing the similarity of the motifs with early Catholic symbolism and medieval paintings, the images are consistent with the most likely interpretation of the scene; it is a simplified depiction of the Annunciation when the Angel Gabriel informed Mary of Nazareth that she had been blessed by God and chosen to be the mother of the Messiah, with the hand of God above bestowing His blessing, and the flower is the Madonna lily.

Fast forward to the 1960s. Honiton's housing officer, Jim Kendall, painted the Honiton crest on the front door of the new council offices in Fairfield House. The Mayor asked him to make the woman about three months less pregnant, because it might embarrass the lady councillors.

Planners of the Devon County Show suggested a cavalcade of floats depicting life in each borough, based on its history, industry and their crest. The proposal caused both hilarity and embarrassment for the town. Honiton people didn’t mind the crest being printed on official papers or worn on the football club jerseys but objected to it appearing on a huge carnival float. Honiton's deputy town clerk, Mr Victor Denne is quoted in the Daily Mirror as saying: "We couldn't put a pregnant woman on a float. It's too crude. Apart from which, the woman in the crest looks very pregnant - at least eight months gone." He added: "We shall probably have a float showing the town's lace making and pottery instead."

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