Thomas Wright’s Dream
Thomas Wright, a 19th century Olney schoolmaster, local historian and author, collected and enthusiastically promoted William Cowper’s work and history. He was a great fan of many English poets and writers, but William Cowper, literary star of his home town, was clearly his favourite. The school he founded in Olney was named the Cowper School in honour of his hero. Wright gave talks around the country to raise awareness of Olney’s history and William Cowper’s work, and in 1886 – a century after Cowper left Olney – published his first book on Cowper: The Town of Cowper or The Literary and Historical Associations of Olney and its Neighbourhood. William Collingridge, a successful London publisher who happened to own Orchard Side, was so impressed with the book that he wrote to Wright to praise his work. They became friends through their mutual interest in William Cowper and their enthusiasm was shared by many other Cowper fans. Wright was the founder of the Cowper Society, who corresponded, held meetings and compared their private collections.
Orchard Side was not the first Cowper museum, but it was the first permanent one. Wright’s cousin was leader of the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society, and Wright organised a temporary Cowper museum at Etolia House in preparation for the Society’s visit. He then began to exhibit his Cowper Collection in his own home. But Wright knew this would be a temporary situation and worked tirelessly to press for a permanent site to house all Cowper collections.
Wright began to ‘commence an agitation for the establishment of a permanent museum of Cowper MSS. (manuscripts) and relics…’ He wrote a biography of William Cowper in 1892. Campaigning tirelessly through local and national letters and talks for the next 12 years, he hoped Collingridge would agree that Orchard Side should be dedicated to keeping William Cowper’s memory alive, to benefit the people of Olney and the nation itself.
Thomas Wright believed Orchard Side was Cowper’s spiritual home and destined to become a permanent venue in his honour. Cowper loved Olney as an escape from stressful city life; its peaceful and beautiful surroundings helped to preserve his fragile mental health. He wrote ecstatically of the beauty of the countryside, as detailed in his poem, The Task. His close friend and literary collaborator John Newton was curate-in-charge at the nearby church; the two were close friends and Newton visited so regularly that he paid a neighbour a guinea a year for access through the land that separated them, now known as the Guinea Orchard.