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The Centenary Of The Opening Of The Newton-Cowper House In Olney

Category Articles
Date May 1, 2000

John Newton and William Cowper lived for many years in the little town of Olney in Buckinghamshire. The town is in the middle of a triangle of larger towns with Northampton to the north-west, Bedford due east, and Milton Keyes due south. These two men both wrote hymns, some of them the most outstanding in any language.

“God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.
He plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.”There is a simplicity and warmth about the hymns, but a toughness too. Cowper acknowledges that there was a blessedness he had known when he first found the Lord which he no longer knows. Newton asked the Lord that he might grow spiritually and was answered with many troubles. That was one of the ways God was breaking the chains that bound Newton to the world, teaching him to find his joy in God.

Cowper was a great poet. One day he surprised himself writing “John Gilpin” a very amusing poem. It survives in part because after writing it he went across the market square in Olney and read it to his barber who fell about with laughter. So Cowper was encouraged to publish it anonymously. He was Jane Austin’s favourite poet, Wordsworth admired him, and Burns said that he never went anywhere without a copy of his verses in his pocket. But it is Newton’s “Amazing Grace” that has become one of the most well-known hymns in the whole world.

In the town of Olney today these two men are well commemorated. There is a house which is open to the public, as it has been for exactly one hundred years when, in 1900, it was presented by a local businessman “to the town of Olney and the nation.” On April 27 the Cowper and Newton Museum, in collaboration with the British Society for 18th Century Studies, held a symposium there to celebrate Cowper’s life and work, on the 200th anniversary of his death. Every year about 3,000 people visit the house.

When Newton went to Olney he was struck by the poverty of the place and the people. It is a town built on water meadows. That poverty has preserved Olney so that today very little architecturally has changed from Newton and Cowper’s time. There are the coaching inns and alleyways, the odd grand house and the church where Newton preached, and his pulpit and grave. But the butcher and barber shops have moved to the outskirts and keep half-day closing on Wednesdays, while the centre of the town has been taken over by antique shops and delicatessens, and the ubiquitous Chinese take-away.

“The museum is run by its local trustees, most of whom are also retired: a retired violinist, a retired businessman, a retired bishop. The custodian, Joan McKillop, is a retired schoolteacher. It is thus something that once was familiar in small towns, but has now almost disappeared – a museum run by amateur enthusiasts. It has no operational grant but, as Mrs McKillop observed, ‘We do have a shop.’ The Cowper Museum, as Dylan Thomas said of a similar establishment in Swansea, is a museum that deserves to be in a museum” (Byron Rogers, “What Became of the Poet, Slaver and Hare?” “The Daily Telegraph,” March 11, 2000).

Cowper lived for almost twenty years in that house, loving the peace of the garden – “gardening was, of all employments, that in which I succeeded best.” In the garden the three pet hares lived, Tiney, a thug who bit people, Bess who cuffed cats, and Puss, who used to sit on Cowper’s lap and bite the hair from the Poet’s temples, and who was his favourite. This is Puss demanding to be taken for a walk: “He would invite me into the garden by a drumming upon my knee, and by a look of such expression as it was impossible to misinterpret. If this rhetoric did not immediately succeed, he would take the skirt of my coat between his teeth, and pull at it.”

In the garden is the strange little summer house with a loose board under which Cowper hid his pipes. The loose board can still be seen. Mrs McKillop mentions how many objects have been returned to the house: “Cowper’s darned handkerchiefs, the carpet on which the hares played. Some came back in the strangest ways. The lavender bottle on his table when he died was given by his cousin’s widow to the museum not long after it opened. His bottle of Epsom Salts was given to John Betjeman, who gave it to us.” Furniture has been returned from South Africa. The sofa has been returned, on which Cowper wrote his long poem “The Task”, and the bedroom where he wrote many of his hymns is still there with its wild gradient. “Beware smooth sloping floor” says a notice on the wall.

The Cowper and Newton Museum, is at Orchard Side, Market Place, Olney, Bucks MK46 4AJ (01234 711516). It is open to the public until December 23, Tuesdays to Saturdays 10 am – 1 pm. 2pm – 5pm. Admission £2, children under 18 £1.

The Banner of Truth have published the compete works of John Newton, and also his life written by a contemporary, Josiah Bull.

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