The Diverting History of John Gilpin

An illustration of John Gilpin riding a brown horse
An illustration of John Gilpin riding a brown horse
An illustration of John Gilpin riding a brown horse

On the north wall of All Saints Church Edmonton is a memorial to two literary greats, Charles Lamb and William Cowper (pronounced Cooper). Lamb lived opposite the church, is buried in the graveyard and deserves local recognition, but Cowper never visited Edmonton.

Nonetheless the memorial is not without justification because Cowper did more than anyone in the Eighteenth century to put Edmonton on the map.

William Cowper had a troubled life. Prohibited from marrying his childhood sweetheart, he suffered periods of self doubt and insanity. Neither could he find regular employment and was rarely capable of living alone. For most of his adult life he lived with the Unwin family first in Huntingdon and then in Olney. It was while living at Olney that Cowper met a widow who told him the story of a London Draper and his adventure on a runaway horse.

On hearing the tale Cowper stayed up all night recreating the “The Diverting History of John Gilpin”.

This comic poem revolves around a Cheapside Draper whose wife, fed up at not having a holiday for twenty years, organises a day out at The Bell in Edmonton for their anniversary. She hires a chaise but there is only room for her, her sister and the children. She tells her husband he will have to follow on a borrowed horse. Mrs Gilpin packed a picnic but John had to bring the wine.

Just as the party were to set off a customer turned up at the Cheapside shop and John could not resist serving him. This meant he had to catch the party up, which proved his undoing. The horse bolted. Gilpin soon lost his hat, wig and the bottles of wine as the nag sprinted northwards.

Clinging on to the horse’s mane, the draper took the stance of a jockey which made bystanders think he was in a race. By now the main party had reached Edmonton and Mrs Gilpin, seeing her husband approach, tried to flag him down – but the horse and rider continued up the Hertford Road until they reached Ware. Here the horse found the home of its owner, who was surprised to see his steed and friend so bare headed. After hearing his story Gilpin’s colleague found him a new wig and horse and sent him back on the road to join his wife and family.

A sculpture dedicated to John Gilpin's ride at the Angel, Edmonton
A sculpture dedicated to John Gilpin’s ride at the Angel, Edmonton

Unfortunately, history repeated itself as the second horse took off racing back towards London. Poor Mrs Gilpin watched as a second time her husband shot past The Bell unable to enjoy the spread she had laid out. The horse did not stop until he had set his rider down back at his Cheapside store.

The poem was published on several occasions and there were few people in Georgian London who had not heard of John Gilpin and The Bell at Edmonton. Of the three pubs claiming to be The Bell none now exist, but a sculpture in Fore Street erected in 1996 is a reminder of the legend.

You can hear more stories from Enfield’s history, visit www.jaywalks.co.uk.

Related posts