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.

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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                                              House-hunting in Olney

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?

Coming soon –   An Added Complication