Museum sign
The Cowper and Newton Museum
"The Diverting History of John Gilpin"
The comic poem relates the tale of a linen draper named John Gilpin and his anniversary holiday, beset with misfortune from start to finish.

The tale was first told to Cowper, by Lady Austen, in an attempt to draw him from a bout of depression and it immediately grabbed his imagination. He set to work adapting the story to a standard ballad measure to be sung to the established tune of Chevy Chaise.

The result was first published in the Public Advertiser on 14 November 1782 and within a few years, thanks to public readings by an actor, John Henderson, the poem was famous.

One London printseller alone is said to have sold 6,000 copies.

This strength of sales was assisted by illustrations, which accompanied the text. George Cruikshank, "Phiz" Hablot Brown and Randolph Caldecott provided woodcuts and engravings to further bring 'The Diverting History Of JohnGilpin' to life.

Sketch by George Cruikshank
"John Gilpin's arrival at Ware"

CLICK HERE for more on this sketch
and a John Gilpin nursery plate
which copies it

The Phiz engraving of galloping John Gilpin
.John Gilpin child's toy
The story became well loved by adults and children alike.From 1785 to the present day, the poem has been reprinted in more than one hundred editions and has been translated into French, German, Swedish, Latin and Persian.

Similarities between Cowper's life and the misadventures of Gilpin have been evinced. The notion of a well meaning man, frustrated at every turn in a comic situation beyond his control being considered to reflect Cowper's own predicament in Olney.

Cowper viewed John Gilpin as a lesser work, written partially to answer critics who claimed he lacked a sense of humour. He also hoped to promote sales of his weightier poem "The Task" through publishing both in the same volume.

In his final years, Cowper took an active dislike to the poem and would not have it read in his presence. However, although Cowper lost interest in John Gilpin, the poem is remembered today on the Gilpin's Bell monument in Edmonton High Street and the Gilpin's Bell pub considerably changed from when Cowper used it for Gilpin's holiday destination.

The Gilpin's Bell Public House Edmonton
The Gilpin's Bell monument at Edmonton
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