The Book of the Axe

The Book of the Axe

George Pulman, born in Axminster 200 years ago this year, can justly claim to be Devon’s finest local journalist and editor. 

The newspaper he founded in 1857, Pulman’s Weekly News and Advertiser, lived on, one way or another, for 160 years, and the best of his writing, The Book of the Axe, will outlast even that achievement.

Known by his initials G P R, Pulman developed his writing skills and his angler’s eye on the banks of the Axe.  At the age of 30 his journalism found full expression when he bought a printing press in Crewkerne, in Somerset, and moved there to found a newspaper serving the border areas of Devon, Dorset and Somerset.

He wanted to achieve more with his printing press, he said, than ‘the mere production of hand bills and circulars’ and believed ‘the Press to be the great instrument in modern civilisation by which the moral and intellectual elevation of mankind is destined to be affected …’

Pulman’s Weekly News – simply Pulman’s for generations of locals – was part of the ‘penny newspaper’ revolution of the era and succeeded in undercutting the big boys in Yeovil and Exeter who were charging four or five pence for their papers.  George Pulman promised ‘a complete Family Newspaper at a merely nominal price’ and guaranteed that his ‘agricultural readers’ would have their Monday evening corn and cattle prices ‘by Electric Telegraph’ from London first thing on Tuesday morning.

Pulman edited and ran the newspaper until shortly before his death in 1880, and it lasted, at least in name, well into the present century.   It survived the ‘free newspaper’ revolution of the early 2000s when it was incorporated into the lively View From series of local papers.   It was finally blown away by the latest ‘online’ revolution with its collapse in advertising revenue which has ruined the local press.  Pulman’s is now extinct.

Pulman loved the River Axe.  He describes it in the book’s introductory chapter as ‘one of the most beautiful and interesting of the numerous sparkling trout-streams which contribute so much to the claims of Devonshire to be the Arcadia of England.’   Of Axminster itself, the most prominent town on the river, he says ‘a very Eden is its lovely neighbourhood.’ 

When he decided on the move to Crewkerne in 1848, he wrote a sad and celebratory poem to the Axe (in West Country dialect, of course) which began:

‘Varewell to thee, river, thou stream o’ my heart’

The Book of the Axe owed its origins to Pulman’s regular writings about walking and fishing the river. He really did say that he was blessed with ‘pedestrian proclivities’ and declared on the subject of fishing: ‘God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling.’  It became his passion to turn these ‘trottings and dottings,’ as he called them (his adopted nom de plume was ‘John Trotandot’) into the definitive study of the Axe.

Two early editions appeared in the mid-1840s and sold out.  Pulman then set off to find out much more about the Axe, including all the towns and villages along its banks, and walked and studied its course from the source near his new home in Crewkerne along the Somerset-Dorset border and through Devon to the sea at Seaton.  That became the third edition published a decade later in 1854.  It had been hard work, he said, but the author was happy to pay ‘grateful tribute to the lovely river which has been the scene of so many of his happiest hours…’

The best came last

A full 20 years after the third edition, and a great deal more study, Pulman published his fourth edition in 1875.  It had been ‘re-written and greatly enlarged’ as well as copiously illustrated with fresh engravings.  He had ‘spared neither time nor expense,’ he told his readers, but would be well rewarded if he had rescued ‘from oblivion any records of a district so interesting and lovely as that of the Valley of the Axe.’

In its final form, The Book of the Axe runs to 900 pages.  Whatever it cost the author, it is now a collector’s item worth several hundred pounds.  It contains detailed descriptions of all the churches, monuments and fine houses of the valley.  It covers local history from geological times to the Victorian and takes in a good deal of marching and counter-marching during the English civil war and the Monmouth rebellion of the Seventeenth century.

To the modern reader, the fascination of The Book of the Axe lies in the author’s personal preoccupations and opinions.   The countryman in Pulman complains of the ‘greedy utilitarianism of modern times’ and condemns the ‘modern mania for the destruction of hedgerows and hedgerow timber.’  He is also savage on the subject of the Victorian ‘restoration’ of country churches, blaming those worthy souls the churchwardens.

After inspecting St Giles church in Kilmington, near Axminster, he writes:  ‘One generation of churchwarden-architects had left evidence of their handiwork in mutilated windows; another in new doors, stuck anywhere; and all vied with each other in producing an architectural wreck and mutilation.’

George Pulman is at his most colourful on the arrival of the railways in Devon.   He is admiring of ‘the genius of Stephenson’ in launching the age of steam, but much less enthusiastic when in 1860 the Axe valley is itself ‘aroused by the whistle of the engine and the rush of the first passenger train.’  He had no sympathy for ‘the rage of rushing through the air as if life and death depended on fifty miles an hour.’

It was the quality of the book’s final edition that secured Pulman’s reputation among his contemporaries.  In his own newspaper, the obituarist recalled all the time and money he had spent on researching and producing it.  That alone would surely entitle the author ‘to a place in the Valhalla of Devonshire worthies – and Devonshire never forgets her gifted sons.’

Next issue – Walking the Axe in Pulman’s Footsteps

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Editorial contribution from one of Devonshire magazine's guest writers. There are currently over 40 writers we are in contact with. If you have an interesting story/subject relating to anything Devon that you think our readers would be interested in, please contact Nigel Jones on 01395 513383