June 1767                                                    The Story Begins

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Dear Joe,                                                                                                         5th Nov 1765

I have … entered into an agreement with the Rev. Mr Unwin, to lodge and board with him.  The family are the most agreeable in the world. …’

William Cowper


.John Newton’s diary w/e 14th June 1767       Many strangers at church and a full house in the evening.


Lord Dartmouth, Lord of the Manor of Olney is also renovating and enlarging the Rectory for John and his wife because his congregation has grown so much and he is attracting visitors from far and wide.

So life is good for both men whether we are talking about Huntingdon or Olney.

But an untimely accident is on the horizon –   and a chance meeting leads to the forging of a life long friendship…


Over the next few months John & William will unveil & share their story with us through their letters & diaries.

Visit this page regularly to follow this remarkable story, or you could follow us on Twitter @CowpNewtMuseum or like our Facebook page to receive our News Headlines which will alert you that more of the story has been added to our page


28th (29th?) June 1767                         An Untimely Accident

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On Sunday the 28th of last Month the Rev. Mr Unwin, Rector of Grimstone, in Norfolk, riding from Huntingdon to Gravely, was thrown from his horse near Godmanchester, whereby his skull was fractured in a dreadful Manner;…

Northampton Mercury, Monday July 13th 1767


‘My dear Aunt Madan,

… As he was riding to his Cure last Saturday sev’night in the morning, his Horse took Fright, ran away with him homeward, and in a Village about a Mile off he was flung to the Ground with such Violence, that his Scull was fractured in the most desperate manner.’

Wm Cowper


2nd July 1767                                             Mr Unwin is Dead

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My dear Aunt Madan,
We have lost Mr Unwin by a very awfull and afflictive Dispensation…. He lived about 4 days, contrary to the Expectation of the Surgeons, …

Dear Joe,
Your wishes that the Newspaper may have misinformed you are in vain. Mr Unwin is dead, and died in the manner there mentioned. At Nine o’clock on Sunday Morning he was in perfect Health and a likely to live 20 years as either of us, and before 10 was stretched speechless and senseless upon a Flock Bed in a poor Cottage, where, (it being impossible to remove him) he died Thursday Evening. …

He died in a poor Cottage to which he was carried immediately after his Fall, about a Mile from home, and his body could not be brought back to his House, til the Spirit was gone…

Our Society will not break up, but we will settle in some other Place; where, is at present uncertain.

Yours affectionately

Wm Cowper


6th July 1767                                             Mr Newton Pays a Visit

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John Newton’s ’s diary

Rode to Huntingdon to meet Dr Conyers; was disappointed yet I hope labour not lost.  Had pleasure  in converse with Mrs Unwin and Mr Cooper* and trust the visit was seasonable.

* John hadn’t found out the ‘Cowper’ spelling yet…

Letter to the Earl of Dartmouth

In July I went to Huntington with no other view than to meet Dr Conyers.  I missed him, but my journey had an effect which I little thought of.  I called on Mrs Unwin and Mr Cowper in very critical time, the day after Mr Unwin’s burial,  …

I am with the greatest respect

John Newton

We are still trying to confirm the reason John went to visit that day  ….  so we would love to hear from you if you know of a contemporary letter or diary that would help us solve this mystery …   Here you will find notes from our on-going research into William & John’s family and friends connections prior to what would seem to be their first introduction in July 1767.


7th July 1767                                              Where shall we live?

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John’s diary shows that he did not stay long at the Unwins as by 7th July he was home, having travelled via Bedford.  However, the ‘converse’ with William and the Unwin family must have included finding a new home, as William writes to his cousin on 13th July:

‘..We know not yet where we will settle,…

….. We have employed our Friend Haweis, Dr Conyers of Helmsley in Yorkshire, and Mr Newton of Olney to look out for us….. I have wrote too to my Aunt Madan, and desire Martin to assist us….’

Mary Unwin was looking to move to a place where she could be ‘under the sound of the Gospel’, and Cowper was of a like mind.  Rev Dr Haweis, Rev Dr Conyers, Rev John Newton & Rev Martin Madan were all part of the Evangelical revival * at this time and all were on the look out for a new home for the Unwins & Cowper..  (* Lady Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, Clapham Group, Lord Dartmouth).

