William Cowper (1731-1800), pronounced “Cooper”, was a renowned 18th century poet and translator of Homer. His most famous works include his 5000-line poem ‘The Task’ and some charming and light-hearted verses, not least ‘The Diverting History of John Gilpin’. Phrases he coined such as ‘Variety is the spice of life’ are still in popular use
Rev John Newton lived in Olney for nearly 16 years (1764 to 1779) as curate-in-charge of the parish church, St Peter & St Paul. He lived in the Vicarage opposite the church.
‘The parish is large, the prospect pleasing and demands close attendance. Besides every day brings something unforeseen of its own …’
While he resided in Olney his writings became known worldwide.
Newton was a frequent visitor at Orchard Side to see his friend William Cowper and the two families socialised regularly.
“I believe … we were not seven hours without being together.”
Newton published several books while at Olney, the most famous perhaps being a joint-production with Cowper, the ‘Olney Hymns’ in 1779.
Many of their hymns are still sung today around the world:
- Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion city of our God (Newton)
- God moves in a mysterious way (Cowper)
- How sweet the name of Jesus sounds (Newton)
- O for a closer walk with God (Cowper)
As Newton wrote in the Preface:
“I more particularly dedicate to my dear friends in the parish and neighbourhood of Olney, for whose use the hymns were originally composed; as a testimony of the sincere love I bear them…”
Today one of the hymns Newton wrote in Olney, ‘Amazing Grace’, holds world records! The Library of Congress has more than 3,000 different recordings of ‘Amazing Grace’.
Discover more about the Olney Hymns and the hymn Amazing Grace.
Discover more about the life of John Newton in this virtual exhibition
Introductory notes on John Newton
‘I was born in London the 24th of July, 1725, old style. My parents, though not wealthy, were respectable.’ *
As a boy, John Newton lived in Red Lyon Street, Wapping not far from the Tower of London. (John Roque’s map of London 1746) His mother, Elizabeth Newton died when he was young and whilst his father was at sea.
‘My father was then at sea (he was a commander in the Mediterranean trade at that time) : he came home the following year, and soon after married again.’
After a few years at school, John Newton began his career as a seafarer with his father, Captain John Newton. He undertook 5 Mediterranean voyages, including a short and unsuccessful period in Alicante, Spain working for a merchant friend of his father.
‘ ; but my unsettled behaviour, and impatience of restraint, rendered that design abortive.‘
Through Joseph Manesty, a friend of John’s father, it was then arranged for him to go to Jamaica to be trained as a manager of a sugar plantation. At this time, this would have likely meant a plantation worked by enslaved people.
Prior to departure John paid a visit to the Catletts, distant cousins and in whose house his mother had died. Here he fell in love with Mary Catlett, known as Polly. John did not share his feelings with anyone but extended his stay and missed sailing to Jamaica.
‘Almost at the first sight of this girl (for she was then under fourteen), I was impressed with an affection for her which never abated or lost its influence a single moment in my heart from that hour.’
His father found him another position as a common sailor on a merchant ship, sailing between England and the continent. He returned to England and to the Catletts in Chatham at the end of the year – and again stayed longer with them then he should. Here, whilst walking, he was press-ganged by the Royal Navy
Thus began a period of his life where his love for Polly continually pulled him between the sea and land, and his behaviour waxed and waned as his hopes of marriage to her rose and fell.
March 1744: ‘HMS Harwich’, a ‘fourth-rate’ ship of the line of around 1000 tons with 50 guns and a complement of about 300 men.
December 1744: Rode to Chatham, hoping now to be considered as a prospective husband for Mary. The answer was No. Again he stayed longer than he should. On returning to the Harwich, although he only received a stern warning, he had lost favour with his Captain.
April 1745: The ship was about to sail to the East Indies for perhaps five years. Stopping in at Plymouth, John learnt that his father was nearby in Torbay. He left the ship without permission to ask his father to get him back into the African trade & give permission to marry Polly.
He was caught, imprisoned, whipped as punishment and degraded in rank.
May 1745: When the ‘Harwich’ was docked on the island of Madeira, John discovered that the Captain was exchanging men from another ship known as a Guinea trader.
