The amazing story behind Amazing Grace

Posted 20th November 2019

Olney is a particularly pretty market town seated north of Milton Keynes, with imposing Georgian buildings lining your route through its centre, hinting at its rich history. 

Pancakes ensure that Olney’s name is familiar far and wide, writes Sammy Jones.

Once a year, Olney finds itself the centre of attention when the annual pancake race is run in the town. The tradition can be traced way back to 1445!

But the town doesn’t just boast a famous event; It was home to two remarkable men too – poet and letter writer William Cowper, and his friend, John Newton.

Across three centuries, beginning in the early 1500s, more than 12 million Africans were captured and transported across the Atlantic to work as slaves in the Americas.

By 1700 Britain was the largest slave trading nation, and enslaved Africans worked on plantations in the West Indies and America, growing goods including coffee and sugar.

They were then shipped to Britain as part of the Triangular Trade between Britain, Africa and the Americas.

John Newton
John Newton

John Newton, who was born in London in 1725, would soon enter the profitable slave trade himself.

John’s mother had died when he was just six years young, a victim of tuberculosis. By the age of 10, he was at work on water – at sea as a cabin boy on his father’s ship.

When he was 17, John was set to leave for Jamaica to join the plantation business, but his head had been turned by Mary Catlett, known as Polly, and he deliberately failed to set sail.

He did eventually return to sea, but during his next visit to see Polly he was press-ganged into the Navy, where he would work as a midshipman on HMS Harwich. John deserted the ship to see his love, but was caught and punished before the crew of 350. He was stripped to the waist and tied to the grating, receiving a flogging of 84 lashes. His rank on the ship was also reduced – to that of a common seaman.

By the time the ship arrived in Madeira, John’s behaviour had become so unruly that the captain passed him to a trading ship headed for Sierra Leone.

HMS Harwich was swapped for life aboard Pegasus, a slave ship travelling to West Africa, and the crew left him in West Africa with slave dealer Amos Crowe.

Crowe presented John to his wife, who mistreated him, just as she did her other slaves.

In 1748 a sea captain rescued him and his journey home aboard the Greyhound ship began.

But the ship was at the mercy of the weather, and a terrific storm nearly sank the vessel.

John must have been terrified that he would perish as the ship struggled in waters off Lough Swilly, and he later told how he prayed during the near-disaster.

A stained glass window in Olney’s St Peter and St Paul Church depicts the Greyhound ship that rescued John Newton from Africa

John’s spiritual journey had begun, and by the time he reached Britain, he had accepted the beliefs of evangelical Christianity.

He stopped using obscene language, gambling and drinking. But his voyages continued – the next four were on slave ships as first mate, and then captain.

As captain of a slave ship, John was responsible for the forced relocation of 511 Africans.

John documented his increasing Christian beliefs in letters to Polly, and their love endured – they were married in 1750.

In 1754, due to ill health, John was forced to retire from his life at sea, and given a position as Surveyor of the Tides in Liverpool.

This new role allowed him the time to study for the ministry, and to travel and listen to the great preachers of the time.

In 1764 Lord Dartmouth arranged John’s ordination and offered him the parish of Olney.

He was curate-in-charge of the parish church, St Peter & St Paul, and lived in the rectory opposite his place of work.

William Cowper

John Newton stayed in Olney for almost 17 years, and struck up a firm relationship with William Cowper. He was a frequent visitor to Cowper’s house on Orchard Side – now the museum – to see his friend. He once said: “I believe…we were not seven hours without being together.”

John also achieved huge fame while residing in the town. He published several books, including a collaboration with Cowper – 1779’s Olney Hymns.

One of the religious songs penned by Newton and featured in that book was Faith’s Review and Expectation. It remains one of the most popular hymns ever, although you will know it better as Amazing Grace.

Both Cowper and Newton made significant contributions to the abolition of the slave trade – indeed Cowper’s earliest published poems reflect the horror at the cruelties of the trade. He also wrote several poems specifically for the abolition campaigners.

After converting to Christianity John regretted his involvement in the slave trade and became active in the fight for abolition – his personal experiences aboard the ships were used for the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, formed in 1787.

The parliamentary campaign was led by his friend William Wilberforce.

Wilberforce considered leaving Parliament in preference of working as a minister, but Newton urged him to stay and ‘serve God where he was.’

His 1788 pamphlet on the African Slave Trade and testimony to parliamentary committees helped sway public opinion. But it wasn’t until the year of John’s death in 1807, that the Bill to prohibit the slave trade in the British Empire succeeded.

John’s life continues to inspire today, and his personal journey from a participant in the slave trade to prominent supporter of abolitionism is incredible.

Today, Cowper’s former home, a formidable red brick Georgian house on the corner of Market Place, serves as The Cowper and Newton Museum and explores the lives of both men.

An exhibit at the museum shares more about the slave trade, and Newton’s hand in its abolition.

Visitors come from around the world to understand more about the lives and work of William Cowper and John Newton.

The museum also offers a significant amount of objects and documents exploring the history of Olney itself, and when the inside of the building has been exhausted, the two gardens prove a tranquil space to get close to nature.

The Cowper & Newton Museum is located at Market Place in Olney. 

For pricing, opening times and more details visit or call 01234 711516.