There was a caveat though in William’s letter to his Aunt Madan: ‘When I said that all Places are alike to us, I should have excepted London, to which we have both Objections that cannot be removed.’  Reasons for William’s objection to London were likely to be associated with his breakdowns and his failed romance with his cousin Theodora, but we are uncertain as to Mary’s objections.

On his return to Olney, John, and as likely his wife, Mary (known as Polly) were soon on the look out for a suitable house.  He wrote to William on 14th July

‘…, I am now to inform you that the person from whom I hold my present habitation chooses to return to it, when we quit… The house in which he at present lives will then be vacant— … It  is  a much better house than that which we live in ….  It is  pleasantly situated upon a rising ground, in a decent village , & stands about a measured mile from Olney Church.’

Here we stop and remind ourselves that the Newtons were not in residence at the Rectory at this time as the builders were in…

From John’s letter we see that there were 2 possible new homes – one in Olney and one in Emberton.  But how often do moving plans all fall into place first time?


3rd August 1767                                       A House-hunting Visit to Olney

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Throughout July letters had passed between the 2 families and by 3rd August John’s diary tells us:

  (It was another few months before John found out that William’s name was spelt ‘Cowper’)


By the time they left Olney on the 5th much had been discussed. William helpfully outlined in a letter to his Aunt Madan details about 3 possible houses to rent:


My dear Aunt,                                                            Monday 10th August 1767

On Monday last we went to see our Friend Newton at Olney, and to take a view of the Place where we trust the Lord has fix’d the Bounds of our Habitation. One house is fairly and clearly open to us, but it is a Mile distant from Olney Church, and the Walk rough & Stony and liable to Floods, which is a very unfavourable Circumstance for Mrs. & Miss Unwin, though it would seldom be an Impediment to Me. – 

This was a house in the village of Emberton and we have a good idea which it was.


– Beside this, we hope we have a Chance to succeed Mr. Newton in his present Dwelling, which in every will exactly suit us 

We would love to know where this house was but so far we’ve had far no luck with our research.  If anyone has any leads, we would very much welcome you getting in touch with us.


‘If we fail there, there is another House in the Town which the Owner of it offers to repair for us.’

John pinpoints this house for us in a letter to Lord Dartmouth when he tells us that in was located on

‘the Parade, that is on the south side of the Market Place.  It is a small one —… –  and at present it cuts a rueful appearance having been for a long while either empty or in the hands of very poor tenants.


William was impatient to get the move from Huntingdon underway. There seemed to be a couple of reasons for this. 1) that he was looking forward to joining John’s church, and 2) problems with the neighbours!


Possibly, the black and shocking Aspersions which our Neighbours here amuse themselves with casting upon our Names & Conduct, may add to my impatience to be gone.


How things had changed since September 1765 when William wrote about Huntingdon;

The longer I live here, the better I like the place, and the people who belong to it.’  ….

Throughout August John’s diary shows letters written to and from Mr Cooper – which we take to be William Cowper as John still doesn’t know that the correct spelling was Cowper.  Although we haven’t seen these letters, we can safely assume that these must have included arrangements for making the house on the Parade habitable but also dates for moving, transport and carriage of belongings.  Maybe William owned little himself as he was living in as a boarder, but we can image Mary & Susanna making decisions about what to keep, to sell or give away before the move. This was no small task as we know from the Rev Morley Unwin’s will that he had left his wife  ‘ … all my plate, linen and china and household furniture also all my wine and other liquors.’  – and her Huntingdon home was larger than the house in Olney.

John was of course continuing his church and pastoral work, as well as continuing to receive visitors such as Mr and Mrs Wilberforce, although as yet their nephew William Wilberforce had not come to live with them.  It was this friendship that led William Wilberforce to write to John on Saturday 2 December 1785: ”Sir , I wish to have some serious conversation with you.”

.vAt some point it also became clear that ‘Orchard Side’ would not be ready in time for the move. We find John writing to Lord Dartmouth ‘… , they will do us the pleasure to be our guests.’  We find out a bit more about the situation when William writes to his Aunt Madan:

‘ …. We are many of us pack’d together in a small House, our own not being yet ready for us ,… ‘

Due to the size of the house, it is also likely that some of the servants would need to be ‘boarded out’ (Remember that the Newtons are not in the Vicarage as the builders are in.)


