The Axe Boat, 22m north of the Axmouth Road Bridge


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Location Description:
The remains are centered on SY 25270 90020.
Statutory Address:
Seaton, Devon, EX12 4AA


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Statutory Address:
Seaton, Devon, EX12 4AA

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
The remains are centered on SY 25270 90020.
East Devon (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:


The Axe Boat (aka Seaton Wreck or Axemouth Boat). A late medieval / post-medieval coastal trader of carvel construction.

Reasons for Designation

The wreck of this late medieval / post-medieval coastal sailing vessel, known as the Axe Boat, is scheduled for the following principal reasons:

* Period: lost and wrecked vessels of this period in English waters are rare and number less than a hundred known examples in the record; * Survival: despite the effects of environmental decay, a substantial portion of the lower hull survives and it retains a number of characteristic features of medieval ships such as the 'crook’d floor' (the lowermost framing members at the bottom of the vessel); * Potential: it has considerable potential for providing insight into late medieval / post-medieval vessel construction materials and techniques and for coastal trade during this period. It is also considered likely for there to be excellent potential for the survival of cargo residues: for example, coal found in the bilge may provide evidence of former cargo, as Somerset was exporting coal to France in the medieval period for use in pottery, salt and lime production industries; * Documentation: the importance of this vessel is considerably enhanced by the information obtained from archaeological surveys, including radiocarbon dating, enabling parameters for future historical research; * Historic: the coastal trader was once a prolific and highly significant part of the expansion and development of England’s mercantile trade, in which Axmouth was a significant port for SW England and especially Devon, at one point accounting for some 15% of the county's shipping trade.


The Axe Boat lies embedded in a mud bank on the west side of the Axe River within the Bindon Manor Estate. It was first reported to the Devon County Council archaeology team in 2001 when a local boat builder observed timbers eroding from a mid-river shingle/silt bank. A sample of timber was taken for radiocarbon dating at that time, providing a date of between AD 1400 and 1640. Archaeological survey work was carried out periodically between 2002 and 2009 by the University of Southampton, which further confirmed the site's antiquity, with distinctive vessel construction techniques and technologies present that are indicative of a mate medieval date.

In May 2005, an exploratory trench was cut across the wreck to expose the middle section of the vessel. The excavation exposed well preserved hull structure, in particular tightly fitted ceiling planking with heavy limber strakes (the first course of planking alongside the keel, the main frame of a vessel) flanking limber boards (still in situ), in turn, either side of a large keelson (a timber fastened above and parallel to the keel of a ship for additional strength). Above the keelson a leather artefact was found that defied identification but appeared to be either part of a bucket or perhaps associated with the pump, the well for which was also found. Coal found in the bilge may provide evidence of former cargo, as Somerset was exporting coal to France in the medieval period for use in pottery, salt and lime production industries.


Before its appearance in 2001, this wooden wreck was unrecorded, suggesting that it has remained buried within the riverbed of the River Axe at least within living memory and probably considerably longer. Therefore, given its depositional context, it is reasonably well preserved and a significant portion of the vessel survives.

During this wreck’s brief appearance in 2001, the opportunity was taken to carry out both timber sampling (by Exeter Archaeology, whose archives have been accessioned into the Devon Record Office) and archaeological survey (carried out periodically between 2002 and 2009 by the University of Southampton). Our knowledge of the vessel is considerably enhanced by these archaeological investigations, which identified the features of the Axe Boat associated with early watercraft outlined elsewhere in this assessment that form the basis of the current case, making clear the site's importance in contributing to our wider knowledge of late medieval / early post-medieval sailing vessels.

Investigations found that the wreck rests on its keel (the main beam of a ship around which the hull is built) with both port (left) and starboard (right) garboard strakes (i.e. the first range of planks laid to the keel) still in situ. It retains characteristic features of carvel construction (where hull planks are fashioned edge-to-edge) with significant early features identified such as a 'crook’d floor' (a floor formed of a single Y-shaped grown timber, a 'floor' in this usage being the bottom, or the lowermost framing members at the bottom, of a vessel) and wide outer hull planks and ceiling planks (i.e. boards that rise up along the inside edge of a vessel). Other details, such as an off-cut treenail (timber fastening), are also preserved. Overall, the site comprises a substantial section of the lower hull and possibly cargo. A turned wooden bowl which shows signs of repair in the past was recovered from the wreck and is now in the care of the Mary Rose Trust.

As a rare survival of a pre-1840 wooden sailing vessel, this wreck has considerable potential to contribute to our knowledge of vessel construction techniques during the late medieval / post-medieval transition. The Axe Boat is a robustly constructed vessel, some 9-15m long, that could have been used in coastal trade or fishing. Such vessels were a once prolific and highly significant part of the expansion and development of England’s mercantile trade and the ‘Axe Haven’ (as Axmouth was then known) was ranked as a major port by the mid-14th century but had declined significantly in importance 100 years later; the port has its origins in the Saxon period (and potentially even earlier - there is circumstantial evidence of prehistoric maritime trade in the area, including for Iron Age and Roman settlement nearby) and was recorded in the Domesday Book as a substantial village of 24 households; lay and also monastic manorial development helped the port to prosper, but silting of the estuary may have commenced as early as 1377 and attempts to re-open the mouth of the river and reinstate the port and harbour are documented into the 16th century, by which time Axmouth accounted for 15% of Devon’s harbour trade. The Antiquarian William Stukeley, writing in 1723, refers to ships timbers and anchors being found in the marshes when the Seaton saltworkings were being dug to the west of the Axe Boat's location.Attempts were made to repair the harbour, specially by Thomas Erle and his son Sir Walter Erle of Bindon in the 1600's, but their efforts were in vain. The Axmouth Harbour Act was passed by Parliament in 1830 and still governs its use today as a scheduled harbour. Severe storms in 1869 and 1914 destroyed part of the quay, the customs house and other buildings, and the opening of the Axmouth Bridge, the oldest surviving concrete bridge in England, in 1877 sealed the fate of the harbour.


Books and journals
Clarke, N, Shipwreck Guide to Dorset & Lyme Bay for Divers & Skippers, (2002), 21
Adams, JFlatman, J, 'High to Post-Medieval 1000-1650' in Ransley, J, Sturt, F, People and the Sea: A Maritime Archaeological Research Agenda for England, (2013), 138-63 (esp 142)
'Axmouth Wreck' in Devon Archaeological Society Newsletter, , Vol. 83, (2002), 3
The Axe Boat. A Report for English Heritage & Devon County Council (2003) J Adams & K Brandon


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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