The Road to Olney – The Cowper & Newton Story @ 250

250 years ago an untimely accident and a chance meeting brought William Cowper to live in the town of Olney and to forge a lifelong friendship with John Newton.

In June 1767, life was good for William.  He had recovered from his deep depression, met new friends in Huntingdon & moved very happily into the home of Rev & Mrs Unwin as their lodger — they were parents of new friend, William Unwin.

‘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. …’

Life was also good for John. He had finally been accepted for ordination and had been Curate at the Church of St Peter & St Paul since 1764.  By June 67 he was back home after a very successful tour of Yorkshire, visiting friends and preaching at their churches and meetings.  His book, ‘Authentic Narrative’ –  which included the story of his life in the slave trade and his spiritual awakening had made him famous. In fact, so famous that Lord Dartmouth was renovating and enlarging the Rectory for him and his wife.

July 1767                         An Untimely Accident

But on the 2nd July 1767, things suddenly changed for the worst.

The Northampton Mercury for Monday July 13th reported:

‘On Sunday the 28th of last Month (June) 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; and, although all possible Assistance was immediately given, he died the Friday following.’

Here is where chance steps in.  John’s diary entry for 6th July tells us that he rode to Huntingdon that day to meet his friend Rev Dr Conyers but he unfortunately missed him.  His letter to Lord Dartmouth tells us more:  ‘I called on Mrs Unwin and Mr Cowper in very critical time, the day after Mr Unwin’s burial,’

My dear Cousin,                                                                                              13th July 1767

..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….

August 1767                   Finding a Home in Olney

After John Newton’s chance meeting with Mary Unwin and William Cowper in Huntingdon on the day after her husband’s funeral, his diary shows that by 7th July he was back home in Olney.

We know that other ‘Gospel Ministers’ had been asked to look out for a suitable house for the Unwins & Cowper, but John and his wife, Mary (known as Polly) were quick off the mark.

Throughout July letters 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:

A house in Emberton, ‘a Mile distant from Olney Church’ was open to them but the walk between there and Olney was ‘rough & Stony and liable to Floods’.

The house in which the Newtons were living whilst the Rectory was being enlarged they felt was a possibility and ‘which in every respect will exactly suit us –‘ 

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

John tells us more about the third house: ‘Mrs Unwin has taken a house in what I call the Parade, that is on the south side of the Market Place…. and at present it cuts a rueful appearance … But we hope, when it is furbished up, it will be tolerable …. It cannot, at this season of the year, be rendered habitable very soon; ..’

September 1767              Olney – Home Sweet Home

At some point it 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 were ‘boarded out’ (Remember that the Newtons are not in the Vicarage as the builders are in.)

John’s Diary

‘Monday 14th September               Even(ing) Mr Cooper*, Mrs and Miss Unwin came to reside here from Huntingdon.

Cowper & the Unwin ladies had finally arrived to take up residence and he was quickly accompanying John on his pastoral visits

October 1767                  The Newtons Move Back Home

The beginning of October 1767 still saw Mary Unwin, her daughter Susannna and William Cowper ‘pack’d together in a small house’ as guests of John & Mary Newton.   William acknowledges in a letter to his Aunt Madan that ‘… every thing that is not in a manner impracticable, is done to accomodate us,..’  but his letters certainly hint that he was finding the crowding and activity around him trying.

Luckily the building repairs to The Vicarage were about finished: Tuesday 20th Oct ‘Preparing to remove to the vicarage.’

But then on Weds, ‘Alarmed with a double illness – my dear and Mrs U(win.)’.  However, preparations continued and on Thursday we see John ‘Busied in setting to rights my new study.’ and by Friday 23rd ‘Removed the family today – slept in the vicarage.’

The very next day John took the opportunity to write, very likely from his new attic study, to his patron, The Earl of Dartmouth:  ‘I am glad to return your Lordship my immediate thanks for so comfortable an habitation..’  The letter continues: ‘I have a great acquisition in my Huntingdon friends who are still our guests, I know not where I could have picked two more agreeable persons than Mr Cowper and Mrs Unwin.’  Sunday saw ‘the first meeting in the best parlour’ and the Tuesday meeting was also held in the new house: Newton’s home had once more become a hub for his spiritual and pastoral life.

In a further letter to Lord Dartmouth dated Nov 18th, we find John explaining about a building cost on the renovation bill for ‘… 160 letters in the study 6s 8d’   This refers to the Bible text that John had had placed on the attic study wall:

‘“Since thou wast precious in my sight thou hast been honourable:

but thou shall remember that thou wast a bondsman in the land of Egypt and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.”’

John had chosen these words to be a reminder ‘from day to day what I was, and by what means I am now undeservedly settled in the Vicarage at Olney.  They were positioned to ensure he never forgot how different his life was now from his life back in 1746.  In that year, whilst in the land-based slave trade himself, he had become ill, was starved and finally locked to the deck of his master’s boat.

November 1767              Mary Unwin

The November move into the ‘house on the Parade’ was not to happen…

John’s diary for

Thursday 12th November ‘ Mrs Unwin suddenly taken ill, but recovered though seemed dying.’   Weds 18thMr C(owper) and Mrs U(nwin) went to St Albans.’

