‘The Calm Retreat’
The history of a small Buckinghamshire town
The serenity of Olney’s environs and the beauty of its buildings are deceptive: for much of its history the town was witness to grinding poverty, fire, pestilence and war. It has been the site of one of England’s great religious revivals and the invention of the ‘modern’ workhouse. It is the home of the Pancake Race and ‘Amazing Grace’, of the slave trader turned evangelist, John Newton and the poet, William Cowper. It has seen the capture of a king and the battle of a bridge. And it is not without its mysteries.
Few small towns in England can claim as much. How did it come about?
While Olney can boast no grand Roman villa like the one at nearby Piddington, what is now the High Street is believed to have been a Roman road with settlements at each end. (Viatores. 1964. Roman Roads in the South East Midlands.) Let us call them the northern and the southern settlements.
The northern settlementThe northern settlement most likely sprung up around the Roman site of Ashfurlong, a field to the east of the Olney to Warrington road just beyond the new industrial estate. According to the Draft Historic Town Assessment Report, the Ashfurlong site covers several hectares, shows signs of second to the fourth century occupation and has been interpreted as a Roman village or proto-urban settlement of national importance.
The triangular patch of green at the foot of the Yardley road is known as ‘the knoll’. Though it shows no sign of a mound today, it was once used as electoral hustings and is still occasionally the site of civic ceremonies.
As we shall see, Olney’s first church may also have been located in this area.
Despite the fact that there was long a ‘Castle Inn’ at a place known, suggestively, as ‘Castle End’, no evidence has yet been found to confirm the existence of a castle anywhere nearby.
The southern settlementThe Draft Historic Town Assessment speculates that ‘some form of (Roman) settlement may have existed in Olney itself, possibly towards the town’s southern end, perhaps at a crossing or fording point in the river Ouse.’ Whether that was the case or not, the proximity of mill, ford and marketplace would have been a powerful stimulus to growth.
The ford was part of the old drovers’ route between Newport Pagnell and Northampton called the Forty Foot. Its juncture with the road to Weston and the watermill was a natural site for a market. No one knows for how long the mill had stood beside the Ouse before it was first referred to in the Domesday Book.
Centuries were to pass before these two settlements joined to form the basis of the modern town.
Saxons and DanesAfter the legions left in 410 AD the native Celts were gradually replaced by the pushy German invaders we call the Saxons. At the beginning of the ninth century the Saxons were themselves invaded by the Danes (or Vikings). After decades of intermittent warfare it was agreed by treaty that the Saxons should keep the south and west of the country, while the Danes should have the north and east, an area which became known as the Danelaw. (Though known as the treaty of Olney it was sealed in Alney in Gloucestershire.) Olney stood just inside the Danelaw and paid its taxes to the Danish king, despite the fact that its inhabitants were Saxons.
This is born out by a charter of 979 AD in which Aethelred, the Saxon king of Mercia, granted ten hides to his kinsman Aelfhere, ealdorman, or chief magistrate, of Mercia. (A hide was an area equal to about 30 modern acres: so think 300 acres.) This was the first written reference to Olney, (spelled Ollanege, or Ola’s island, the ‘ege’ being pronounced ‘ey’ in Saxon).
The NormansA new generation of marauding Vikings turned up in 1066, this time from Normandy, and swiftly took over the whole country. Their leader, Duke William, parcelled the land out to his supporters. Olney, which was formerly held by the Saxon thegn (or nobleman), Burgred, was given to Geoffrey, Bishop of Coutances in Normandy, one of the victors of the battle of Hastings.
Twenty years after he was safely ensconced in his new realm William undertook an exhaustive survey of his land for tax purposes. It was called the Domesday Book and the entry for Olney (by then spelled Olnei) records the town as having 24 villagers, 5 smallholders and 5 slaves, a mill, meadow, woodland and 400 pigs. Total value £12.
The birth of the boroughUnlike most towns, Olney did not grow up higgledy piggledy, but all at once as a result of a single development which has been described as ‘arguably one of the best surviving examples of mediaeval town planning in Buckinghamshire’. (Draft Historic Town Assessment)
In 1237 the lord of the manor greatly extended the southern settlement by building fifty six burgage (or town) tenements, long narrow plots of land at right angles to the High Street. They stretched from the market place to the high arch, a bridge over the stream in front of what is now the United Reformed Church, and are still the basis of the property boundaries bordering the High Street. Other tenements were built in East and West Streets, Above the Bere Lane, Jeffreys Lane and Silver Street Lane, later to become Silver End. In this way Olney became a mesne borough, that is a borough in the ownership of a lord. But there was one aspect of the new borough which not even the lord of the manor could control, the mud.
In the thirteenth century a stream ran from the Yardley Road down the western side of the High Street until it met another, wider stream coming out of Spring Lane, then graphically known as Spout Lane and half the width of the present street. The two streams merged at the high arch, and the combined flow continued east to join the Ouse. In the absence of any man-made sewerage system the stream would have been used as an open sewer. In all except the driest days, therefore, the High Street would have been a mass of foul mud which pedestrians had to make wider and wider detours to keep clear of. And that is why Olney’s High Street is still one of the five widest in the country.
At some time in the sixteenth century a pebbled (or pitched) causeway was built in the middle of the High Street wide enough to accommodate the packhorses that were then the only means of transporting goods. It ran from the marketplace to what is now The Queen hotel, with posts at regular intervals. A charity, the causeway charity, was set up to maintain it.
The Manor HouseThe lord of the manor of Olney was also the lord of the borough and responsible, as such, to the king. He would have lived in a manor house. But where was Olney’s manor?
Olney’s historian, Thomas Wright suggested that Olney’s mediaeval manor was sited near Olney Court, a farm to the north east if the town. But Lordship Close, the field between the churchyard and the mill, would seem to be a more likely location. It was later replaced by what was called the Great House, an old, possibly fourteenth century, building. The Great House was enlarged in the seventeenth century into an ‘E’ shaped structure with gables and square mullioned windows. It was demolished in 1830, but the dressed piers and stone balls of its gate house still guard the entrance to the churchyard.
For more about the manor house see Annex A.
Was there an early church?There is a strong local tradition that before the present church of SS Peter & Paul was built an earlier church once stood at the northern end of town. English Heritage comments: ‘since no vestige remains of a building earlier than the mid-C14 in the present structure, this may be correct.’
And there is good reason for thinking so. The title deeds to the building formerly known as the Castle Inn described the area immediately to the north of the Inn as ‘The old Churchyard’. And the ‘churchyard elm’ which stood opposite the Queen hotel until 1935 was said to be 600 years old. Furthermore, when what are called the Feoffee cottages were being built on the Wellingborough road burials were found on the site orientated east to west after the Christian fashion. (The feofee charity was created in 1650 by a merger of two earlier charities.) Those who doubt the story of an earlier church suggest that the burials might have belonged to the Ashfurlong roman settlement, since the roman practice was always to bury their dead outside town. However, when repairs were carried out to the present church in 1800 a beam was found which bore the tantalizing inscription,
‘This beam was laid by Ben Marriot and Michael Hinde, churchwardens, July 17th, 1718
and 700 years from its first building (1018).’
and 700 years from its first building (1018).’
The present churchThe present church of St Peter & St Paul was built between 1330 and 1350 in the Decorated Gothic style then fashionable. There is a folk tale that the builders put the stones of which it was to be made in nearby Lordship Close and that they were supernaturally moved to the present site to convince the builders to go there. Thomas Wright suggested that ‘the origin of the legend… is to be found in the fact that many foundations, and these in all probability the remains of some religious house, are known to exist in the Lordship Close.’ (The Town of Cowper) That may be true, but much the same tale is told of many other places. The unusually tall (185 feet) tower and spire were added later. The walls of the tower bulge out in an architectural effect known as ‘entasis’ designed to exaggerate its height.
