Sep 122020
DCF 1.0

Rev John Newton

Tomorrow I head to Olney, the town where the Rev. John Newton preached  two and a half centuries ago. It will give me a chance to re-unite the town with a letter written by the good reverend  in October 1775. I am donating the letter to the local museum so that it can be appreciated by a larger audience and it gives me an opportunity of repeating a blog  which appeared in March 2016, and bringing it up to date:


John Newton was the fascinating individual who we remember today as the composer of Amazing Grace – fascinating because he was at one  stage actively involved in the slave trade, but eventually recanted and became a church minister campaigning tirelessly for abolition.

Not that he gave up his wicked ways overnight – despite an epiphany in May 1748 when the ship he was in nearly foundered off the coast of Donegal. The hull was smashed but the cargo broke free and miraculously wedged itself in the gaping hole – and the ship stayed afloat long enough to reach landfall.

It was a while before Newton abandoned all his links to the slave trade. The letter I discovered among Richard Hall’s papers show something of the inner torment he went through, including self-loathing, contempt etc.

Newton 5 001I came across it in an envelope written by my great aunt Annie some time in the 1930s – I vaguely recall her from the 1950s when I was a kid, having to bellow into her silver ear trumpet to say ‘thank you’ for the pocket money (all of one penny, if I remember right) which she had pressed into my eager palm. I remember it because even then a penny was a tad derisory, especially as the old bat was loaded. By then she was well into her nineties, and I never saw her again. Mind you she was quite a character: she and her sister never married and lived together in a commune in a remote part of Wales, rearing goats and ingesting prodigious quantities of  cocaine, in one form or another. It was a while before I understood what ‘coke-head’ meant – but Annie was definitely on a higher plane than the rest of us!

She did have her faults – one was being tee-total (no, coke is OK but the demon drink is a dreadful scourge of the working classes…) and when her father died she rushed over to his home in London’s Park Lane, and promptly poured all the contents of his rather extensive wine cellar down the drain…. so I am none too proud of Aunt Annie!

She would seem to have recognized who John Newton was, and why he was important, but that didn’t stop her taking a sharp knife to the letter and cutting off the wax seal with the imprint of Newton’s signet ring (perhaps she collected seals. Maybe she flogged it … or smoked it for all I know). It did rather leave a hole in the letter, but beggars cannot be choosers…

Newton 1 001Anyway, the letter was written by John Newton on 2 October 1775. It starts off with the words “Dear Sir, when your letter came to Olney I was in London, nor did I receive it till a little before my return, and since I came home I have been quite taken up with things which could not be deferred. Otherwise you would have heard from me much sooner. I should have made a point (tho’  in general I am not a very punctual correspondent) of answering  your first letter speedily as a proof of the value I set upon it – and especially when it brought me the interesting news of the great danger Mrs Robinson has been in, and the Lord’s goodness in bringing her through it and making her the Mother of a living child.”

Rev. Thomas Robinson

Rev. Thomas Robinson

Mrs Robinson was the wife of the Reverend Mr Thomas Robinson of Leicester. Apparently in another letter from John Newton, addressed to John Thornton, he remarked: “that Mr Robinson preaches the gospel at Leicester…  Leicester is a dark place, but if the Lord is pleased to continue Mr Robinson there, who knows but that wilderness may soon blossom like the rose!”

Hmm, so much for Leicester. Some years earlier Rev. Robinson had apparently been passing through the town on election night and abhorred the place so much, and was so disgusted by the general behaviour of the population that he “had privately whispered a prayer to God that it might never be his portion to reside at Leicester”. The prayer was obviously muddled in transit, because back came the good Lord’s decision to make him accept the curacy of St Martin’s (now the cathedral). Not all our prayers are answered…

Robinson’s wife Mary (nee Boys) died in 1791 but at the time of Newton’s letter she had obviously just produced a son. I have no idea what happened to him.

The Newton letter continues: “The Providential turns in my life have indeed been very remarkable yet I can readily allow you to think your own case no less extraordinary, because you are acquainted with your own heart – I am a stranger to mine. Non omnia nec omnibus might have been the proper motto for my narrative. Alas the most marvelous proofs of the Lord’s patience and goodness to me are utterly unfit for publication, nay I could not whisper some things into the ears of a friend. It has been since my conversion, and not by what happened before it that I have known the most striking instances of the vileness and depravity of my nature. My heart, as the ancients fabled of Africa, has been continually producing new monsters…. I have good reason to believe that it is still comparatively  a terra incognita to me and that it contains treasures, mines, depths and sources of iniquity in it of which I have hardly  more conception than I could form of looking at the fishes that are hidden in the sea by taking a survey of the fish in Billingsgate.”

The next bit was excised by my aunt’s sharp knife cutting round the seal, but the epistle continues:  “… I believe most who are called by Grace can recollect previous periods of life when they felt something of the working of Grace put in with them and they derive instruction from them afterwards, yet I conceive that these impressions are for the most part different toto genere  from that great radical and instantaneous change which takes place within the moment of Regeneration when a new and truly spiritual light is darted into the soul and gives us such perceptions as we were before unacquainted with.”

Newton 4 001The letter ends “Cease not to pray for us, and believe me to be Your Affectionate and obliged servant and brother, John Newton”

Unfortunately the letter in with Richard Hall’s papers is in poor condition – it has split down the folds and looks somewhat ragged around the edges. Originally it was what was known as ‘an entire’ – in other words it was folded up so that the address appeared on the outside, with the ‘wings’ tucked in on each side. So, no need for an envelope, making for a cheaper postage rate.