John also wrote to Lord Dartmouth on the 18th Nov. ‘… Mr Cowper has accompanied Mrs Unwin this morning to St. Albans to consult Dr. Cotton.  Her frame is exceedingly delicate and she has a variety of symptoms … which seem to threaten a consumption.  

Many writers over the years have raised questions about the relationship between William & Mary who you will remember was only a few years older than him.  However, in letters to his family & friends in 1765/6 he writes ‘ That woman is a blessing to me, and I never see her without being the better for her company.’ and ‘… I could almost fancy my own mother restored to life again, …’ ‘Mrs Unwin has almost a maternal affection for me, and I have something very like a filial one for her, and her son and I are brothers.’

December 1767               Cowper’s First Olney Hymn?  

Still William Cowper, Mary & Susanna Unwin and their respective servants did not make the move into Orchard Side.

The main focus for John was a return to writing: ‘ Friday 4th December   Resumed the Ecclesiastical history, which has been laid aside (except for a few days) since I left Liverpoole March 64’  This was his ‘A Review of Ecclesiastical History’ written from an evangelical viewpoint but not finished in its entirety when published in 1769.

However, William & Mary were both back in Olney after her consultation with Dr Cotton in St Albans.  There is a letter addressed to William’s Aunt Madan dated as 10th December where he apologies for not responding to her last letter. William also describes his concerns for Mary’s health and thanks her for some verses she had sent him.  In return William then sends his own verse to her.  ‘I began to compose them Yesterday Morning before Daybreak, but fell asleep at the End of the two first Lines, when I awaked again the third and forth were whisper’d in my Heart in a way which I have often experienced.’ The 1st four lines are:

‘Oh for a closer Walk with God

A calm & heav’nly Frame,

A Light to shine upon the Road

That leads me to the Lamb!’

These verses became hymn No. 3 in the ‘Olney Hymns ‘when published in 1779. 

January 1768                   Happy New Year

William Cowper to his Aunt Madan 10th Jan 1768: ‘My dear Aunt, I put off writing to you from day to day in the hopes, that I shall find a subject in my own experience that may make it worth your while to hear from me. … Yet alas! …’   Yes, still no news of the house move for William & the Unwins into Orchard Side, the house which is now the Cowper & Newton Museum.

John Newton was having trouble with the chimney in the old part of the house.  The roof ridge here was lower and when the wind came from the north or south a fire in the kitchen meant the whole house filled with smoke.  As a possible solution, John had purchased a tin funnel to add to the chimney, but; ‘The funnel I procured from London did not answer the intention, and we suffered a good deal from smoke all the winter, being obliged to keep the street door open all day, in the severest weather which subjected most of our double family to violent colds.’

Warmer weather was also on John’s mind, when in his letter to Lord Dartmouth he mused on ‘the largest parlour’ used for private meetings.  By ‘private meetings’ John means small gatherings of his parishioners. As early as 1st January 1765, John had described to Lord Dartmouth his plans for developing these groups: ‘I propose to establish three meetings … One for the children, another for the young and enquiring persons, and a third to be a meeting with the more experienced and judicious for prayer and conference.’

The meetings soon become so popular that there was not enough room in the Vicarage to hold all those whowanted to attend; ‘… we are so crowded that when the weather grows warmer we shall not be able to meet there without being greatly incommoded.’   Luckily Lord Dartmouth had in his ownership, through marriage, ‘The Great House’ which was situated next to the church with a drive way off Mill Lane.

By 21st Jan though, we have hints that things are on the move.  Writing to his friend, Sephus, William says:  ‘You are always busy, and I am just going to be, …‘


February 1768                 Home Sweet Home

Moving day into Orchard side for William Cowper & Mrs & Miss Unwin finally arrived.  It had been seven months previously that the Rev Morley Unwin’s sudden death had triggered house hunting in Olney; and five months since they moved into temporary accommodation with the Newtons, transferring a month later with them into the extended and refurbished Vicarage.

We have the exact date of the move into their new home, now the Cowper & Newton Museum, as in a letter from John Newton to Lord Dartmouth dated 16th February 1768 he writes :  ‘… Mrs Unwin and Mr Cowper removed to their own house yesterday and though they are near us we seem to miss them much. …’

And on 1st March Cowper writes to his Aunt Madan: ‘My dear Aunt,  … We are at last settled in our own Mansion…  Peace be to this House.’

Mary’s daughter, Susanna Unwin left home when she married in 1774.  William & Mary though were to be settled for the next 18 years in their new home until 1786 at which point they moved to the neighbouring village of Weston Underwood.

And so here at the Cowper & Newton Museum we begin our 250 year celebrations.  We warmly welcome you to join us for our busy new season as we celebrate Cowper & Newton @ 250 AND our Heritage Lottery funded project. Why not keep up to date with our extra events as well our National Lottery  HLF project progress through the museum website, Facebook and Twitter?  And if you are interested in becoming involved yourself in our special year, just give us a call …!