A curious but not unique feature of the church is that the chancel inclines to the north, an arrangement supposed to represent Christ’s bowed head on the cross. Below the pulpit there was once a leper window at which the diseased were able to see the altar from outside. It was replaced in the nineteenth century by a window showing Rev. Langley standing in his garden. Another interesting feature is the arched recess in the north wall of the chancel. Some have suggested that it was the tomb of the church’s unknown founder, but it is more likely to have been an Eastern Sepulchre, a wooden structure with hangings which was placed on a tomb, a feature common in mediaeval churches.
The design of the church has led some to believe that its nameless architect may also have built the church of All Saints in nearby Emberton.
Lime Street, a lane on the west side of Bridge Street, formerly known as Brigge Street, opposite the churchyard, was once known as ‘Dead Lane’ because it was a lychway (or ‘corpse-way’) specially licensed for bringing the dead into church when the Weston Underwood churchyard became full.
The lost buildingsOne building that has disappeared without trace is the chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary that formerly stood in the corner of the churchyard formed by the mill garden and Lordship Close. In the late fourteenth century Ralph Lord Basset of Drayton provided a stipend for the performance of divine service there. A century later Richard Earl of Warwick established a chantry to pay for masses for the dead. The office of priest of the chapel seems to have been an enviable appointment because it carried with it two burgages called respectively the Chapel House and the Catharine Wheel.
A Parish cross, which was often pressed into use as a bargaining stone, once stood about midway between the north-west angle of the tower and the wall dividing the churchyard from Lordship Close. The last remains of it were removed in 1800.
Olney’s priestsFrom the earliest days until the sixteenth century Olney’s living was held by a rector, that is a priest entitled to receive the greater and lesser tithes due to the church. (A vicar was entitled only to the lesser tithes.) For a list of vicars and rectors see Annex B.
The office of priest was not always a guarantee against violence, as the following thirteenth century incident testifies:
‘the Countess of Arundel, to whom the manor then belonged, with ten armed men, seized the men of Master Nicholas de Bachingdenn (or Baginden), rector of the Church of Olney, and imprisoned them, and forcibly took possession of three hundred measures of corn, two horses, two carts bound with iron, five cows, four sheep, two heifers, and ten swine, belonging to the rector’.
The plagueThe last stone had barely been put on Olney’s church before the Black Death arrived in Dorset. By the following year it had spread to the Midlands and over the next eighteen months it was to kill some 40% of the population. The plague of 1348 was not a one off; it was to recur repeatedly until the seventeenth century.
One part of town that suffered particularly badly was the parish of Olney Park Farm. Situated between the Yardley and Warrington roads, the parish once contained a small settlement with a thriving pottery industry, but seems to have become de-populated at about the time of the plague. In 1374 Ralph, Lord Bassett (whose manor house would have had limited grounds) seized the opportunity to obtain royal approval to create a deer park there. The park was later empaled (ie fenced) in the time of Queen Elizabeth, when it acquired a substantial hunting lodge and outbuildings.
One mile north of the town and to the east of Olney Park Farm lay the mediaeval settlement of Olney Hyde which boasted some fourteen kilns. It is first recorded in the thirteenth century but was deserted in the fifteenth, though why can only be conjectured.
We tend to think of people in distant times as somehow less capable of emotion than ourselves, but the extent of the personal tragedies arising from the plague must have been appalling. Not all the effects were adverse, however: the scarcity of labour led to higher wages with a consequent rise in the living standards of the poor.
The town begins to prosperOlney had had a Monday market since at least 1205. It has never had a charter, but is a ‘prescriptive’ market, that is a market licensed by tradition. A cattle market is known to have stood beside the market-place from at least the time of Edward II until abolished a decade or more ago. It was in his reign in 1317 when two men, Robert Legat and John Salcote were arraigned at Westminster for fraudulently obtaining sixty head of cattle in the market by means of a forged king’s commission. Salcote was hanged, but Legat was acquitted.
Ralph, Lord Basset obtained a charter for an annual fair in 1316. It was to be held on ‘the vigil, feast and morrow of St. Peter and St. Paul' (ie 28th June) It is now better known as the cherry fair after the local fruit. Another ‘statute’ fair, the annual hiring fair, was held on 13 October.
Crime and punishmentThe most serious crimes were dealt with by the King’s Justices and the ultimate penalty was death.
The Olney gallows are believed to have stood at the junction of the Warrington and Lavendon roads. As well as being the site of executions, crossroads like this were also the traditional burial place of suicides (who could not be buried in consecrated ground). Only one such burial is known as having taken place in Olney; it was of a man called Marryot who had killed himself in the Saracen’s Head (it must have been an awful pub). If custom was followed the body was buried at night with a stake through the heart. (This gruesome practice was only outlawed in 1823.) Might the grim history of the gallows site somehow be connected with the devilish legends concerning the nearby Whirlypit? Now commemorated by a mundane roundabout of that name, the Whirlypit was once the home of carp and was rumoured to be a ‘bottomless’ pond which local legend associated with the Devil.
The English have always been a litigious lot. As The History of the County of Buckingham comments, ‘Olney had its full complement of manorial courts.’ Their history is too complex to consider here, but once a year the burgesses of Olney met in the Bull Inn to elect two reeves and a body of twelve men to administer the affairs of the borough, as well as two ale-tasters, six tithingmen, and a hayward. Two constables were sworn in as officers of the king.
Order was enforced by dividing the townsmen into groups of ten, known as a tithing and making the group responsible for the misdeeds of its members. It was the duty of the tithingman to bring anyone caught misbehaving before the manorial court in what was known as a view of frankpledge. From the fourteenth century on the Olney view of frankpledge was held once a year. Olney’s court went on meeting until the Dartmouth estate was sold in the 1930s, although its peace keeping duties had long been taken over by the justices of the peace.
Lesser offenders were punished by being placed in the stocks on the market place or whipped around town tied to an ox cart in a process known as ‘cart tailing’. Olney’s whipping distance was from the market place to the high arch and back again. As we shall see, the practice of public whipping continued until the early nineteenth century.
The Pancake RaceOlney’s famous pancake race first took place on Shrove Tuesday 1445, a century or so after the church was built. One story is that a local housewife who had been cooking pancakes for Lent heard the Shriving bell and ran to the church, frying pan in hand, and wearing her apron and headscarf. Another version claims that the pancake was a bribe to the Sexton to ring the bell early which signified the beginning of the holiday.
We shall see later how the tradition died out and was resurrected.
To catch a kingNot long after the first pancake race was first run the country erupted in the sporadic but bloody hostilities known as the wars of the roses. They did not end until thirty years later when the Lancastrian, Henry Tudor seized the throne from the Yorkist, Richard III. Olney was fortunate in appearing only on the fringes of this conflict, but it was an exciting appearance.
One of the most capable of the Yorkist commanders was the 27 year old King Edward IV, but his army was defeated in 1469 by the Earl of Warwick at the Battle of Edgecote Moor, north-east of Banbury. Edward was not in command at the time, and on hearing the news fled to Olney. There is a legend that he used the church spire as a lookout. If so, the plan did not work. With tactics that sound like those of today’s special forces, Warwick,
‘in the dead of the night with an elect company of men of war, as secretly as was possible, set on the king’s fielde, killing them that kept the watch, an the king was ware (for he thought of nothing less than of that chance that happened) at a place called [W]alney, four mile from Warwike [the kingmaker], he was taken prisoner, and brought to the castell of Warwike.’ (Hall's Chronicle.)
Edward had been captured in his bed in the Great House. Fortunately for him, he was released unharmed and survived to defeat and kill Warwick.
The fifteenth century was a troubled time and it would not be surprising if, as legend has it, the town was walled, presumably with a gate or gates which were closed at curfew time. If so, no traces of them remain.
A new industryMid fifteenth century Buckinghamshire was in a parlous state. Help came from an unexpected quarter. When the Inquisition came to the Low Countries many Flemish Protestants fled to England, settling mostly in flax growing areas like Buckinghamshire. They brought their skills in lace making with them. The Flemings were followed by the Huguenots from France who had similar expertise. Local people began to take up the craft and by the end of the seventeenth century one quarter of the population of the county was employed in making lace.
