In October 2022 we received our fourth successful Arts Council grant. We would be working with the Cowper & Newton Museum in Olney (Bucks) in a project running from December 2022 to the end of June 2023.
John Newton was Curate in charge of St.Peter and St.Paul's Church (Olney) when he wrote the words to Amazing Grace for his New Year's Day sermon in 1773. Today the song is universally loved, yet its writer was a slave trader for a long time before becoming an abolitionist. To many his involvement in the slave trade is problematic.
We interviewed Amazing Grace and Slave Trade subject matter experts including Tom Jones and James Walvin (historians), Marylynn Rouse (curator), Martin Clarke (musicologist) and Judy Collins (folk singer and activist). We also interviewed widely to discover contemporary attitudes to historic slavery.
Folk musicians Angeline Morrison, Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne and Jon Bickley came to Olney for a 3 day retreat. They visited the Museum and various other sites pertinent to Amazing Grace and John Newton. The objective was to write new songs and music inspired by the life of Newton, the Olney Hymns and the legacy of the Slave trade.
In June a concert performance by Angeline, Cohen & Jon in the garden at the Cowper and Newton Museum showcased the new songs . In the finale they were augmented by the Fusion Choir, a diverse children's choir from Queen's Park in Bedford. It was a beautiful day and a joyous occasion.
The heart of the project is the creation of new music. Angeline Morrison, Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne and Jon Bickley got together in Dartmouth House in Olney to research and respond to the writing of Amazing Grace, Newton's life and times. It was a time when slavery was an accepted part of the trading economy of the world. Earlier in his life Newton had been the captain of a slave trading ship and then later he was an abolitionist.
The house was once owned by the Earl of Dartmouth and he gave John Newton his first clerical posting as Curate in Charge at St.Peter and St.Paul's in Olney.
The Cowper and Newton Museum showed us where Newton preached and where he wrote, we played Cowper's harpsichord and we saw the manacles that kept kidnapped Africans incarcerated in the cargo hold of British trading ships.
We were visited by Amanda Molcher and Jo Hudson-Lett (see podcasts) and by Ian Yarwood who took this photo and shot some film of Angeline, Cohen and Jon trying out new songs.
Angeline, Cohen and Jon sing Amazing Grace in a film by Ian Yarwood
Tom Jones (left) Olney historian is seen being interviewed by Invisible Folk's Jon Bickley (right) in the courtyard of the Cowper & Newton Museum. Tom talks about John Newton's life; what brought him to Olney, his life as a preacher and hymn writer, his relationship with Cowper and his journey from slave trader to abolitionist.
Professor James Walvin OBE is a world renowned authority on the transatlantic slave trade and has written extensively on the subject. James describes a worldwide economic system which held the slave trade in place for so long. It was protected and supported by the British Government and penetrated every walk of British life.
Dr Martin Clarke is a musicologist at the Open University. He talks about the music in Newton's sermons, the 'West Gallery' music of the time, and how the most famous tune associated with Amazing Grace came about so long after the words were written. Finally he reflects on the iconic performances that made it one of the most loved songs of all time.
Marylynn Rouse is founder of the John Newton Project, a charity established to make available previously unpublished sermon notes, letters and writings by John Newton. She has written extensively about Newton's life and his remarkable ability with languages and the profusion of writing and scripture that gave rise to Amazing Grace.
Judy Collins has been a beloved and admired folk singer and activist since the early 60s. In 1970 she had a worldwide hit with Amazing Grace that went a long way to making it the universally known and loved hymn it is today. Indeed it proved to be a talisman in the dangers, toils and snares of her personal life.
Pea is a community leader and an inspiration from Bedford. She is an advocate and campaigner for the voice and the empowerment of the Caribbean community. Listen Podcast
Amanda (left) is a trustee at the Cowper and Newton Museum. As well as being a knowledgable guide, her warm and moving stories have been a wellspring for all of us involved in this project.
At the time of our conversation Sally-Anne was Head Curator at the National Trust and she had just co-edited a report tracing money from the trade and compensation of the slave trade back to properties managed by the National Trust.
Lydia is Keeper of Social History at the Higgins, Bedford and has previously worked and studied at the Wilberforce House Museum in Hull. Her generous networking has been crucial in the development of Invisible Folk.
L to R: Annette Burrows, Bob Templeman, Jon Bickley & Diana Stone