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The Cowper and Newton Museum
Orchard Side

Orchard Side, from 1768-1786 the home of the poet and hymn-writer William Cowper, is situated on the south-east corner of the triangular Market Place in Olney: it now houses The Cowper and Newton Museum.

Olney is a small, pretty and thriving market town in North Buckinghamshire situated in the Ouse Valley. It is famous for its connections with John Newton and William Cowper, and also for its annual Pancake Race. Look here for links to web sites about Olney.

Orchard Side is made up of two separate buildings with a central gateway. The two buildings were built in the late 17th century and the front brick facade with its pedimented doorways, pilasters and stone strings and dressings were added to connect the two buildings in the early 1700.

Cowper lived in the western half of what appears from the outside to be a single house. Behind the building a long flower garden leads to a further garden containing Cowper's famous Summer House, where he wrote many of his poems.

The eastern part of the building is now known as Gilpin House (after Cowper's poem "John Gilpin").

The History of Orchard Side

  • Pre 1769 little is known except that the core of the house is 17th century; the evidence can be seen in the inglenook fireplace in the kitchen. The brick facade was constructed by persons unknown circa 1700.
  • 1769 As a result of a marriage settlement Orchard Side was conveyed to the trustees for the use of of the Rev. George Smith and after his death for the use of his widow Mary, the daughter of Robert Carey, Maltmaster of Olney. After her death for the use of their heirs.
  • 1815 Sold by Mrs. Smith to Robert Andrews.
  • 1829 Sold by the son and daughter of Robert Andrews to pay off their father's debts. It was purchased by James Hale Talbot .
  • 1854 Sold by auction at The Bull Hotel by the trustees of the Rev. James Hale Talbot and purchased by W.H.Collingridge.
  • 1900 Presented by him to the town in the centennial year of Cowper's death.

Tenants of the House and Adjoining Properties

  • John Whitney & John Marston were tenants circa 1750.
  • John Palmer.
  • 1769 to 1786 Mary Unwin rented this property first from Robert Carey and later from Rev. George Smith. She, her daughter Susanna and William Cowper lived in Orchard Side. His servant Dick Colman and his family lived in the adjoining property (now known as Gilpin House).
  • Daniel Raban and John Wykes from 1786 to about 1815.
  • Robert Andrews was the owner/occupier from 1815 to his death in 1827.
  • Lot 4 in the auction of 1854 is described as

"A respectable Message in the Market Place of Olney, called "Cowper's House", in the Occupation of Mr John Sleath, and the Message adjoining in the occupation of Mrs Maggott, and also two cottages at the back thereof in the occupations of Richard Herbert and John Marshall, with gardens beloning thereto; the whole let from year to year at rentals amounting to £25..10s per annum".

  • Mrs Sleath continued the lease after her husband's death and she was followed by the Misses Daniells.
  • In 1900 Collingridge presented the house to the town but in 1902 William Samuel Wright is listed as occupier with the Widow Pettit in the adjoining house with George Cole occupying one cottage in the yard, the other being used by him as a barn.

Cowper's House, as the building became known in the 19th century, was for a time a school. In 1800 the building became available to rent. This coincided with Thomas Haddon's search for suitable property for a school.

The school was furnished partly from the sale of several pieces of Cowper's effects, of which Haddon purchased several pieces of furniture, including a mirror.

Years later the same mirror was presented to the museum by the daughters of Mr. Haddon's eldest son and is now in the Costume Gallery. Owing to a family tragedy in 1839 Haddon gave up the administration of the school.

By the time of Haddon's death in April 1845 the school had degenerated to a dame school. The Scottish travel writer and geologist Hugh Millar records in his book "First Impressions of England and Its People" that he found the " famed parlour vocal with the gabble of an infant school." He was sad to see that the walls were "sorely soiled and the plaster somewhat broken."

The school days at Orchard Side had altered Cowper's home considerably. Miller found both the house and garden had changed greatly in the forty-five years since the poet's death. A partition had been removed from the parlour, increasing the space by half again for the purpose of creating a classroom; a wall now bi-sected the garden. In 1854 the garden containing the famed Summer House was sold separately. It was only re-united with the rest of the property in 1919 when the Trustees of the Museum were able to purchase the Summer House garden for 450.

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