A new soundA new sound was heard for the first time in the sixteenth century. It had its origin in the wooden stay which prevents English church bells from rotating through 360 degrees. This simple invention gave rise to the characteristically English practice of chime ringing.
Olney’s church tower originally housed a peal of six bells. (It now has ten.) The oldest bell, dated 1535, bears the inscription, ‘God save the Queen’, meaning Queen Elizabeth. One day in 1611 when another Queen, Queen Anne passed through town four shillings were paid to the ringers.
A new lookAlong with prosperity came a change in the look of Olney, at least if some architects are to be believed. According to them, the mid-sixteenth century saw the old wooden houses in which the large mass of the people lived beginning to be replaced by buildings built of stone or brick. A large part of Olney’s charm is down to the beautiful Jurassic limestone of which the present buildings on the High Street are constructed. The stone came from a quarry at Warrington. It is the same outcrop which stretches from the Cotswolds to The Wash.
A new bridgeThe Great Ouse has played a large part in Olney’s history. It could only be crossed by a ford until the first bridge was built sometime before 1334, when it is known to have been repaired. That bridge was replaced in 1619, but the new bridge was prone to being inundated in the winter floods. This was cured in the reign of Queen Anne by the building of a twenty four span bridge which the local poet, William Cowper described as ‘of wearisome but necessary length’.
In 1832 a new seven arched bridge was built over the south stream of the Ouse joining the earlier bridge at its northern end. The modern concrete structure was built in the 1970s.
A new grievanceMediaeval strip cultivation, or the open field system, was fine for its day, but by Tudor times the grazing of sheep was far more profitable and landlords began consolidating the strips into larger enclosed fields, or enclosures. This often resulted in the loss of the common waste, the uncultivated land which formerly had been used by the villagers in common. Resentment grew and, fearful of disorder, laws were passed to stop further enclosures. Landlords reacted by seeking private Acts of Parliament authorizing enclosure, but these were equally unpopular. (The term, ‘Leveller’ was coined to describe the men who pulled down enclosures.) The East Midlands erupted in 1607 with armed bands roaming the countryside destroying enclosures from Rushton to Leicestershire until they were suppressed. In one protest meeting in Newton near Kettering forty people were killed before order was restored.
Resentment at enclosures was only one contributory cause of England’s worst tragedy. When it came, not even quiet Olney was to escape its effects.
The ‘Battle’ of Olney BridgeTensions between King Charles and his Parliament had been growing for a long time and on 22 August 1642 the king raised the royal standard at Nottingham. It was the start of England’s bloody civil war.
A year after the outbreak of war the whole country had taken sides. In this area the king’s forces under the dashing Prince Rupert were stationed in Northampton’s powerful castle. Some fifteen miles away stood the Parliamentary stronghold of Newport Pagnell which controlled the strategically important drovers’ route. The only force that stood between Northampton and Newport was the garrisoned but unfortified Parliamentary outpost of Olney.
Olney’s garrison was under the command of Col. Edmund Harvey. It consisted of two regiments of horse from the City of London and a regiment of foot known as Col. Randall Mainwaring's redcoats.
At about seven in the morning of Saturday, 4 November 1643 a royal force from Northampton under Prince Rupert fell upon Olney, taking the defenders by surprise. The best account of the event comes from Harvey’s report to his chief, the Earl of Essex. According to this, the attacking force consisted of seven or eight regiments of horse, perhaps 2,000 cavalrymen and four hundred Dragoneers [Dragoons, or mounted infantry]. As the attackers came clattering down Yardley hill they took the defenders by surprise. Although sentries had been put out they were able to give no more than fifteen minutes notice to the defenders. Unaware of the size of the attacking force, Harvey hastily assembled a scratch force of cavalry: the result was a near disaster. As one of their officers wrote, ‘...our poor red coats were put to their shifts, being broken all in pieces by our own horse, that they had no means to be gotten together again’. It took no more than half an hour for the attackers to slash and push the defenders all along the High Street and over the small pack horse bridge. Here, Cromwell’s ‘plain russet coated Captains’ rallied and made their stand.
At this point some two hundred soldiers of Olney’s garrison were facing an unknown number of the king’s infantry, strengthened by about forty horse. The rest were cut off in the High Street and could offer no support. After an exchange of musketry fire charges were made to and fro until the attackers were driven back across the bridge. The Parliamentary horse were then able to force their way into town cutting down the royalists before them. Some of the retreating soldiers sowed disorder in their own ranks by shouting that they had been attacked by reinforcements from Newport. Retreat turned to rout and the town was swiftly cleared of the attackers. The King’s men scattered far and wide, some of the cavalry being chased as far as Towcester.
Col. Harvey believed that the attack on Olney was in revenge for one of his a few days earlier, but the size of the royal force makes one wonder if it did not have a more ambitious aim, namely to thrust through the town and on to Newport. Rupert’s men were heard bragging that they would ‘take Newport againe whatever it cost them’: they never did.
The number from both sides killed in the action is variously estimated at between 26 and 40; many more were injured. A row of graves believed to hold some of the dead was discovered in the nineteenth century and the bodies re-interred in Olney churchyard. As a footnote to the battle (which should really be described as a skirmish) the ODHS suggests that 'it was no unusual sight for the 'up-town' and 'down-town' roughs to have a difference of opinion on the Market Hill right up to the advent of the railway here.' The site of the battle has recently been commemorated by a small monument.
Olney escaped the worst of the civil war, but had a near miss in 1645 when the royalist army spent the night at Newport Pagnell before the fateful battle of Naseby. And in the following year the former Chicheley Hall was burned down by the Roundheads. Two years later the king was seized at Holmby House and the war was over.
One last echo of the civil war was heard when local Diggers, an egalitarian group akin to the Levellers, declared that ‘we the Poor Inhabitants of the Town of Wellingborrow, in the County of Northampton, have begun and give consent to dig up, manure and sow Corn upon the Common, and waste ground, called Bareshanke belonging to the Inhabitants of Wellinborrow, by those that have Subscribed and hundreds more that give Consent...’. It was the last that was heard of the Digger movement.
DissentAfter the civil war the Puritan movement dissolved into a variety of religious groups known as Dissenters who sought a church with a plain liturgy and a ritual freed of Episcopal influences. They had a rough time after the Restoration; anyone who refused to conform to the rites of the established church was likely to be punished; and that included ministers.
One of the first ministers to be ejected from his living was John Gibbs of Newport Pagnell. In 1660, after being found guilty of refusing Holy Communion to a local notable, he left his church and brought his congregation with him to a barn in Olney near the site of the present Baptist church. More than once he was imprisoned for his pains. Even the Anglican clergy were not exempt. Olney’s vicar, William Worcester, was suspended from his office for refusing an order from his superior ‘to read to his congregation from the King's book portions that allowed sports and recreation on Lord's Day’. One of his parishioners, John James, won a rare victory when he successfully complained to the court of having been forced to observe the rituals of the established church.
The eighteenth centuryThe eighteenth century was a period of growing prosperity for the town. But trade needed better communications than the old Parish maintained roads could provide.
This was resolved by a combination of two developments, the stagecoach and the Turnpike roads they were to travel on. Stagecoaches, large and clumsy conveyances, had first appeared in the sixteenth century, but they only came into their own with the ‘pay for use’ Turnpike roads. The Kettering to Newport Pagnell Turnpike trust was established in 1747. It was followed in 1790 by the Cold Brayfield to Newport Pagnell Trust. Both roads passed through Olney. The Olney toll, known as the Duchy (ie Duchy of Lancaster) Toll, was at the north east side of the bridge in a pub called ‘The Anchor’. There was no gate: the animals were simply constrained for easy counting by a bar attached to the wall. The Toll was gone by 1814.
Travellers needed somewhere to sleep and ‘The Bull’ on the marketplace with its wide entrance served the 'Beehive Coach'. It was advertised as ‘built expressly and fitted up with superior accommodation for comfort and safety to any coach in Europe.’ It needed to be; it left The Exchange, Manchester at seven in the evening and arrived at Ludgate Hill the next afternoon at three. The gentry were put up in the Inn; their servants had to make do with the Saracen’s Head next door.
