The Mystery of William Cowper’s Table

Documents found inside the drawers of Cowper’s Table

“William Cowper’s Table” is the shorthand name we have been using for a small, rather unremarkable, side table standing some 73cm high and 79cm wide and recently donated to the Museum by a very generous lady living in Canada. It has gained the name because on the front there is a brass plaque announcing “Cowper’s Table” though it is sure that it is not the only table he owned. However, the very strong provenance that comes with this little piece is very special. But the story is not quite complete so please do get in touch if you can add even the tiniest fragment of missing information to this fascinating story.

Recent History of The Table

In January 2012 I received an E-mail message from a lady called Joan Garlick offering to donate the table to the museum. Joan lives in Langley, near Vancouver, Canada and she sent two photos of the piece and a scan of a letter found in the drawer of the table on Museum Letterhead and signed by Gordon Osborn, who was the Chairman of Trustees of the Museum at the date of the letter, May 7th 1981, to a Mr Higgins in Canada. The letter requested that, if Mr Higgins wanted to sell at any time, the Museum would like to be given the opportunity to purchase it. Gordon Osborn was, clearly, convinced of its provenance and offered a price of £450 – a significant amount of money in 1981.

This was enough to convince the present Board of Trustees of the Museum that we must try to take advantage of Joan Garlick’s generosity and make the necessary arrangements to bring the table back to Olney. This happened in the autumn of 2012.

Our next piece of luck was that the Cowper and Newton Society generously offered to meet the cost of getting the table crated and transported back to England so with great excitement and anticipation the table was finally un-crated to an audience of Trustees and Volunteers. Now we could see it for real and it turned out there was a book of Cowper’s Poems contained in one of the two drawers together with an envelope which held a number of documents telling the history of the table.

Table pictured in Canada
Table pictured in Canada

Earlier History of the Table

With the help of those documents we have been able to piece together quite a bit of its history. A fuller account and all the documents are displayed in the Museum with the table itself housed in Cowper’s Kitchen

The most informative document is an undated, handwritten page telling the history of the table. It was written by Watson Page who tells us the table was purchased in about 1826 by William Pell who lived in Bullock’s Booth near Northampton and was apprenticed to a tailor in Olney. This dates it quite soon after Cowper’s death in 1800 so the history at that time would be in recent memory and the table is unlikely to be wrongly attributed. William Pell “emigrated to Australia about 1842 and left the table in the charge of his eldest sister, Mrs Elizabeth Page”, Watson Page’s Mother. Elizabeth’s home was broken up in 1869, the same year that Watson Page was adopted by his Uncle, John Page, an Upholsterer of 1 Sheep Street, Northampton and the table remained in his care until Watson Page set up his own home in 1886 when he took on the care of the table.

Watson concludes his account by saying that “the table has always been treasured in my family for nearly a century as it was understood it was used by Cowper in his Summer-house …”. There are some important inferences to be made here. Watson writes his account as if the table is still in his care, “nearly a century” after it had been purchased in around 1826. That dates his document to around 1920. Was this just before, or even because he was about to send it to Canada to his daughter, Ethel Mary Page?

There is then a gap in the history until 1980 when James P Higgins wrote a letter offering the table to the Museum. James tells us that “A Mr Page of Northampton sent it to Canada … to his daughter a Mrs Ethel Mary Page”. This leads to more mysteries. It seems an unlikely coincidence that the daughter of a Mr Page would also have the married name of Page, so this may be an error by the writer and we have to guess whether the “Mr Page” was John Page or Watson Page or someone else!

The better news is that we have a further clue in the form of a Canadian newspaper clip which can be dated to 1976, announcing the death of Ethel Mary Higgins, “a resident of Haney since 1920”. Could this be the same Ethel Mary who had previously been a Page? She was aged 97 when she died in 1988 which would mean she was born around 1891 and so could easily be the Ethel Mary to whom the table was sent. The clip also contains the information that her husband, who was called Walter James Higgins, predeceased her and that she is survived by (amongst others) her son James Higgins of Richmond and his son also called James. These are two candidates for being the writer of the 1980 letter from James P Higgins and so might be the solution to one of our mysteries. A final bit of information is that she was survived by her sister, Olive Garrow who lived in Roade, England.

After the exchange of letters between Gordon Osborn and James Higgins in 1980/81 the trail goes cold again until the E-mail offer arrived from Joan Garlick in 2012 in which she said “Approximately 15yrs ago I rescued this table from the elements after the untimely demise of my neighbors. The house was cleared out by the landlord and this table was put in the elements to wait for the next of kin to come and pick it up. After a few months no one came and I brought the table inside to protect it. No one ever came for the table and I eventually moved.” Joan lived in a trailer park at that time and she unfortunately, does not remember the names of her two male neighbours. However, she knows the owners in about the late 1990s – nearly twenty years after the letters are exchanged between James P Higgins and Gordon Osborn – so could James Higgins be one of them or has the table changed hands during this time?

Other Clues and Possible Leads

There are still a number of lines of enquiry which may yield further information for us and local public awareness of these interesting documents may elicit some memories – hence the publicity now sought in case anyone has this valuable knowledge – or even a guess or hunch for us to research.

Two people well-informed in local history have agreed that the Higgins family in Canada may well be descended from the Higgins’ of Turvey and Weston Underwood with whom Cowper was friendly (he wrote an epitaph for Mrs Higgins). However, it is thought that there are no Higgins’ in those villages any longer. UNLESS YOU KNOW DIFFERENTLY!

Another line of enquiry would be to investigate Olive Garrow, sister of Ethel Mary Higgins who remained in England after her sister emigrated to Canada and lived in Roade, Northamptonshire at the time of Ethel’s death. DO YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THIS FAMILY OR HAVE CONTACTS AT ROADE WHO MIGHT BE INTERESTED TO FOLLOW THIS UP LOCALLY?

This is where we hope YOU may be able to help. People still in the area may be able to give more leads on the missing information – descendants or friends of the late James P Higgins or Olive Garrow, for example. If you can assist, even with the smallest clue we would be very pleased to hear from you. Please contact me or the House Manager at the Museum via the Website (www.cowperandnewtonmuseum.org.uk) or E-mail the house-manager@cowperandnewtonmuseum.org.uk or telephone 01234 711516 during opening hours.

Helen Dilley, Trustee of the Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney. 8th July 2013