Cowper and Newton: forgotten heroes

Hare at Newton & Cowper museum
Hare at Newton & Cowper museum
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IT’S known as the ‘new city’ but in truth it’s anything but.

Long before the diggers arrived, Milton Keynes echoed to the sound of Romans marching along Watling Street and monks chanting in the medieval chapel at Bradwell Abbey. Now five of this area’s key heritage organisations are partnering up as The Milton Keynes Collection to ensure more people know and can get involved in the story of this area. This week the Citizen takes a look at the oldest of the five, The Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney.

IN the last few years this area has succeeded in getting international recognition for the unsung heroes of Bletchley Park. Now it may be time to put our collective weight behind recognition for two more historic giants – whose story is told at Olney’s Cowper & Newton Museum.

All but invisible in schools now, in an earlier time fans of William Cowper’s poetry included Jane Austen and Wordsworth. Cowper’s letters – documenting everything from the leech he used as a barometer through to the French Revolution – were described by William Blake as ‘the very best letters that were ever published’.

Through a peaceful herb garden it was a short walk for Cowper to the Olney Vicarage where his friend John Newton collaborated with him on the Olney Hymns. ‘Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken’ and ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ were born out of that partnership.

But the real draw for visitors making a pilgrimage to Olney from around the world is the most famous hymn of them all, Newton’s Amazing Grace.

Upstairs a special gallery tells the story of the connection between the hymn and the abolition of slavery. A former captain of a slave ship until his conversion to Christianity, Newton is credited with having persuaded William Wilberforce not to go into the church but remain in Parliament where he could do far more to abolish the trade in humans – a goal achieved for the British Empire in 1807.

On the gallery floor is a small coffin shaped box measuring 41cm by 183cm – the amount of space each slave had in the festering hold during a two month journey from Africa to the Americas. According to Newton half died on those journeys.

Meanwhile his hymn has not only been recorded by 1,800 separate artists but become an anthem for the human rights movement, played during Martin Luther King’s march to deliver his ‘I have a dream’ speech, when Nelson Mandela was freed, and when the Berlin Wall fell.

It might seem that in contrast William Cowper lived an idyllic life in rural 18th century Olney, but as the museum’s displays reveal, it was a poor town, where people living in slums such as the now transformed Rose Court, tried to eke a living from making lace and boots. One of Cowper’s letters describes a beggar coming to the door for food, but refusing the vermicelli soup offered: “I am a poor man it is true and yet I cannot eat broth with maggots in it.”

And for all the acclaim he received from other writers, Cowper depended on the charity of his family and suffered from suicidal depression throughout his life.

The parallel with what’s been achieved at Bletchley Park is an apt one for, like Station X, it is the passion of volunteers that has preserved the memory of these two remarkable men so far. Since its opening in 1900 – making it one of the oldest private museums in the country – the museum has been run by volunteers, who continue to do everything from maintaining the building and fundraising to organising displays – among them, a large number of hares, since Cowper kept them as pets in his parlour.

The Cowper & Newton Museum has just opened for the season and makes a fantastic visit for all ages, recreating the interior of a Georgian home and way of life. But more than that it brings to life two big personalities of whom this area should be truly proud.

Perhaps it is time for us to take Cowper and Newton to our hearts as we have done Alan Turing and the codebreakers and make them an important part of Milton Keynes’ story – and of convincing others of this area’s significance in making history through every age.

> Those hares pop up again this Easter when the museum is running a fun hunt-the-hare trail for children on April 7 and April 9. For more see the website