Thirsty folk had the choice of a host of local pubs and ale houses, most of them little more than rooms in private houses. By 1754 there were 27 pubs in the town, supplied by five maltings and a large brewery to the west of the High Street between Spring Lane and Weston road. (The Old Inns of Olney, Buckinghamshire. E Knight, 1981.)
More grand houses were being built, like Dartmouth House in Dartmouth Road, a double fronted stone building of three stories erected by the Earl of Dartmouth in 1745 when he was Lord of the Manor. Despite a busy political career (Colonial Secretary in 1772–5 and Lord Privy Seal in 1775–82) Dartmouth had much to do with the town, though he never lived in the building that bears his name.
An increasingly prosperous middle class demanded cleaner streets and the streams in the High Street were finally covered in 1790 when pebbled gutters were installed beside the houses. A small patch of cobbles may still be seen outside the Bull Inn.
But deeper currents were beginning to flow in Olney.
‘A wretch like me’Some historians have suggested that the reason Britain did not go down the route of violent unrest in the late eighteenth century was the Evangelical revival. Prominent among those involved were two of Olney’s residents, John Newton and William Cowper.
The vicarage in Church Street is one of the town’s most handsome buildings. It is largely a 1642 reconstruction of an earlier building, but its present appearance dates from 1767 when it was refashioned by Lord Dartmouth to make life comfortable for his protégé, the Rev. John Newton. Dartmouth’s interest in the Evangelical Revival earned him the not entirely flattering name of the Psalm Singer.
Newton had had an action packed life; he had gone to sea at the age of eleven with his father, a shipmaster. He overstayed his leave and was pressed into the Royal Navy. With his father’s influence he was appointed a midshipman, but he deserted, was caught, degraded to Able Seaman, publicly stripped and flogged. He was later transferred to a merchant ship engaged in the slave trade off the coast of Sierra Leone. Even there things did not work out for him. Left in West Africa with a slave dealer, he became the servant of the trader’s black wife who badly mistreated him before he was rescued.
In 1748 Newton became first mate of a slaving ship and received his first command the following year. His ship experienced a near fatal storm which caused Newton, like many another before him, to turn to God. On his return to England he married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett, known as ‘Polly’. But neither marriage nor the spiritual conversion affected Newton’s attitude to the slave trade because he thereupon embarked upon three further trips as Master of a slave ship. An epileptic fit finally caused him to give up the sea and he settled in Liverpool as a tide surveyor (or customs official).
It was there that he became involved in the evangelical movement and was ordained in 1764, though not without a struggle. Newton was at first torn between the Independent and the Established churches, and his suitability for the ministry was questioned because of his lack of learning. Eventually, with the help of the Earl of Dartmouth he obtained the position of curate-in-charge at Olney. The actual priest, Moses Brown had gone to Blackheath where to become chaplain of Morden College.
Within a year of his arrival in Olney Newton published his best selling letters to a friend entitled, An Authentic Narrative of some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of —. He later wrote, ‘I hope the publication will give additional weight to my ministry here. The people stare at me since reading them, and well they may.’ Strangely absent from the Remarkable and Interesting Particulars, however, was any reference to the plight of the slaves Newton had earned his living by. The words, ‘slave’, ‘slaver’, ‘slavery’ do not even appear in the book. He was not a particularly cruel master for his day, but even in the best ships the conditions of the slaves was appalling. The sailors were encouraged to rape the women in order to get a better price and punishments for disobedience were harsh. Newton, for example, gratefully recorded how once, by,
‘the favour of divine providence, [he] made a timely discovery today that the slaves were forming a plot for an insurrection. Surprised two of them attempting to get off their irons. Put the boys in irons and slightly in the thumb screws to urge them to a full confession.’
To the modern reader The Authentic Narrative gives the impression of a man more concerned with his own soul than with his fellow men.
The new curate proved to be a magnetic preacher and a gallery had to be constructed in Olney’s church to hold the congregation. (It has since been pulled down.) Even this was not enough. In 1769 Newton records how ‘We are going to remove our prayer-meeting to the great room in the Great House. It is a noble place, with a parlour behind it, and holds one hundred and thirty people conveniently’. In doctrinal matters Newton regarded himself as a ‘middle man’ and his friend, William Bull, the Independent minister at Newport Pagnell often used to help out with the preaching at Olney. It was in an attic study at the east end of the vicarage that Newton wrote the words of the hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’ intended to illustrate a sermon for New Year's Day 1773. Published in 1779, the hymn crossed the Atlantic, where it was put to a folk tune, New Britain, and achieved immortality. It is not known to what tune it was sung in Newton’s day. The study still contains over the mantelpiece texts which Newton had had painted there.
Newton remained curate at Olney until 1780 when he left to take up the Rectorship of the fashionable St Mary Woolnoth church in London. Eight years later he plucked up courage to make his ‘public confession’ in a pamphlet, ‘Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade’, which, he acknowledged, ‘however sincere, comes too late to prevent, or repair, the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessory’. (Even then his first concern was, not the slaves, but the welfare of the British sailors engaged in the slave trade.) Newton’s lasting legacy was to inspire William Wilberforce, the political leader of the abolition movement.
Newton, by then a widower, died in London at the age of 83, a few months after the Abolition Act. It was only during the building of the Bank underground station in 1893 that his body and that of his wife were discovered and re-buried in Olney to the south side of the church.
His tomb bears the inscription he had himself composed:
JOHN NEWTON, Clerk
Once an infidel and libertine
A servant of slaves in Africa
Was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour
Preserved, Restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach
The Gospel which he had long laboured to destroy
Near sixteen years as curate of this Parish
And twenty-eight years as Rector of St Mary Woolnoth.Only a few months before Newton’s death Parliament had enacted an Act abolishing the slave trade throughout the empire.
‘A citizen of credit and renown’There was a remarkable conjunction of talents when on 16 September 1767 the poet, William Cowper moved to Olney.
Cowper was the son of a rector who as a young man had been called to the Bar at the Middle Temple, transferring to the Inner Temple later. He became a Commissioner of Bankrupts, but his attempt to apply for a Clerkship in the House of Lords, which involved a public appearance before the bar of the House, prompted a mental collapse. After three attempts at suicide he was admitted to an asylum where he experienced a spiritual conversion. With the help of friends he removed to Huntingdon where he met the Rev. Unwin and his wife, Mary with whom he formed a firm friendship. After her husband died Mary and Cowper moved to Olney. After a brief spell with Newton in the vicarage they moved to a three storey Georgian mansion on the south side of the marketplace known as Orchard Side, of which they occupied the western end.
Cowper’s domestic arrangements caused tongues to wag, but he had already pledged himself in secret to his cousin, Theodora and there was no question of his marrying Mary. The ensuing unpleasantness convinced Cowper that he had been personally rejected by God, and in 1773 he relapsed into another breakdown. He found refuge in Newton’s vicarage where he was allowed to stay without rent for thirteen months. Throughout his life Cowper was to experience spells of depression which only the calm of the countryside seemed to assuage. In his great poem, The Task he described the walk he was fond of taking from Olney to Weston Underwood, via the alcove in which he paused to contemplate. He also wrote of the Yardley Oak, later called Cowper’s Oak. (‘There is a field through which I often pass’.)
While he was at Orchard Side Cowper acted as an unpaid curate to his friend, Newton. Despite the disparity in their backgrounds (Newton was self-educated and Cowper a barrister) a close personal and spiritual bond developed between the two men and they paid a guinea a year for a right of way across the orchard between their two houses. It was a fruitful association; together, the two men wrote what are called the Olney Hymns, including 'How sweet the name of Jesus sounds' and 'God moves in a mysterious way.' 280 were written by Newton, 68 by Cowper; those written by Cowper being identified in the text by the letter C. In his 1779 Preface to the book in which the hymns appeared Newton touchingly records that they were not only intended to ‘promote the faith and comfort of sincere Christians’, but also ‘to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship.’