(For more information about the HMS Harwich journey ‘Journal by James Mitchell, Captains Clerk’)
John’s behaviour did not improve on his new ship and he alienated himself from those in charge. Realising he had again put himself in danger, John took up the offer from another traveller, a Mr Evans, to join him in the land based slave trade around Sierra Leone.
Between 1745 – 7, John began his work for Mr Evans on the Plantain (Plantanes) Islands off the coast of Sierra Leone. This involved buying slaves, imprisoning them and selling them on to the slave ships.
John suffered ill health and also found himself at odds with his master.
‘I have sometimes been relieved by strangers; nay, even by the slaves in the chain, who have secretly brought me victuals (for they durst not be seen to do so.’
‘whenever he left the vessel, I was locked upon deck, with a pint of rice for my day’s allowance ; and, if he stayed longer, I had no relief till his return.’
This continued for about 12 months but John managed to secretly send out letters to his father and to Polly.
Near the end of 1746 it was agreed for John to go & work for another slave trader: this brought him new clothes, food, money & freedom but thoughts of Mary were given up.
Meanwhile, after receiving John’s letters, his father had solicited the help of his old friend Joseph Manesty. Manesty asked his ship captains sailing to the area to search out John and bring him back home. In February 1747, the captain of the ‘Greyhound’ was lucky enough to locate John and he joined the ship as they traded for gold, ivory, dyers-wood & bees-wax.
In January 1748, the journey back to England began. John had resumed his poor behaviour but had also started reading Thomas a Kempis’ book ‘The Christian Pattern. The Imitation of Christ’.
It was when returning to England aboard the ship the ‘Greyhound‘, John awoke to find himself 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 journey back to his faith. Newton continued to work in the slave trade but his actions began to be shaped by his faith.
‘The 10th (that is in the present style the 21st) of March, is the day much to be remembered by me, and I have never suffered it to pass wholly unnoticed since the year 1748.’
On returning to England John discovered that his father was now supporting his marriage to Polly.
‘‘.., I found I had only the consent of one person to obtain; with her I as yet stood at as great an uncertainty as on the first day I saw her.’
John returned to sea and for the next five years was an active participant in the transatlantic slave trade.
August 1748 – December 1749: First Mate of the slave ship ‘The Brownlow’.
12th February 1750: Marriage to Mary (Polly) Catlett at St Margaret’s Rochester.
August 1750 – October 1751: Captain of the slave ship ‘The Duke of Argyle’
June 1752 – August 1753: Captain of the slave ship ‘The African’
October 1753 – August 1754: Captain of the slave ship ‘The African’ Whilst berthed at St Kitts, an island in the West Indies, he met Alexander Clunie. Clunie was the Captain of a merchant ship and also a member of the Dissenters’ Chapel in London. John and he spent many hours discussing prayer, faith and the Bible.
November 1754: A fit ended his sea career.
During the next few months, John returned to health and the search for a new job began. Also, following Captain Clunie’s advice, he attended Stepney Dissenting Chapel and travelled further around London to listen and talk to other renowned evangelical Gospel preachers.
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. ** see link below to find out more about Newton’s life in Liverpool
By 1757 Newton was considering joining the ministry himself. In 1758 he spent 6 weeks thinking, seeking advice and guidance and above all praying about this, as well as writing down his ‘Miscellaneous Thoughts‘ in a notebook. On his thirty-third birthday, his decision was finally made.
‘However, it was seven years before the Church of England agreed to his ordination. It was only with the support of William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth that this happened at all. Lord Dartmouth was Lord of the Manor of Olney and also held the living of the church of St Peter & St Paul. This connection then brought John Newton to Olney.
In 1764, he became curate of the parish church of St Peter & St Paul in Olney, a position he held for nearly 16 years.
Sunday 27 May 1764
‘ Opened my commission in Olney Church in the morning from Psalm 80.1
In the afternoon 2 Corinthians 2:15,16
The vicarage house not being ready, we live for the present in an Inn’
For John his Ministry went beyond Sunday church services.
‘As it is but a fortnight to the time I am to wait upon the Bishop, I shall defer setting up a weekly lecture ‘till that is over, …’
(Diary June 1764)
During his time in Olney his weekly pattern included two Sunday church services as well as fellowship, prayer groups & lectures in the Vicarage, Great House and the Church.
