It’s week six of our folk tales from the five London Boroughs, and Ruairidh Anderson tells the story of Wapping’s John Newton – writer of one of the world’s most famous songs, slave trader and abolitionist to boot.
“During this time by his own account, John Newton descended into sins of the most dark and licentious variety. Amongst his aberrations was the composition of rude songs directed at his ship’s captain, much to the amusement of those around him because you see, John was a very talented songwriter.”
Watch the video and enjoy the London song inspired by this tale,’When The Wind Cries’.
John Newton ‘Amazing Grace’
Church services can be pretty strange places for the uninitiated. The pomp, the ceremony, the cryptic passages of scripture. I still remember as a young boy realising that ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ were legitimate English words and not the result of a vicars’s speech impediment. Cold grey walls and hard pews are hardly conducive to spiritual intercourse and it’s easy to get disillusioned whilst looking at other religions – Hari Krishnas with their yogis, Buddhists with the Dali Lama and then us with spiritual leaders that seem to have more in common with Goebbels in a rather dour Star Trek outfit than beacons of spiritual enlightenment. But in amongst it all you can still be struck to the core by a well placed verse or by a hymn that will forever be connected to Wapping in London’s Tower Hamlets.
John Newton was born in Wapping 1725 and his father was a ship’s master. From the age of 11 John would join his father on voyages around the globe. At 17 he fell in love with the lovely Mary Catlett, however their romance was rather rudely interrupted after an altercation with a press-gang. Whilst visiting relatives John was happened upon by these rather ruthless naval recruiters and before he knew it was on the HMS Harwick, a Man O’ War. There was something about the poor pay, living conditions and having to put up with the stench of sweaty men that John objected to and so he made plans to escape. Now unfortunately his skill set lay more firmly in the camp of Captain Pugwash than Harry Houdini and he was promptly recaptured, dragged to the front of the ship, stripped and flogged 300 times. It was during this time that John sank into a deep depression.
Out on the high seas on route to India John was transferred from the HMS Harwick to a slave ship called Pegasus and it was during this time by his own admission that he descended into sins of the most dark and licentious variety. Including aberrations such as writing rude songs about those around him including the crew and captains, much to the amusement of the mates around him. Because you see John was a very talented songwriter. In keeping with his lifestyle thus far he was then sold to a slave owner who’s wife detested him and brutally abused him, attempting to starving poor John to death. But destiny called and John Newton was transferred again onto another boat.
One day out on the high seas in 1748 a great storm hit and in the panic that followed John Newton got down his knees and cried out to God. In that moment John Newton became a believer. From that point on he was a new man. He turned from gambling, drinking, profanities though not from the apparently lesser sin of slave trading in which he continued to work for several more years.
Eventually returning to England he married Mary and in 1774 suffered a stroke. It was then that he realised the inconsistencies his faith and vacation. John Newton took up studying theology and became a priest. As a man of the cloth he became a fierce opponent of the slave trade and with good friend William Wilberforce eventually saw the slave act passed in 1807 and died the same year.
Today John Newton is remembered in Sierra Leone where a town named after him but he is best remembered to us as the writer of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.’