In 1781 Cowper met a well read widow, Lady Austen who for a few years was to become a major influence in his poetry. She prompted him to write his masterwork, The Task, and he became one of the most notable poets of his generation. Even during this time he suffered equally from melancholia, or as we would call it, depression, and a fear of damnation.
In 1784 thoughtful neighbours presented Cowper with three hares to whom he gave the names, Puss, Tiney, and Bess. They had the run of the house, with ‘port holes’ in the doors to allow them to move from room to room. When one of them died he wrote:
I kept him for his humour’s sake;
For he would oft beguile
My heart of cares that made it ache,
And force me to a smile.The greenhouse in which the poet wrote The Diverting History of John Gilpin no longer exists; it was replaced by a summer house which still stands in the herb garden behind Orchard Side (now the excellent Cowper and Newton museum).
In 1786 Theodora’s sister, now Lady Hesketh, joined him and Mary at Orchard Side for some six months. Finding the building cramped the newcomer moved Cowper and Mary to the Throckmorton’s house in Weston Underwood.
Cowper died in Norfolk in the year 1800 at the age of 68. A window shutter in his bedroom at Weston Underwood still bears the poignant inscription, ‘Farewell dear scenes forever closed to me. Oh for what sorrows must I now exchange thee.’
Other Olney notablesThere must have been something about Olney at this time because Newton was succeeded as curate by another notable divine, Thomas Scott. Like Newton, Scott did not have the most auspicious start in life, having been dismissed for bad conduct from his post as a surgeon and forced to work as a labourer. Like Newton and Cowper, Scott experienced a spiritual conversion. He eventually left Olney for London where he wrote his famous Commentary on the Bible, became chaplain to a hospital for syphilitics and, with Newton, helped found the Church Missionary Society.
Nor must we forget Moses Brown, Newton’s absentee vicar. A poet and author of Angling Sports, Brown was in his time a highly regarded devotional writer.
The DissentersNewton’s friend, Bell was only one of many Nonconformists in the area. When in 1669 Archbishop Sheldon required his clergy to report any “unlawful religious assemblies” in their locality he was told that there was ‘One Anabaptist meeting in Olney at the home of Widow Teares: number about 200 ‘meane’ people, led by Mr. Gibbs, one Bredon and James Rogers, lace buyers, and one Fenne, a hatter’.
Fearful of persecution, the Olney Dissenters met covertly in Threeshire Wood at Warrington where three counties meet and where the authorities would have difficulty in establishing jurisdiction. Threeshire wood is to the east of Northey Farm on the A509, north of Lavendon. For the same reason the site was also used for cock fighting and prize fighting. A desire not to offend the established church led to a curious feature of two of Olney’s places of worship: they were built on the High Street, but behind other buildings which have long since gone.
This was the case with the first Independent Church, as it was called, which was erected in 1662 and later became the Baptist church. The Congregationalists broke away from the Baptists in 1712 and later merged with the Presbyterians. Rebuilt in 1879, the church is now called the Cowper United Reformed Church.
When religious intolerance began to die down one of the first people to take advantage of the Act of Toleration was John Bunyan, who lived only a few miles from Olney. He served as a teenage Parliamentary soldier in Newport, where he may have sowed his wild oats before he saw the light. He applied for a licence to preach on behalf of himself and others, including one ‘for Joseph Kent, his barn in Olney’. In 1694 Kent moved to a permanent building on the marketplace behind a double fronted shop which no longer exists. It is now called the Sutcliffe Baptist church after John Sutcliffe, founder of the Baptist Missionary Society. His house, bearing the date, 1611, is now a nursing home and he is buried in the grounds of the church.
The Quakers used a modest building in Silver End as a meeting place. Nearby was a small cemetery where the remains of the philanthropist, Ann Hopkins Smith are buried. (She appears in our story later.) The Meeting Place was later taken over by the Salvation Army; which speaks volumes of the social conditions which once obtained in the area. A lamppost at the foot of Weston Road was known as the Alleluia lamp post because of the hymn singing which took place there. The Army subsequently opened a Citadel behind a house in the High Street known as Sunny Side, formerly the Golden Lion pub.
The marketplace in Cowper’s dayThe market was still held on Mondays in Cowper’s day. Here is what it looked like;
‘In the middle of the market-place stood three fine elms, which overshadowed a curious old two-storeyed stone building called the Shiel Hall, At the end facing north was a double flight of steps leading to the upper room, which answered for Olney the purpose of a town hall, and in which Samuel Teedon, the eccentric schoolmaster who had so much influence over Cowper, taught his pupils. The word shiel, somewhat unusual in England, is used freely in Scotland for a place of shelter and a place where corn was winnowed when that operation was performed by the hand … At its south end stood several houses and a blacksmith's forge. To the north-east of the Shiel Hall was another conspicuous object, the Round House, Stone House, or town prison, a small hexagonal building.’ (Thomas Wright’s The Town of Cowper.)
The three elms had been planted in the reign of James the First to commemorate the union of the three kingdoms. Under them stood the town stocks. The shiel hall was a pitched roofed building with two bay windows and two flights of steps leading up to a raised door. It had been there since the sixteenth century, but was taken down around 1816. The Round House or lock-up is said to have been demolished in 1846, but there is a report that in 1869 a soldier was detained there for refusing to be billeted with his comrades.
The lace industry in Cowper’s dayThomas Wright penned this idealized image of the eighteenth century lace maker:
'It is a winter's evening. A group of three women are seated at their pillows, and a fourth is turning her bobbin-wheel and filling the bobbins with thread. In the midst of them is a three-legged wooden stool, upholding by means of wooden candlesticks three candles, and an inverted flask of water with its neck inserted into a socket in the middle of the stool. Thus with their pillows supported partly on their knees and partly by a pillow-horse, also of three legs, and the candle-light reflected by the flask on to their work, they busily rattle their gaily-spangled of pins. Their expertness is amazing, and the work is done so regularly that they can tell the hour by their pillows as easily as by the clock. You can see, too. that the pillow no less than the lace is a subject of pride : some of the pins are large, and being furnished with beaded or waxed heads, lord it magnificently over the rank and file, and seem to act as colonels and lieutenants to the Liliputian army ; the bobbins are particular objects of emulation, for besides the plain and simple plebeians that hang round in great profusion, there is a goodly sprinkling of patricians, an aesthetic class, with carved initials or Christian names on their elegant stems, or perforated with holes, and exhibiting tiny columns (we have seen some beautifully carved) — their spangles glittering with beads, shells, and coins. By the fire are three pipkins, which a child is filling with hot wood-ashes, and she will presently bring one to each of the workers, who will draw it under her gown to keep her feet warm.' (The Town of Cowper)
The detail is charming, but the reality was otherwise. Women - and boys too - worked long hours for little pay in unheated buildings in the shabby courts and yards off the High Street and in Silver Lane. Wages were low and the girls were forced to put their hair up so that they could be slapped on the neck if caught slacking.
William Cowper once described Olney as ‘a Populous place, inhabited chiefly by the half starved and the ragged of the Earth.’ He later wrote to a friend, 'I am an eyewitness of their poverty and do know that hundreds of this little town are upon the point of starving and that the most unremitting industry is but barely sufficient to keep them from it. There are nearly one thousand and two hundred lace makers in this beggarly town'. With his friend, Newton he set out to help the ‘poor ignorant lace makers’, but with little success.
There was one part of town that experienced greater deprivations than most.
Olney’s AlsatiaIn a poem to his friend, Lady Austen, Cowper referred to his house, Orchard Side as being ‘Deep in the abyss of Silver End.’ (In fact, it was just round the corner.) He complained of the boys splashing his house with mud, and of ’the ‘barbarous abuse of a poor woman by our drunken rioters.’ Little seemed to have changed since 1495 when Justices of the Peace were given power to suppress unruly alehouses.
