Local historian John Taylor on one of the area's most famous residents
© JOHN TAYLOR

'Brother William' - the poet Cowper
Orchard Side: now the Cowper & Newton Museum
From left: Lady Austin, William Cowper, Mrs. Unwin

Many of the surrounding towns have thankfully escaped being swallowed up by the black holes of urban development, and Olney, which from 1767 until 1786 became the home of the famous poet William Cowper, is one that still retains an individual identity.

A gentle if rather depressed soul, William Cowper died in 1800 at East Dereham, in Norfolk, but he began his troubled life on November 261731 at the parsonage of Great Berkhamstead, where his father John was the rector. In view of his later achievements, it is perhaps significant that his mother was descended from the poet John Donne, and William would be deeply affected when she died in 1737.

He was sent to school at Market Street in Hertfordshire, but his prospects were severely hampered by the attentions of a 15-year-old bully, at whom he "never dared to look higher up than his knees".

As a result of an eye inflammation, caused by his constant tears, William was returned to the sanctuary of his home, and the bully was kicked out of the school.

After being entrusted to the care of an eminent oculist, William resumed his education two years later, and remained at Westminster school until the age of 18.

He then began a legal career but, being deficient in academic diligence, he instead indulged in "three years misspent", "making giggle" in the company of his cousins Harriet and Theodora. It was now that William began "to ramble from the thorny paths of jurisprudence into the primrose paths of literature and poetry".

Further distractions were provided by his affections for Theodora, which far surpassed any passion for the law. But with marriage expressly forbidden by her mother, William's departure in 1752 from the attorney's office, for chambers at the Middle Temple, seemed to coincide with the beginning of a depression which would afflict him for the rest of his life.

Soon William transferred to the Inner Temple as 'a commissioner of bankrupts', and at the age of 31 he was presented with an opportunity to take up a position "with excellent pay and not much work" as Reading Clerk in the House Of Lords.

But the prospect of public life completely unsettled his troubled mind, so he resigned and opted instead for the lesser appointment of Clerk of the Journals in the House of Lords.

However, realising that to prove his efficiency he would have to appear at the Bar of the House of Lords he fell into a second derangement, and was entrusted to the care of Dr Cotton in St Albans. His stay was financed by his relatives, and eventually in June 1765 he left for lodgings in Huntingdon, to be near his brother John, a don at Cambridge.

Intrigued by the arrival of this quiet and studious young man, whom they often saw walking the streets, or attending chuch, the Unwin family soon found William an object of benevolent fascination, and at the end of one service the Unwins' son William began to engage their unsuspecting quarry in conversation.

Thus commenced William Cowper's acquaintance with Unwin family, "the most cheerful and engaging family it is possible to conceive", and by November 11 1765 he had moved in as their lodger.

The head of this Christian family was the Rev Morley Unwin, rector of Grimston, but after a taste of village life the family swiftly returned to the comforts of town.

While setting out for his church on horseback one Sunday morning in July 1767, the Reverend suffered a serious fall, and died four days later. Now the bereaved family urgently to needed a house elsewhere.

It was during this quest that retiring William Cowper would make the acquaintance of the adventurous, reformed slave trader John Newton. For it was due to a friend of their son that the Unwins were visited by Newton, who suggested they should move either to a house in the village of Emberton, or in the nearby town of Olney.

Thus the Unwins and William Cowper came to Olney on September 14 1767. Not that this seemed an ideal choice, being "inhabited chiefly by the half-starved and ragged of the earth".

Nevertheless after an initial stay with the Reverend Newton, on December 7 1767 they finally moved into their house, Orchard Side, "deep in the abyss of Silver End". Separated by only an orchard, their garden almost adjoined that of the Vicarage and, to avoid having to walk through the town, Cowper and Newton readily paid a guinea for the connecting right of way.

Following her wedding, the Unwins' daughter left Olney and, although speculation became rife that William might marry Mrs Unwin, such a prospect was soon dispelled by an abrupt recurrence of William's mental malaise.

It was as a possible remedy for his depression that William was presented with a leveret by a neighbour, whose children had proved less than diligent in caring for it. And when the news of this gift became known, William soon found himself the potential recipient of many more such hares!

Eventually he accepted just three - Bess, Puss and Tiney - and their therapeutic value would soon be apparent, for: "Management of such an animal was just the sort of employment my case required", especially surly Tiney:

I kept him for his humour's sake,
For he would oft beguile
My heart of thought that made it ache,
And force me to a smile.

During the day, William would often sit at a window from which he could watch the goings-on in uneventful Olney, where "occurrences here are as rare as cucumbers at Christmas".

It was from this vantage point that one July day in 1781 he spotted an aristocratic lady shopping at a drapers in the Market Place. Accompanying her was Martha Jones, the wife of the rector of Clifton Reynes.

With uncharacteristic boldness, William immediately asked Mrs Unwin to invite the couple in.

This would herald the beginning of an intense, if platonic, relationship with Lady Anne Austen, the widow of a baronet.

As Martha's sister she was staying at the rectory of nearby Clifton Reynes, and William found that in her presence he could feel calm and at ease, for she was one "who laughed and made laugh, and could keep up a conversation without seeming to labour at it". To William she soon became 'Sister Anne', whilst for Anne he became 'Brother William.'

In time, such a relaxed companionship would bear due reward, for it was following being told the outline of a story by Lady Austen that, alone in his room, William the same night penned the famework for John Gilpin, perfecting the work over the next few days in the solitude of his summerhouse.

Published in The Public Advertiser in November 1782, the story brought widespread acclaim and - again with the encouragement of Lady Austen - Cowper then wrote The Task, which met with similar success.

Now Lady Austen made plans to rent a property in Olney, and this intention was much accelerated when, during the absence of the Rev Jones, armed thieves tried to break into the Clifton Reynes rectory.

In panic, the two sisters fled to Orchard Side, and, while Martha would eventually return to the rectory, Lady Anne stayed on, occupying the other half of the house.

However, no doubt discouraged by William's lack of marital interest, she eventually left Olney in 1784 and married a Frenchman, Baron Tardiff.

But fate as usual decreed that William would not be denied female company for long, for in June 1786 his cousin Harriet - the Lady Hesketh by marriage - came to live in the town.

Her initial opinions were unfavourable. On seeing William's abode she was appalled by the "tottering" house, and the thieving disposition of the servants, and swiftly arranged more suitable accommodation in the nearby village of Weston Underwood.

Here William and Mrs Unwin began a new life on November 15 1786, and William was far from saddened by this move, for now he could be near his friends the Throckmortons - or "Mr and Mrs Frog", as he affectionately called them - of Weston Hall.

He seemed little perturbed by leaving Orchard Side, for it had been "no attachment to the place that binds me here, but an unfitness for every other".