The Cowper and Newton Museum is a museum in Olney, Buckinghamshire, in the Borough of Milton Keynes. Celebrating the work and lives of two famous local residents: William Cowper (1731–1800) a celebrated 18th-century poet; and John Newton, a prominent slave trade abolitionist who was curate in the local church. The Museum building is original to the Georgian era and is presented as it would have been when William Cowper was its resident in 1768 to 1786. Within the Museum’s collections are the literary works and personal effects of William Cowper showing a detailed insight into Georgian life and a fine collection of lace and local history artefacts. The history of Olney is also presented in the Olney Rooms within the museum. It has two unique gardens of outstanding horticultural interest as only planted with specimens introduced to England before 1800. The Flower Garden & Summerhouse Garden. Originally the Summerhouse Garden belonged to the apothecary who lived next door to Orchard Side. After Thomas Aspray’s death, Cowper was allowed the use of this former medicinal and herbal garden. Selected friends were allowed to visit him in the unique building in the centre of the garden, which he described as his ‘verse manufacturey’. After the poet’s death in 1800, admirers of his works visited this small ‘literary shrine’ and many inscribed their names and dates on the walls and ceiling, the earliest found being 1802! all of which can still be seen today. The museum first opened in 1900. It is housed in a large red-brick Georgian house, called Orchard Side, on the corner of Market Place in Olney.
William Cowper was England’s most respected poet in the late l8th and early l9th centuries. Robert Burns, Jane Austen, William Wordsworth and William Blake greatly admired his work. Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, the son of the Reverend John Cowper and Ann, daughter of Roger Donne of Ludham Hall, Norfolk. On leaving school, Cowper was articled to a solicitor and at the age of 23 was called to the Bar. As a result of severe depression, he had to abandon his profession. His gradual recovery coincided with the beginning of his conversion to Christian evangelicism. Cowper found lodging in Huntingdon, with the Reverend Morley Unwin, his wife Mary and his family. After the Reverend Unwin was killed in a riding accident in 1767, Cowper continued to board with Mary and her family. In 1767 Cowper, Mrs Unwin and her daughter Susanna moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire to be under the ministry of Rev. John Newton, who was the evangelical curate there. William and Mary lived together (with separate bedrooms) until her death in 1796. There was a brief engagement between them in 1772, soon to be ended by a serious recurrence of Cowper’s depression. In 1786 they moved to the nearby village of Weston Underwood. Despite periods of severe depression (melancholia), Cowper’s eighteen years in Olney and eight at Weston Underwood were marked by his great literary achievements as poet, hymn-writer, letter-writer and translator. John Gilpin is his most famous work.
John Newton began his career as a seafarer and worked aboard slave trading ships, before becoming a famous London preacher and spiritual mentor to William Wilberforce, the abolitionist. It was when returning to England aboard the ship Greyhound in 1748, John Newton awoke to find themselves caught in a violent storm and about to sink. He prayed for God’s mercy, the storm died down and after four more weeks at sea the Greyhound finally made it to port in Lough Swilly in Ireland. This experience marked the beginning of his conversion to Christianity. Newton continued to work in the slave trade but his actions began to be shaped by his faith. In 1755, John took the job of Tide Surveyor at the Port of Liverpool. This coincided with a the Seven Year War which reduced maritime traffic, giving him time to meet with preachers and evangelists such as George Whitefield and John Wesley. By 1757 Newton had started to prepare for the ministry himself and after seven years was ordained into the Church of England. He became curate of the parish church of St Peter and St Paul in Olney, a position he held for nearly 16 years. In 1780 Newton moved to the City of London as rector of St Mary Woolnoth Church, where he wholeheartedly supported the work of the Committee for the Abolition of Slavery, formed in 1787. John Newton died in 1807, a few months after the Act abolishing the slave trade throughout the British Empire had been passed. John Newton’s writings were popular and widely read. Today he is perhaps best known as the author of the world-famous hymn, Amazing Grace, which was one of the Olney Hymns; but many of his letters were published in his lifetime and are still proving inspirational reading today.
There is access for wheelchair users to the garden. Three rooms in Cowper’s house (Orchard Side) are accessible via two or three steps, thereafter the museum is over 3 floors and 6 flights of stairs. A portfolio of photographs of the exhibits in the upper rooms is available for those who find the steep stairs difficult to manage. Videos about the museum are available to watch in the Reception area, where volunteers are always on hand to answer your questions. There are plenty of restaurants and cafes close to the Museum for morning coffee, lunch, or tea.. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Orchard Side, Market Place, Olney MK46 4AJ
Transport : Milton Keynes Central (National Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : 21, 41, 297, 601, VL4, VL5, VL7 and X10 stop very close by.
Opening Times : Tuesday to Saturday 10:30 to 16:30
Tickets : Adults £5.00; Children under 17 Free; Gardens only £2.00
Tel. : 01234 711516