Thomas Wright described Silver End as formerly the Alsatia of Olney, that is an area outside the law where thieves and other ne’er-do-wells were tolerated. The lace industry was in part to blame for this. Pillow lace work was demanding on the eyes and when women were no longer able to work some of them turned in desperation to the oldest profession. Silver Lane was a natural site for their activities, with its two public houses, the 'Cock’ and the ‘Game Cock’, which latter stood on the site now occupied by Punch the oculist.
‘The lass from Silver End’In Cowper’s day offenders against public order were still being punished at the cart’s tail. The poet tells the comical tale of the whipping in 1783 of a sixteen year old lad ‘the junior son of Molly Boswell’, for stealing ironwork belonging to Griggs the butcher:
‘Being convicted, he was ordered to be whipt, which operation he underwent at the cart's tail, from the stone-house to the high arch, and back again. He seemed to show great fortitude, but it was all an imposition upon the public. The beadle, who performed, had filled his left hand with red ochre, through which, after every stroke, he drew the lash of his whip, leaving the appearance of a wound upon the skin, but in reality not hurting him at all. This being perceived by Mr. Constable Hinschcomb, who followed the beadle, he applied his cane, without any such management or precaution, to the shoulders of the too merciful executioner. The scene immediately became more interesting.
The beadle could by no means be prevailed upon to strike hard, which provoked the constable to strike harder; and this double flogging continued, till a lass of Silver-end, pitying the pitiful beadle thus suffering under the hands of the pitiless constable, joined the procession, and placing herself immediately behind the latter, seized him by his capillary club, and pulling him backwards by the same, slapt his face with a most Amazonian fury. This concatenation of events has taken up more of my paper than I intended it should, but I could not forbear to inform you how the beadle thrashed the thief, the constable the beadle, and the lady the constable, and how the thief was the only one who suffered nothing.’ (Cowper to Newton, 17 November, 1783)
Enclosures accelerateThe Seven Years War with France and the resulting high cereal prices led to a speeding up in the rate of enclosures. Olney’s turn came in 1767 when a private Act of Parliament permitted enclosure of the open and common fields and ‘commonable land’ of the parish.
Because of the difficulty of unpicking its effects from those of other changes that were going on at the time historians cannot agree by how much enclosures contributed to the growth of rural poverty. A study in Norfolk, for example, showed that by 1796 the price of food had gone up by 60% in the previous forty to fifty years, but wages by only 25%. Buckinghamshire could not have been much different. The sad fact is that for much of Olney’s history most of its residents were dirt poor and in their old age many of them had no option but to turn to the Parish for relief.
The workhouseOne of Olney’s more dubious claims to fame is as the progenitor of the ‘modern’ workhouse. In 1714 the town built its first (and only) workhouse in Victoria (or ‘Tory’) Row on the west side of the High Street just south of what is now the Olney wine bar. It was large enough to accommodate some thirty, mainly elderly, paupers under the superintendence of a Master.
The inmates had ‘hot meat twice a week, they are allowed cheese, their bread is two parts wheat to one of barley; and for their small beer two bushels are allowed to the hogshead.’ In Summer they were required to rise at 5 and go to bed at 9, and ‘if any person refuse to work orderly, and so many hours as the Master of the House shall command them’ they were sent to the House of Correction. The regime appears harsh by modern standards, but the real comparison is with the normal living conditions of the contemporary poor. Few labourers were privileged to enjoy ‘hot meat twice a week’ and before modern lighting they got up at dawn and went to sleep at dusk. There was no question that the workhouse reduced the burden on the rates. Ten years after it was founded a report to the Parish proudly announced that ‘before the erecting of this workhouse, the Poor rates were three shilling and ninepence in the pound, and are now reduced to one and ninepence.’
So great were the numbers wanting to enter the workhouse that the Great House was pressed into service as an overflow. Its male inhabitants were dressed in coarse white flannel swallow-tailed coats, leather breeches and a dog skin cap.
The success of the new style workhouse is down to one man, Matthew Marryott of Olney. Under his ‘workhouse test’, as it was called, Parish relief was denied to any applicant for relief who refused the offer of a place in the workhouse. Marryott even had a hand in drafting the Act of Parliament which embodied his test into law. In time workhouses began to be run by outside contractors who would charge the parish a rate for each inmate.
Marryott was not slow to profit from the opportunity; by 1727, with the active support of the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK), he had secured a near monopoly in the management of workhouses in London and throughout the east Midlands. Like many a modern entrepreneur, Marryott overstretched himself by trying to run more institutions than he could manage adequately. A 1731 pamphlet revealed abuses, even cruelty, in many of his workhouses and he lost the contracts he had so assiduously built up. He nevertheless died a wealthy man and is buried in Olney churchyard.
In 1834 Olney’s destitute were transferred to a new combined workhouse at Newport Pagnell. No trace of the old workhouse remains.
Fire, the recurrent problemWith cramped living conditions, open fires and thatched roofs fire was always a threat. A whole series of them broke out in Olney in 1777 and 1787 in one of which 43 houses were destroyed. After the 1777 fire two women and a boy were arrested for looting. Newton wrote a poem declaring the fire to be God’s judgement on a sinful world and raised money to compensate the victims. But his call for abandonment of Guy Fawkes day led to much resentment. On the 5th November that year ‘many put candles in their windows who had not done so in former years’. When night came on there was riot and confusion. ‘A wild lawless mob paraded the streets, breaking windows, and extorting money from one end of the town to the other. Forty or fifty men, “deep in liquor”, marched upon the Vicarage.’ Former Captain Newton wanted to confront them but a more prudent Mrs Newton sent them money to go on their way. (Biography of John Newton. AW Parsons.)
Similar outbreaks occurred in the 19th century, most notably the fire of 1853 which took the lives of three people. Arson was suspected and Thomas Soul thought it prudent to call a public meeting in The Bull to clear his name. But it was the great fire of 1854 which was the worst. It began in the thatch of a washhouse on the north western side of the High Street on the afternoon of Monday, 26 June and soon jumped across the road. Over fifty houses were destroyed and another 25 damaged, rendering some three hundred people homeless. Each of Olney’s conflagrations was celebrated in a multitude of distinctly sub-Cowperian verse.
It was only in the nineteenth century when Olney’s characterful thatched roofs began to be replaced by slate that the risk of fire subsided.
Poverty, disease and unrestThe threat from Napoleon was a constant source of concern and in 1798 Olney, along with the rest of the country, had to prepare a posse comitatus, or list of men suitable for military service. They included 2 surgeons, 3 gentleman, 13 farmers, 5 maltsters, 4 tanners, 2 brewers, 3 hairdressers and 1 tollman. When in 1805 Napoleon was defeated at sea people across much of the country bought mugs and other trinkets in celebration of Admiral Nelson’s great victory. But there would have been little celebration in the dark courts and alleys of Olney.
By 1800 the population of the town had grown to 2,000, living in 451 overcrowded houses. Dung and ordure filled the stream, resulting in regular outbreaks of disease, such as the cholera that began in Silver End in 1832 which claimed twenty two lives.
One who determined to do something about the lot of the poor was a Quaker lady, Mrs Ann Hopkins Smith who in 1819 built twelve almshouses on the south side of Weston road for the accommodation of single women and elderly widows. But she did not stop there. In 1825 she set up a school for poor children next door. It later became what is called a British school, that is a school run by the Nonconformist British and Foreign Schools Society. At about the same time the National Society for the Promotion of Religious Education set up what was called a National School in the High Street. It later became the Church Hall.
One curious venture that could, if successful, have provided more jobs in Olney was the formation in 1825 of a company to mine coal. A prospectus was issued and shares taken up but, for reasons unknown, nothing came of it. In 1891, strange to say, a six inch thick seam of coal was discovered in land near the Warrington road.
Violence returns to BucksThe bad harvests of 1829 and 1830 worsened the lot of the unemployed farm labourer, leading to serious outbreaks of unrest known as the ‘Swing’ riots after their mythical leader, Captain Swing. Workhouses and overseers were attacked and agricultural machinery damaged. Believing local penalties to be insufficiently severe, the government appointed a Special Commission of three judges to try the rioters in the five most affected counties, one of which was Buckinghamshire. By the time the disorders had died down, 250 men had been sentenced to death (only 12 were executed) and 233 transported for life.
