PREFACE by Nigel Stickells

Thomas Wright 1

Thomas Wright – Schoolmaster, local historian and author

Sunday, 3rd April 2016, was the 80th anniversary of the death of Thomas Wright of Olney.

Thomas Wright was a true antiquarian and man of Olney.  It is fair to say that the Cowper and Newton Museum would not exist, as we know it, were it not for the personal foresight, energy and enthusiasm of Thomas Wright. Without the latter, the works of William Cowper in particular might well have been relegated to an audience restricted to browsing the dusty shelves of academe. Thomas Wright was a prolific writer in his own right and his publications, especially those on matters of local historical interest such as ‘The Romance of the Lace Pillow’, are an engaging read. At Thomas Wright’s memorial service it was said that ‘Olney was bound up with Mr Wright, and, equally so, Mr Wright was bound up with Olney.’

The following is an extract from the Bedfordshire Times and lndependent of Friday, 10 April 1936. It represents a timely tribute to the life and works of Thomas Wright:




 Death of Mr. Thomas Wright at Advanced Age.


Deep regret has been caused by the death of Mr Thomas Wright, the veteran author and well-known authority on William Cowper, of the Cowper School, Olney. He died peacefully at his home on 3rd April at the age of seventy-six.

In the late autumn last year he underwent treatment for eye trouble and recently he caught a chill. On his doctor’s advice he remained indoors. On Friday he grew worse, and though his children were quickly summoned to his bedside died before their arrival. The cause of his death was bronchial pneumonia. He leaves a widow, a son, and two daughters.

A few hours before his death Mr Wright sent for Mr H A Freeman, the undertaker, and with him discussed in detail the arrangements for his funeral, the keynote of which was to be quietness and simplicity – no flowers and no mourning.  He also arranged the memorial service and chose the psalms and hymns.  He expressed the wish that Mr MacLaren, of Bedford, should conduct the service.


Mr  Thomas Wright was born in Olney on 16th May, 1859, and was the son of Mr W S Wright. In 1884 he married Miss Angelina Edwards. He received his education at Buxton College, Forest Gate, and his alma mater was the library of the British Museum. One of the great dreams of his life was to establish  a Cowper Museum in Olney, and it was realized at the Cowper centenary celebrations on 25th April, 1900, when Mr W H Collingridge presented the poet’s house to the town and nation. Mr Wright was also able to secure Cowper’s garden and the famous summerhouse for the nation in 1919. The Museum began in two rooms and has gradually grown, anything which belonged to the poet finding a home there. Now ten rooms are furnished, and the Museum constitutes what is considered to be the most complete literary museum (devoted to one poet) in Europe. This collection is visited by many people from all parts of the world.

Mr. Wright’s autobiography is now in the Press, and it expected that it will be published in September next.


In 1900 Mr Wright wrote to the Editor the Daily Chronicle advocating the establishment of Dickens Museum in London. An article relative to this matter appeared in the issue of 1st January, 1901, with the result that in 1924 Dickens’ house at 48 Doughty Street was secured and subsequently opened as the Dickens Museum. Mr Wright was authority on Dickens and his last book, in 1935, was devoted to the life of the novelist. This work occasioned much comment because of the deductions and discoveries he chronicled in regard to Dickens’s domestic affairs.

Mr Wright had arranged to give a talk on Charles Dickens to the scholars Olney Junior Council school last week in connexion with the Dickens’ centenary celebrations.

Among the biographies written by Mr Wright were ‘Lives’ of William Blake, William Cowper, lsaac Watts, Daniel Defoe, John Payne and the Rev. T R Matthews (of Bedford), Burton, and Walter Pater. Other books of his included, ‘Blake for Babes’, ‘The Town of Cowper’, ‘The Unpublished Letters of

Cowper’, ‘Heart’s Desire’, ‘Rose-in-Hood’, ’Green Beryl’, ’The Romance of the Lace Pillow’,’ The Romance of the Shoe’, ’The Golden Bobbin’, ‘The Land of Souls’, ’Nature and her Lover’, ‘The Ways of the Wine Press’, and with the collaboration of Doris Hughes ‘The Huntingdon Lady’, and ‘The Girl from Godmanchester’, and other books now out of print.