1st January 1765 John had described to his patron Lord Dartmouth his plans for developing his groups:
‘ I propose to establish three meetings … One for the children, another for the young and enquiring persons, and a third to be a meeting with the more experienced and judicious for prayer and conference.’
(Diary Jan 1765)
It was in 1767 that a chance meeting subsequently brought William Cowper & John Newton together in Olney. From this friendship came the writing partnership which led to the writing of hymns for the congregation. In 1779, these hymns were brought together and published as ‘The Olney Hymns’.
John had hoped to be able to preach ‘extempore’ (without notes) but in the early years he found he would lose his flow and line of thought. At this point in his life he found he needed to prepare well and his practice was to first write out his thoughts in notebooks.
It was for his New Year’s Day service in 1773 that John wrote the words for the hymn ‘Amazing Grace‘. The Museum owns several of John’s notebooks but Lambeth Palace owns the ‘Amazing Grace’ sermon notebook.
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 the Slave Trade, formed in 1787.
‘I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.’
Published 1788 ‘Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade’
The Minutes of the first meeting of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade can be read here.
Other committee minutes record how they purchased the remains of the 1st print run of Newton’s Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade published in January 1788, paid for 3,000 more to be printed and sent a copy to each member of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
However, it was back in December 1785 that William Wilberforce, MP for Hull, had visited John for guidance and advice. They had first met in Olney when as an 11 year old boy William had accompanied his Uncle and Aunt. Through his meetings with John, William made the decision not to enter the ministry himself, but to remain an MP and become the voice of the abolitionist movement in parliament.
For further information on John’s involvement in both the Slave Trade and Campaign to Abolish Slavery visit our Slavery & Abolition page.
John Newton died in 1807, a few months after the Act abolishing the slave trade throughout the British Empire had been passed.
Polly and John were originally buried in the crypt of his London church, St Mary, Woolnoth.
The monument to Polly’s father, who spent his last years living with the couple at the Vicarage, can to seen to the left of the tomb.
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.
* All quotes are taken from John’s autobiography ‘An Authentic Narrative’ published 1764
Letters to Benjamin Fawcett, circa 1762 : manuscript, in the hand of Samuel Cooper. These letters, in which Newton gives an account of his life, are a precursor to Newton’s letters to Thomas Haweis, which were published as An Authentic Narrative Of Some Remarkable And Interesting Particulars In The Life Of John Newton (London, 1764).
JOHN NEWTON’S DIARY: 1764 John Newton / The John Newton Project (Diary) ISBN: 978-0-9559635-1-3
John Newton 1767 diary : Lambeth Palace Library MS 2941 Transcription by Marylynn Rouse, The John Newton Project www.johnnewton.org
Journal of a Slave Trader (John Newton 1750-1754) Edited, with an introduction, by Bernard Martin and Mark Spurrell
The original journals are at the Royal Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Some digitised pages of the journal can be seen on their website.
** For more information on John Newton’s life in Liverpool, visit the Bygone Liverpool website
Letters from John Newton to the Earl of Dartmouth: Historical Manuscripts Commission XV Report, Appendix, Part 1, The Manuscripts of the Earl of Dartmouth, iii (1896 ) Cowper & Newton Museum
Letters to a Wife: By the Author of Cardiphonia by John Newton 1793
Digital images of some of the letters can be seen on the Lambeth Palace website.
The Christian correspondent; or A series of religious letters, written by John Newton to Captain Alexander Clunie, from 1761, to 1770
‘Ministry on My Mind’ by Marylynn Rouse and published by the John Newton Project
Digitised notebook ‘Miscellaneous Thoughts’ by John Newton Lambeth Palace
You can also read more about John Newton and his works on the ‘John Newton Project’ website.
Pages related to John Newton
Amazing Grace & The Olney Hymns ‘to my dear friends in the parish and neighbourhood of Olney, for whose use the hymns were originally composed;…’ Did you know? ‘Amazing Grace’ was penned by the Rev John Newton during his time here in Olney. ‘Amazing Grace’ was originally titled ‘Faith’s Review and Expectation’ . It was published by John in