People reacted differently to the desperate times. Some turned to crime, like the two Lavendon men who in 1852 were convicted of robbing Mr William Curtis on Olney bridge and received six months imprisonment for their pains, and an increase in thefts such as the unsolved burglary at Overs Hill, in which 2 hams and 2 fletches of bacon were stolen. Others took a braver course, like the fourteen Olney people who emigrated abroad in 1851.
But it was not all bad news. In the same year a gas works and gasometer were installed at the south end of East Street. It is easy to overlook how much gas lighting would have improved people’s lives in terms of lengthening the day: no wonder that they held a dinner at The Bull to welcome its coming. But not even this could stop the decline of trade and in the second half of the century the town’s Monday market began to be held only fortnightly.
A new religious revivalWhile trade was falling church congregations were growing, a fact which was reflected in a massive programme of church re-building. The clerestory of the church had been demolished in 1807, leaving the nave curiously lower than the roof of the chancel, and the south aisle was largely rebuilt in 1831. But it was the restoration of the entire building by the famous architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott between 1870 and 1885 that produced the church we see today. (Scott was a Buckingham man, the grandson of the Rev. Thomas Scott, curate of this parish.)
When the weathercock on the church steeple was taken down for re-gilding it was found to bear the inscription, ‘I never crow/But (sta)nd to show,/Whence winds do blow." It also bore a ‘fairly large’ bullet hole, probably the work of an inebriated farmer.
Olney also saw another aspect of the religious revival in the person of Henry John Gauntlett In 1814 at the age of nine Gauntlett became the organist at his father's church in Olney. Despite his obvious talents as a musician he became articled to a firm of solicitors, in which profession he worked until the age of 40 when he abandoned the law in favour of a career as an organist, composer and hymnist. A controversial and somewhat self-important man, Gauntlett is known as the Father of Modern English Church Music and was the first person in two centuries to receive the degree of Mus. Doc. from the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Economic revivalThe first sign of economic recovery came in 1872 when the Bedford and Northampton Railway Company, shortly to be assimilated into the London and Midland, built a branch line linking Olney with Bedford and Northampton opening up job prospects away from town. At the insistence of the squire of Turvey no trains ran on a Sunday. Passengers arriving at the station were taken into town by an omnibus supplied by the Bull Inn. A branch was later extended to Towcester but lasted less than a year. The railway lasted until 1962 when the station was closed to passengers as a result of the Beeching reorganization.
Not every transport initiative was a success. In 1888 a company was formed to run steam driven trams between Olney and Newport Pagnell. Work started on the track but difficulties emerged over the acquisition of land and problems of congestion at choke points such as The Swan Inn, and in 1892 the company went into liquidation. Some of the tram lines are said to be there still underneath the road surface.
A tannery had long been established beside the river to provide leather for the shoe industry. After a period of dereliction it was bought in 1898 by W.E. & J Pebody Ltd who modernised the tanning process. The tannery was exceptionally profitable during the Great War of 1914 – 1918, providing leather for soldiers’ boots.
Olney’s mill changed hands in 1876 and was modernised at great expense. It burned down two years later and had to be rebuilt. In 1907 it was described as a five storey building with two water wheels, one of twelve horse power, the other of up to fifty horsepower, according to the water flow. The mill was destroyed by fire for the last time in 1964. Now, only the mill house remains as a private dwelling.
More jobs were created in 1891 when the Hinde and Mann Cowper shoe factory opened at the junction of Wellingborough Road and Midland Road. They were enlightened employers who transformed the job prospects in town. The Midland road, which was named after the railway, was built to house their workers, who at the peak numbered 364. Not all footwear was made in the Cowper factory; there were still many small shoemaker workshops. It was the shoemakers’ happy tradition that 'no one worked on the first Monday in the month’ because this was St Crispin's Day, the patron saint of Shoemakers. Instead, the workers went to the Boot Inn which had opened in Bridge Street in 1787. (In former times each trade had a pub of its own.) The Inn is now Pembroke House. It was Mr Mann who bought two eighteenth century houses in the High Street and merged them into one designed in the art nouveau style, known as Orchard House.
The growth in manufacturing was just in time to offset the decline of the lace industry caused by compulsory education and strict workshop laws.
The twentieth centuryThe Roman Catholic faith had gone through difficult times over the centuries. (Tradition has it that the gunpowder plotters met at Gayhurst, and that the Jesuit priest Henry Garnet found refuge there). The faith had nevertheless been maintained by the Throckmorton family of Weston Underwood who installed a chapel in their mansion. After the mansion was pulled down in 1827 services were held in a granary. The faith was firmly re-established in 1900 when the church of Our Lady Help of Christians and St Lawrence was built in West Street. St Joseph’s Convent next door to the church owes its existence to religious oppression in France which in 1902 led to the emigration to England of French nuns of the order of the Holy Ghost.
There had long been a small community of Wesleyans in Olney and in 1902 they built themselves an iron chapel facing the Wellingborough road.
Trees were planted in the High Street in 1910 to celebrate the coronation of King George V. At the same time the cattle market, which had died out many years ago, was restarted. No one could imagine that the long balmy days of Victorian England were about to come to an end, and in the most frightful way.
‘The war to end wars’At the turn of the century Olney was still a quiet, if somewhat depressed, market town. It was an occasion of note when on 6 September, 1907, whilst driving a pig out of her garden, a Mrs Crouch slipped and broke her leg.
The people of Olney continued to slumber through the Great War of 1914/1918, save, no doubt, for the families of the men in uniform for whom it must have been a continual nightmare of apprehension. Two years after the Armistice a cenotaph was erected on the marketplace to record the loss of sixty-four of Olney’s sons. One of them was Lieutenant Charles Hipwell MC. On 23 September 1916 he led a successful raid into the enemy trenches which resulted in the capture of prisoners. He is said to have engaged a fire bay full of Germans and silenced them with his revolver, remaining standing on the parapet while his men crossed the hostile wire and thereafter until the last man had left for our lines. He went out again under continuous fire to search no man’s land for a wounded man. (Commonwealth War Graves Commission.)
But even before the Armistice had been signed another cause of worldwide suffering had begun. Beginning in Glasgow in 1918 Spanish flu, as it was misleadingly known, spread throughout all parts of the land killing nearly a quarter of a million people.
As if this was not enough the world economy fell into depression, with unemployment doubling by the end of 1930. In October 1936 some 200 men from Jarrow marched in protest to Westminster via Northampton and Bedford. A plaque commemorating their passage can be seen on the churchyard wall in Lavendon. The Olney folk found solace from the spanking new Electric Cinema in the High Street, a building which had just been converted from a meeting room. The proprietor’s wife, ‘Madam’ Clifford accompanied the silent films on the piano.
One industry that enjoyed an unexpected revival was lace. It had always been a cottage industry in the literal sense of the term until in 1906 Harry Armstrong, a Stoke Goldington man, set up the Bucks. Cottage Workers' Agency to organise it. Lace made at home was brought in to be finished by Armstrong’s workers in an outbuilding in his back garden. Three years later he moved to premises in the Midland Road and in 1929 he brought his workers together into a purpose-built building on the High Street which to this day declares itself in stone to be the ‘Bucks Lace Industry’. Armstrong, who lived in an upper floor of the factory, died in 1943 and by the end of the war the building stood empty. It has since been converted to residential flats.
The Bucks Lace Factory
In 1932 with national unemployment at two and three quarter millions the shoe factory closed putting some 360 people out of work. The building was taken over by Lodge Plugs until after the second world war and has since been converted into flats.
One improvement which was welcomed by all was the coming of ‘town water’ to Olney in 1935. It was drawn from the Weston meadows and piped into town via a waterworks and reservoir in Long Lane.