Newton wrote many hymns, the most famous being Amazing Grace, which he wrote for a service on New Year’s Day, 1773. In 1780 Newton left Olney to become Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, London, where he became a particularly effective preacher and a friend of William Wilberforce. Newton died on 21 December 1807. He lived long enough to see Wilberforce’s bill abolishing the slave trade passed in Parliament that same year.

All in all, an interesting piece of history, and one for which I suppose I must thank good old Aunt Annie.  And I am delighted to find a good home for the letter – it has been on a very long journey!

A post-script to the blog: it was great being able to call in and deliver the letter to the Museum staff at Olney. It left me with a lovely feeling that I had ‘done the right thing’. The staff were kind enough to turn out on a Sunday and if ever I had any doubts as to whether the letter was going to a good home, they were totally dispelled! I am so pleased it has a permanent home, in the UK, and has not been snapped up by a wealthy private collector! It can now be appreciated by all visitors to Olney – or at least, it will be once the Museum is able to open normally. At that stage I very much look forward to re-visiting the lovely Museum and meeting the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff.

Sep 012020

A group of images from the pen and paint-brush  of Thomas Rowlandson on the topic of visiting the theatre in the Georgian era.

First up: Box Lobby Loungers, showing the  melee in the lobby before the show starts. It appears on the Metropolitan Museum site, which describes it as:

“A reissue of print first published 1786. A crowded room next to a theater, which is glimpsed through two open doors at right. Courtesans and ladies are being inspected by loungers, including Colonel George Hanger (later Lord Coleraine) with a club under his arm (his “Supple Jack”). Hanger looks at two attractive courtesans and fails to notice a pickpocket taking the seals from his fob. At right two more fashionably dressed women attract elderly admirers. Two sea captains regard a short elderly beau with contempt. Other figures include two “Don Juans”, and a woman who sells oranges and programs and acts as a bawd. A playbill reads: “Theatre Royal Covent Garden / The Way of the World / Who’s the Dupe.”

Moving into the auditorium, a collaboration between Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin, from 1808,which found its way into Ackermann’s Microcosm of London. It shows the interior of the theatre at Covent Garden.

Rowlandson also gave an excellent idea of how theatre-going was an opportunity to gossip, flirt, gamble and drink:

The image of  ‘An audience watching a play at Drury Lane Theatre’ appears on the site of the Yale Center for British Art and apparently dates from 1785. The description of the print goes on to say:

“Rowlandson’s portrayal of an audience at the theater captures the culture of display and spectatorship that lay at the heart of eighteenth-century social life. Few of these spectators have actually come to watch the play. Instead they are busy studying one another and being scrutinized by figures in the surrounding boxes. Because light levels in auditoriums were not dimmed during performances, London’s crowded theaters provided an ideal venue for this sport of seeing and being seen. Rowlandson was himself a regular habitué of the playhouse; his friend Jack Bannister was a leading comic actor who regularly performed at Drury Lane. Although this scene has been identified as the remodeled Drury Lane that opened in 1775, the architecture does not quite tally, making this a more generic scene of London theater life. These theatergoers occupy the first gallery level of the auditorium, a zone reserved for the polite middling orders of society. Here young gallants try their luck with the seated ladies, a practice described in a contemporary epilogue that was often delivered from the stage to close a night’s entertainment.”

Somewhat further down the social scale, Rowlandson drew the general populace in the pit of the theatre, shown via WikiGallery:

This one, also from the Metropolitan Museum, offers a side-on view of the theatre at Covent Garden, including the stage:

Rowlandson also drew what was going on the other side of the stage curtain – here, ‘The Dancers’ Dressing Room At The Cobourg Theatre’:

Per WikiGallery

Rehearsing in the Green Room, shown below, was drawn by Rowlandson in 1789. The British Museum site describes it with the words:

“Sarah Siddons stands declaiming, looking upwards with a tragic expression, left arm raised, right elbow bent; Roger Kemble stands behind her to the right, a book in left hand, turning head in profile to the left to watch her, clenching his fists and stamping; another actor rehearses behind them, in front of a large mirror.”


I like Rowlandson’s depiction of the different reactions from the spectators – shown via the V&A with ‘Comedy Spectators: Tragedy Spectators’

On a similar theme, in 1807  Rowlandson drew ‘Comedy in the Country. Tragedy in London.’

It appears on the Royal Collections site, which has this description: “A hand-coloured print of two versions of a musical evening with two horizontal designs. In the top design (Comedy in the Country), the orchestra play while the audience are hysterical with laughter; a fat man blows hard down a French Horn whilst a grotesque fiddler plays in the foreground. In the bottom design (Tragedy in London) the audience including the orchestra, weep with emotion; a woman administers smelling salts to a man whilst a dandy consoles his weeping handsome wife.”

Clearly, Rowlandson spent a lot of time  sketching inside the theatre. Here is another one showing a performance in progress.

Once more it is shown via the Metropolitan Museum. It has the lengthy title: “The Prospect Before Us, Respectfully dedicated to those Singers, Dancers, & Musical Professors, who are fortunately engaged with the Proprietor of the Kings Theatre, at the Pantheon”.

It appeared on

The interior of the Pantheon, reconstructed as a theater, seen from the stage. Two opera dancers hold garlands of roses in the foreground. The theater is crowded with admiring spectators”.

The Boston Public Library has a Rowlandson image of  what happens after the performance, with a soldier attempting to pick up a lady on the steps outside the theatre at Covent Garden:

And finally, a reminder that theatres always suffered from the threat of fire. This also appears on the WikiGallery site: