5 famous people you probably didn’t know were from Olney

If you read our recent blog, 12 surprising things you might not know about Jane Smith Financial Planning, you’ll be aware that the business is celebrating a big birthday this year.

Founded back in 1994, we’ve been based in Olney, Buckinghamshire since 2009. But we’re far from being the town’s only famous inhabitants.

Indeed, Olney has been the birthplace or home to many notable people over the last few hundred years. Here’s a closer look at just five of them.

1. Clem Curtis, founder member of the Foundations

The 60s soul group The Foundations may be best known for their 1968 single ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’, but it was their debut single that provided them with their biggest hit.

‘Baby Now That I’ve Found You’ was released in 1967 and was a sleeper hit that eventually reached number 1 in the UK singles chart. (‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ peaked at number 2).

The Foundations’ co-founder and lead vocalist on ‘Baby Now That I’ve Found You’ was Trinidadian Clem Curtis, who lived in Olney for several years.

Reporting on Curtis’s death at the age of 76 in 2017, the Milton Keynes Citizen confirmed that the Foundations singer and solo star had “lived in Olney for many years” and was “a regular performer in the town, often showing out at Olney Wine Bar, and building dates at The Stables into his touring itinerary”.

Curtis moved to England when he was 15 and worked as an interior decorator before joining a band then known as “The Ramong Sound”. Arthur Brown (of ‘Fire’ by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown fame) joined the group for a time before the group settled on a new name, The Foundations.

Early success caused rifts within the band and Curtis left in 1968, before the release of ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’.

Clem Curtis continued to perform under various guises and alongside fellow soul performers right up until near the end of his life when illness prevented it.

He was on more than one occasion referred to as the “Godfather of English Soul”.

2. Organist and songwriter credited with composing more than 1,000 hymn tunes

Henry Gauntlett was born in Shropshire in 1805 but moved to Olney early in life when his father (also Henry Gauntlett) became curate, and later vicar, here.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography confirms that while Gauntlett senior wanted Henry’s sisters to take up the organ, the younger Gauntlett rebelled and learned the instrument himself.

In 1815, at the age of just nine, Gauntlett became chief organist at Olney church.

While Gauntlett would go on to have a decades-long career as a lawyer, music remained his passion. He was organist at several leading London churches and eventually gained a Doctor of Music degree, conferred on him by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was the first degree awarded in this way for more than 200 years.

During a distinguished career, Gauntlett’s output was huge. His best-known tune is ‘Irby’, which is now more widely known as the tune to the Christmas carol ‘Once in Royal David’s City’.

3. Moses Browne, poet and vicar at Olney church during the 1700s

While little is known about the birthplace of poet and cleric Moses Browne, we do know that he was ordained in 1753, the same year he became vicar of Olney.

He later had to leave his post, partly due to the size of his family (he was said to have had between 11 and 13 children with his wife Ann Wibourne). He did, though, maintain a connection to Olney until he died in 1787.

As well as his work for the church, Browne found fame as a poet.

The Gentleman’s Magazine was a monthly publication founded in London in January 1731. It is worthy of note as both the first publication to use the term “magazine” and as an early employer of Dr Samuel Johnson, the poet, playwright, essayist, and lexicographer.

Browne’s connection to The Gentleman’s Magazine began when he contributed poems, for which the magazine’s founder Edward Cave awarded Browne several prizes.

The magazine would run for almost 200 years before closing for good in 1922.

4. Dan Wheldon, IndyCar Championship and Indianapolis 500 winner

Daniel Wheldon was born in the village of Emberton (just a mile south of Olney) in 1978.

At the age of just 19, a love of motor racing took him to America to further his career. It was here that the inspirational driver, referred to in the American press as “charismatic” and “cocky but likeable”, quickly excelled. He found early success and went on to win the 2005 IndyCar Series Drivers’ Championship as well as the Indianapolis 500 in 2005 and 2011.

In total, Wheldon had 128 starts in IndyCar with 16 wins.

On October 16, 2011, Wheldon was involved in a multi-car accident in Las Vegas, in which he tragically lost his life.

5. John Newton, former slave ship captain turned abolitionist and writer of ‘Amazing Grace’

Olney is known as the “home of ‘Amazing Grace’”, one of the world’s most well-known hymns.

This is thanks to its composition by former-slave-ship-captain-turned-abolitionist, the Reverend John Newton, who was ordained in 1764 and later appointed as curate in Olney. It was here, with William Cowper, that he published the 1779 work The Olney Hymns.

The words to ‘Amazing Grace’, originally called ‘Faith’s Review and Expectation’, were first heard in St Peter and St Paul’s church in Olney.

After a life in the Royal Navy, and subsequently as a slave ship captain, Newton published a 1788 pamphlet titled ‘Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade’. He became an abolitionist and mentor to Britain’s abolitionist movement leader, William Wilberforce.

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