Meanwhile, momentous events were happening elsewhere. In 1938 people huddled around their radio sets to hear the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain memorably declare: ‘How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.’ On 1st September the following year he declared war on Germany.
The second world warThe town ‘did its bit’ during the second world war by receiving coach-loads of evacuees who were billeted on local folk with varying degrees of success. Camouflaged ammunition dumps were constructed beside the roads leading into town and the East Street maltings were pressed into service to dry out grain which had been damaged by water in the bombing of the London docks. Once dried, it was used as animal feed.
During the air raids some people sheltered in the cellars of the Hipwell brewery behind the Bull hotel, while others used the Anderson and Morrison shelters which had been delivered to their homes. In fact, only five bombs fell directly on the town causing a few broken windows. Another fell on Warrington Lodge farm but failed to explode. And an American practice bomb fell at Olney Park farm. The most serious incident was the flying bomb which fell at Moulsoe causing 60 fatalities; fortunately, they were ducks. In August 1943 there was considerable excitement when a B17 bomber of the USAAF Bomber Command returning to Poddington airfield made a crash landing on the road between Olney and Bozeat.
After the war nineteen new names were added to the memorial in the marketplace. Many of their moving stories may be found in Colin McKenzie’s web site, The Names on the Olney War Memorial 1939-1945.
ReconstructionThe creation of the National Health Service and the introduction of the old age pension brought dignity and a degree of comfort to the poor for the first time, albeit at the expense of an economic recovery far slower than that of our former enemies.
The marketplace experienced a post-war renaissance, having been bought from the lord of the manor in 1941. Although the pancake race had continued throughout the wars of the roses it lapsed thereafter, only to be revived by two young women in the 1920s as a joke. When in 1948 the vicar discovered photographs of their ‘race’ he set about restoring it in earnest. Every Shrove Tuesday since then the dash from the market place to the Church has been re-enacted. The event is copied in other towns in England and elsewhere, most notably in the town of Liberal, Kansas. Even the ancient cherry fair has been resurrected in the glebe field opposite the vicarage. Another fair, granted in 1351, no longer exists, but is commemorated in the name of Fairfield Close.
The introduction of tractors and combine harvesters decimated the rural work force, but it was only part of a longer trend. Over the years the number of agricultural labourers in the country fell dramatically from 23.3% in 1801 to 8.2% in 1901 and 0.2% in 2001. By the dawn of the new century the 1,708 agricultural labourers in Buckinghamshire barely exceeded the 1,401 taxi drivers or 1,304 publicans.
The number of inns in Olney had been declining for centuries, so that by 1955 there were only five left. The loss has been more than offset by the growth in the number of restaurants, pubs serving food, and take-aways, many of them offering foreign cuisines.
Some three decades after the war Olney began the relentless expansion that proximity to the new town of Milton Keynes and a rising population demanded. The town has not escaped the economic crash of 2008 and nothing can hide its effects on jobs and prosperity. Even the people are changing with the advent of incomers from the European Union and the rest of the world.
Which, of course, is how the town began.
ANNEX A: Olney Manor
According to the draft Historic Town Assessment Report:
‘Olney manor was in the possession of the Earls of Warwick until the death of Anne, Countess of Warwick in 1492 the manor was then transferred to the Crown and remained in royal hands until 1629 when it formed part of the grant made by Charles I to the citizens of London. In 1639 the manor was purchased by a London merchant, Richard Nicoll whose descendents held on to the manor until 1755 when passed by the female line to the Earls of Dartmouth,
‘Olney manor had been in the ownership of the Legge family or the Earls of Dartmouth from 1755. The Dartmouth inheritance continued into the 20th century until the death of the 8th Earl of Dartmouth, William Viscount Lewisham. The rights of fair and market had belonged to the Manor of Olney including receipt of rents from the market although in 1941 these rights were
A slightly different version is contained in from "Magna Britannia", 1806:
'The manor was anciently in the Earls of Chester, from whom it passed successively to the families of Albini and Basset. Upon the attainder of Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, who was one of the co-heirs of the Bassets, it was granted in 1397 to Thomas Moubray, afterwards created Duke of Norfolk; and upon his banishment, the reversion, after the death of Lady Basset, to whom this manor had been assigned in dower, was granted to Edward Duke of York, who fell at the battle of Agincourt: dying without male issue, this manor reverted to the crown, and was not alienated till the year 1638, when it was sold by King Charles I. to certain citizens of London. It now belongs to the Earl of Dartmouth, having been inherited from his mother, the late Countess Dowager, heiress of Sir Charles Gunter Nicholl, in whose family it had been a considerable time.
'The manor of Warrington, a hamlet of this parish, which was given by Lord Basset of Drayton to the neighbouring abbey of Lavendon, has of late years been held with Olney, to which it had formerly been annexed before Lord Basset's donation.'
Annes B: Rectors and Vicars of Olney
Rectors of Olney
12.. Richard de Kenet
1263 Nicholas de Baginden
1303 Richard Crumwell
1318 Thomas de Radclive
1348 John de Buckingham, Presbyter
1350 Roger de Newcroft
1351 William Mareschall
13-- William de Navesby
1364 Adam de Navesby
1389 John Grant de Turvey
1407 Thomas Aldeburg
14-- John Baysham
1434 Nicholas Wymbysch
1455 William Chambers
1458 Vincent Clement, S.T.P.
1574 (1474?) Thomas Barrow, LL.B.
1488 John Toloft, or Tolot
1492 Henry Ainsworth, LL.D.
Vicars of Olney
1504 William Wareyn
1521 John Threlkeld
1535 Nicholas Whytington
1541 Robert Salisbury
1547 Thomas Roberts
1578 Martin Purvier, B.D.
1603 Griffin Lewis, A.M.
1611 William Dormer
1624 William Worcester
1638 Richard Giffard
1640 Robert Walwin
1658 Nathaniel Jenny
1668 Samuel Freeman, S.T.P.
1671 John Neale
1687 George Lesley, A.M.
1701 Henry Elliot, A.M.
1718 Henry Kelly
1735 Wolsey Johnson, A.M.
1753 Moses Browne
1787 (1757?) James Bean
1769 Melville Horne
1799 Christopher Stephenson, A.B.
1815 Henry Gauntlett
1834 Daniel Baxter Langley, D.C.L.
1856 John Piercly Langley MA
1902 Sidney Herbert Smith MA
1920 Maurice H. Beauchamp MA
1928 Richard Gee MA
1934 Henry Chapman MA
1938 Frederick JE Britnell MA
1943 Ronald W Collins MA
Rectors with Olney with Emberton
1984 Christopher Burdon MA
1993 Nigel PH Pond AKC
Priest in charge
2004 Philip S Davies
2009 Rev. Claire Wood.
(Sources: ‘The History and Antiquities of the County of Buckingham’ by George Lipscomb, 1847 and the list in the church.)
The church living (advowson)
English Heritage states that:
'The advowson of the church was appendant to the manor until 1482/3, when Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and his wife Anne, conveyed it to the dean and canons of the Chapel of St George, Windsor; the conveyance does not appear to have been effectual, and in 1487/8 both manor and advowson passed into the possession of the Crown. In 1502 the advowson was granted to the Abbey of Syon. After the dissolution of the monasteries the rectory was let until the early C17, when rectory and advowson were granted to Sir John Ramsey, a Scottish favourite of James I. Thereafter, the patronage passed through many hands. '
Milton Keynes’ Draft Historic Town Assessment: Olney
A History of the County of Buckingham, Vol 4. Victoria County History, 1927
The Town of Cowper, or The Literary and Historical Associations of Olney and its Neighbourhood Thomas Wright. 1886
The Life of William Cowper. Thomas Wright. 1892
Cowper Country. Gordon Osborn FLS
UK and Ireland Genealogy
Oliver Ratcliffe’s Olney, Bucks, 1907
Roman Buckinghamshire, R J Zeepvat & D Radford, 2007
GENUK (UK and Ireland Genealogy)
and, of course,
The Cowper and Newton museum
Olney and District Historical Society web page.