September 1767

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On Saturday 5th September John’s diary tells us a Mr Unwin came to stay for the week-end.  This must have been Mary’s son, William Cawthorne Unwin, who gained his MA in 1767 at Christ College Cambridge, became a Deacon in the same year and was ordained in 1769. He will have enjoyed his time talking to John as he was described as ‘decidedly Evangelical’ himself.  If we can confirm his friendship with both the Rev Dr Richard Conyers and Rev John Newton this might be the connection that brought Newton to Huntingdon to pay respects to the Unwin family  –  and so bring the Unwins & Cowper to Olney.

This picture is taken from Thomas Wright’s biography ‘The Life of William Cowper’.  Thomas was the driving force behind the setting up of our Museum.  You can find out more about this here

To date we have not located the original Gainsborough portrait and would love to hear from you if you have any information which would help us in our search.


14th September 1767                           Moving Day

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Cowper & the Unwin ladies had finally arrived to take up residence and he was quickly accompanying John on his pastoral visits.  Walks and visits to Yardley, Denton, Emberton & Kettering are all mentioned in John’s diary for September


Both his and Mary’s money matters were also on his mind.  Writing to his friend, Joseph Hill, he asked: ‘Do the Arrears of Rent down to the time of his Death belong to the Widow or the Son?’ An interesting question to ask as William Unwin was executor of his father’s will, Mary’s son and Cowper’s friend.  Joseph was also asked to sell Cowper’s Government 3 per Cent Consolidated stock and whether it was a good idea to sell his London chambers.

Early Life in Olney  –  joining the congregation of St Peter & St Paul

Judith Madan, nee Cowper (1702-1781);

26th September 1767 To his Aunt Madan  (nee Cowper)

‘…. Nothing can  exceed the Kindness and Hospitality with which we are received here by his dear Servant Newton’

‘… On the last Sabbath Morning at a Prayer meeting before  Service, while the poor Folks were singing a Hymn … ‘

‘On Thursday Morning I attended a Meeting of Children. and found that a Passage ‘Out of the Mouth of Babes & sucklings thou hast ordained Praise”

‘Mr Newton has just brought me one of Martin’s Pamphlets*, which makes it impossible for me to write any longer.’

  •  find out more here Rev Martin Madan   and our ongoing work on the connections between William Cowper & John Newton here


23rd October 1767                            Moving day – again – Into the Vicarage

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John Newton Letter to the Earl of Dartmouth                                  24th October 1767

We removed, yesterday into the Vicarage  …. I am glad to return your Lordship my immediate thanks for so comfortable an habitation   …. I have a great acquisition in my Huntingdon friends who ae still our guests.  I know not where I could have picked two more agreeable persons that Mr Cowper and Mrs Unwin.  ..

Letter to the Earl of Dartmouth                                                                                                                           18th November 1767

‘…. We have daily new reason to thank your Lordship for our dwelling, as well as for the satisfaction you are pleased to express in our accomodation I shall say no more upon the head of expense, only that is more than I deserve.

On looking over the bills, I observe in some less less essential articles there might have been a sparing, and the fault is my own that there was not, but it was for want of a part of your Lordship’s experience in building. ………………… There is one line perhaps would surprise your Lordship, namely for 160 letters in the study 6s 8d… If your Lordship had been at the Plantains in or about the year 1746, and was now to come to Olney, you would be sensible of an amazing difference between my situation there and what it is here. I hope I am not insensible of it myself; I hope I shall never forget it. But my heart is wicked and deceitful; I was willing therefore to be reminded of it; yea to call in every help. I was willing that all my friends might remember it likewise, in hopes some of them would kindly refresh my memory of them should ever be occasion. I therefore ordered the following texts to be painted over the fireplace:–

“Since thou wast precious in my sight thou hast been honourable: but thou shalt remember that thou wast a bond-man in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.”

These sentences, with reference to the places from whence they were taken, Isaiah 43:4 and Deuteronomy 15:15, constitute the 160 letters in question. I am persuaded your Lordship will think this 6s 8d well laid out if it should in some measure contribute to the desirable end of reminding me from day to day what I was, and by what means I am now undeservedly settled in the Vicarage at Olney.  The chimney of the old part of the house is so much lower than the ridge of the new that when the wind in either the northern or southern quarter it is impossible to bear a fire in the kitchen for the whole house is filled with sole.  As this is a circumstance that would not well admit of delay i have sent to London for a tin funnel to carry it to a proper height; if this can be secured, and the end answered, we shall be quite complete and I would not wish the old building taken down in my time, hardly if a wish could do it without trouble or expense.’