The museum history shows ‘The Cowper Memorial Museum and Library’ was opened in 1900, but within a few years became known as ‘The Cowper and Newton Museum’, as it has remained ever since.
The museum was largely the creation of its first Custodian, Thomas Wright, who worked tirelessly to raise local and national awareness of Olney’s heritage. A schoolmaster in the town, he was also a prolific author, producing a comprehensive edition of Cowper’s letters, biographies of Cowper, Defoe and Dickens, poetry, historical novels and many books and pamphlets on Olney and its surrounding countryside. His other great enthusiasm was the poet and artist William Blake, who was himself a passionate admirer of Cowper’s poems and letters; Wright was for many years Honorary Secretary of the William Blake Society.
You can find out more about Thomas Wright on the Olney and District Historical Society website
At the end of the 19th century, Cowper’s house Orchard Side belonged to William Collingridge, a successful London printer and publisher originally from Olney. As the centenary of Cowper’s death approached, Thomas Wright persuaded Collingridge to gift the house and its garden to the town, to honour Olney’s most famous resident and provide a home for collections of Cowper and Newton memorabilia. Wright donated his own collection, and others soon followed. Some years later, the Trustees purchased the Summer House Garden to the rear of the flower garden, thus completing the property as it was rented and used by Cowper.
Since then, the museum has steadily built up its collections, and now has substantial holdings of objects belonging to Cowper and Newton and their circle, and manuscripts and books relating to their work, together with lace and other items illustrating the history of Olney from the earliest times to the 20th century. In particular it has benefited in recent years from the Barham Johnson Bequest of Cowper items, a collection of fine first editions of Cowper from the library of John Sparrow, Warden of All Souls College, Oxford, and the important Cowper Johnson Archive of letters and personal possessions of the poet, secured in 2006 with grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the MLA/V&A Purchase Fund, and the proceeds of an Appeal.
The museum, which is a charity owned and administered by a trust, is staffed by a House Manager supported by a team of volunteers.
We are proud to say the museum has achieved the status of Full Accreditation by the Arts Council England.