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The Cowper and Newton Museum
Olney in the 18th Century

Olney in the Eighteenth Century had a population of around two thousand, and about five hundred houses.

"Olney is a Populous place, inhabited chiefly by the half starved and the ragged of the Earth".

William Cowper

Cowper wrote in a letter to Joseph Hill, dated 8th July 1780:

"I am an Eye Witness 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 1200 lace makers in this Beggarly Town".

Cowper was very critical of the Bill before Parliament for the removal of the tariff on Irish goods which would destroy the market for English lace.

John Newton was equally forthright in his description of the town and surrounds:

"The people here are mostly poor - the country low and dirty".

He came to Olney in 1764 full of plans to help "the poor ignorant lace makers". Thanks to Newton's Patron, John Thornton, a rich merchant, he had £200 per annum to keep open house and to distribute to the poor and needy.

Unfortunately when Newton left in the winter of 1779/1780 this bounty ceased.

An Old Olney Lace Manufacturer and his Friends, about 1850