Mr Wright, who belonged to local family, of which the Bedford branch produced the famous balloonist of the same name, went from Olney to London as a young man to acquire experience in the teaching profession. Later he established the Cowper School at Olney. This school, after a long and useful life, was closed about sixteen years ago, when Mr Wright’s increasing literary activities caused him to devote the whole of his time to literature. He continued to occupy the school premises, and the large schoolroom provided a useful additional study and store room for his thoroughly well-indexed books and files of reference.

Mr Wright was a friend of Swinburne and of John Payne. Payne, it will be recalled, was a poet, scholar, and translator of ‘The Arabian Nights’, of Boccacio, and, among others, of the Great Persian poets Omar Khayyam, Sadi, and Hafiz.  Mr Wright published three verse works based on these latter translations. The works include ‘Heart’s Desire’, which presents portions of Omar Khayyam that were unknown to Fitzgerald; and ‘Rose in Hood’, which gives the most striking thoughts Hafiz. Mr Wright also edited Payne’s ‘Autobiography’ and many of his works and founded the John Payne Society.  ln his ‘Life of John Payne’ Mr Wight wrote many attractive stories of Swinburne, Rossetti, Sir Richard Burton, and other celebrated people. His own autobiography will perhaps have provided scope for the introduction of other attractive stories of the celebrities he met, or with whom he became acquainted by his patient research.


In addition to becoming the Secretary and Founder of the John Payne Society Mr Wright was Secretary and Founder of the Cowper and Blake Societies. Much was learned in 1931 at the Cowper bicentenary celebrations of his work for the Cowper Society and its aims. Mr Wright’s work to elucidate the mysteries of William Blake is not so well known. Some people know of Blake as the author of the words of the song ‘Jerusalem’. Others know of him as the author of a funny little poem they learned school: ‘Tiger, Tiger burning bright’. Mr Wright’s ‘Life of Blake’ interprets the moods, activities, engravings, drawings, poetry, and prophecies of Blake, furnishing the key to the true inwardness of this English mystic. It was one of Mr Wright’s greatest achievements that he made the genius of Blake quite clear to the most reasonable of readers.


A memorial service was held in the Cowper Memorial Congregational Church on Tuesday afternoon. The body was conveyed to the Golders Green Crematorium where the Rector, the Rev. H Chapman, conducted a short service. The memorial service was conducted by Mr E Maclaren. Relatives present were Mrs T Wright (widow), Miss Wright (daughter), Mrs E Sowman (sister-in-law), Mrs Scroggie (sister-in-law), Mr R Sowman (nephew), and Mrs Anderson (cousin). Among others present were Mr W T Knight and Mr E Hoddle (deacons), Mr J Garner (secretary), of the Congregational Church, Mrs Chapman (representing the Vicar), Mr and Mrs A W R Sowman, Mrs and Miss Fairey, Mr and Mrs Pebodv, Mrs Allen, Miss Freeman, Mrs and Miss Whitmee, Miss Hollingshead, Miss Gudgin, Dr G O M Dickenson, the Rev. A W Smith, Mr W S Bull (Olney), Mr W R Bull (Newport), Messrs C M Allen, S W Lord, H J Osborn, and Dr Chevalier (Parish Councillors), Mr J C Nicholls (Surveyor), Mr S F Morgan (Clerk to the Parish Council), Messrs S E Hipwell, A J Osborn, and S Gibson (old schoolfellows).

The service was of a simple character, and opened with the hymn ‘Blind Unbelief’. This was followed by a reading from the 103rd Psalm. Cowper’s well-known hymn, ‘God moves in a mysterious way’ followed, and Mr MacLaren read the twenty-third Psalm, on the last verse of which he based his brief address- ‘surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days my life.’

Olney, the preacher said, was bound up with Mr Wright, and, equally so, Mr Wright was bound up with Olney. Mr MacLaren explained that his presence in the pulpit was due to their great friendship and the admiration he had for Mr Wright. Both of them had an intense love for Cowper’s and Newton’s works, and many hours had been spent together in literary sympathy in Mr Wright’s library and museum. In his literary work Mr Wright had committed nothing to print without absolute truth and foundation. He was a man of unswerving devotion to his Lord and Master. He had lived a useful life, and worn himself out in his work. Olney would never forget his influence. The congregation stood as Mr S J Dix played the Dead March.

Transcription of the above extract by Nigel Stickells – March 2016


The ODHS wishes to thank Nigel Stickells for providing and introducing this extract for the website.

Editor’s Note: Links to two further articles on this website follow dealing with other interests of Thomas Wright:




.Copyright © 2010 Olney & District Historical Society

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