Ecclesiastical family who thrived on prayer, poetry and Croydon

Using Croydon Minster’s archive, DAVID MORGAN researches the family history of John Unwin Esq, and discovers more of the wealth of local history to be found laying at our feet

A young John Unwin, from a painting by Thomas Gainsborough

One of the gravestones making up the path on the southern part of the memorial gardens beside Croydon Minster refers to a John Unwin Esquire. He died in September 1789 in his 76th year.

On the worn stone slab is a coat of arms, suggesting that John was a person of some importance. He was a Georgian ecclesiastical entrepreneur, headhunting clergymen to fill church vacancies. He bought and sold advowsons, which, in church law, are the rights to recommend someone to a vacancy or to appoint someone yourself.

From his offices in the Inner Temple, Unwin was involved in deals in many parts of the country. Fyning in Sussex was sold to him in 1757 by the sisters of the late Thomas Bettesworth. Horton Rectory in Gloucestershire was acquired in 1777 and was sold on a year later.

Unwin presented a new Rector to Warblington, Hampshire, in July 1777, with a reasonable fee for his services. Buckland in Oxfordshire was also part of the Unwin Empire back in 1754.

All these deals, together with other legal casework, made Unwin a very wealthy man. He was able to buy a house in Croydon, a quiet location within an easy carriage ride to London.

John Unwin’s will reveals fascinating details about his life, as well as uncovering information about the other four members of the Unwin family who were buried at what was known then as the Parish Church here in Croydon. One of the possessions that was passed on in his will was a painting of his grandfather, John Morley, by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

John Morley: his portrait was included in Unwin’s will

John Morley, 1656-1732, was originally a butcher in the Essex town of Halstead. His business acumen led him to become one of the most important land jobbers, or agents, for disposing of land, in the country.

He acted as an agent too, for Robert Harley, the First Earl of Oxford, Queen Ann’s Lord High Treasurer.

In helping to arrange Harley’s son’s marriage to Lady Henrietta Holles, Morley received a 2½ per cent commission on the dowry, which was about £10,000 (worth 10 times that today).

Sir Godfrey Kneller was one of the leading portrait painters of the day and was the court painter, appointed originally by Charles II. He painted all the Royal Family, leading politicians and figures in public life. The fact that he accepted a commission to paint John Morley tells us much about the standing of John Unwin’s grandfather, as well as his burgeoning bank balance.

John Morley and his wife Juliana had eight children. One of the daughters, Martha, married Thomas Unwin, a goldsmith. Their second son, Morley, went to Cambridge and became a cleric. He married Mary Cawthorne, a draper’s daughter from Ely. In 1765, while Morley Unwin was Vicar of Huntingdon, he met and befriended the poet William Cowper.

Cowper was the foremost poet of the generation between Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth. For several decades, he probably had the largest readership of any English poet.

William Cowper provided lyrics to hymns popular in Georgian England

So great was the friendship between Morley Unwin and Cowper that in the October of that year the poet moved into the Unwin house on the High Street as a paying guest.

In a letter to his cousin Maria, dated October 1766, Cowper describes the routine of the Unwin household. For him, who had spent time in an asylum, this routine, friendship and stability was just what he needed.

How might you have managed in such a household?

“We breakfast commonly between eight and nine; till eleven, we read either the Scripture, or the sermons of some faithful preacher of those holy mysteries; at eleven we attend divine service, which is performed here twice every day; and from twelve to three we separate and amuse ourselves as we please. During the interval I either read in my own apartment, or walk, or ride, or work in the garden. We seldom sit an hour after dinner, but, if the weather permits, adjourn to the garden, where with Mrs Unwin and her son I have generally the pleasure of religious conversation till tea-time.

“If it rains, or is too windy for walking, we either converse within doors, or sing some hymns of Martin’s collection, and by the help of Mrs Unwin’s harpsichord make up a tolerable concert, in which our hearts, I hope, are the best and most musical performers.

“After tea we sally forth to walk in good earnest. Mrs Unwin is a good walker, and we have generally travelled about four miles before we are home again. When the days are short, we make the excursion in the former part of the day, between churchtime and dinner. At night we read and converse, as before, till supper, and commonly finish the evening either with hymns or a sermon; and last of all, the family are called to prayers… we are all happy, and dwell together in unity as brethren.”

The contentment that they enjoyed with these arrangements sadly didn’t last for long.

In July 1767 there was a tragic accident. While Morley Unwin was riding to church to take a service, he was thrown from his horse near Godmanchester and fractured his skull. He lingered for a few days before he died.

William Cowper: poet and friend of the Unwin family

His will reveals that he was a wealthy clergyman. He left £1,500 to both his brother John and to his son William in trusts. Not long after Morley’s death, Cowper, Morley’s widow Mary and her daughter Susannah moved to live in Olney, Buckinghamshire. Rev John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”, happened to be the vicar of Olney at that time. Cowper and Newton subsequently worked together writing many hymns which were published as The Olney Hymnbook.

“God moves in a mysterious way” is one of Cowper’s most well-known hymns.

William Unwin, the son of Mary and Morley Unwin, went to Cambridge University. He was an extremely intelligent scholar, winning the Chancellor’s Classical medal in 1764.

Gainsborough painted his portrait in the same year. It is not known now where the original painting is, but it was engraved for Southey’s biography The Life of Cowper, published in 1830.

William Unwin followed his father into the Church. He became the Rector of Stock in Essex and frequented London quite often. It was he who acted as an intermediary between Cowper and his London publisher and bookseller, and helped arrange the publication of Cowper’s highly successful poem, The Task, in 1785. Another of Cowper’s poems Tirocinium was written specifically for William when Unwin was deciding how to educate his two sons.

In the prime of his life in his early 40s, in November 1786 William Unwin died suddenly while visiting his friend Henry Thornton in Winchester. He was buried in Winchester Cathedral. According to Cowper, in a letter dated December 4, 1786, William’s mother reacted stoically to his death, knowing that he died the death of a Christian.

In the same letter Cowper describes William’s sons: “the children were thriving under his own tuition and management and his eldest boy is likely to feel his loss severely, being by his years in some respect qualified to understand the value of such a parent; by his literary proficiency too clever for a schoolboy and too young for university at the same time.”

A portrait of Mary Unwin. Her grandson William Unwin was buried in the family vault in Croydon

William’s widow Ann couldn’t remain in their Essex rectory after her husband’s death. It was their uncle, John Unwin, with his home in Croydon, who came to the rescue of the family. He offered for her and her children to come and live with him, which she accepted. The Unwin family, now extended, began a new chapter of their lives in Croydon.

When John Unwin died in 1789, Ann and her children were each recipients of generous bequests.

Ann was to receive an annual sum of £100 for the rest of her life. William and his sister Mary were each left money in trust which they would access on their 24th birthdays.

Yet neither lived to receive these great benefits. Mary died in September 1799, aged 20, and William passed away in May 1806 when aged 19.

Their mother Ann, lived on in what was John Unwin’s house until she died in My 1825 aged 75. Elizabeth Shuttleworth, Anne’s unmarried sister, whose signature can be seen on a codicil to John’s will written in 1788, predeceased them, dying in 1795 when aged 40. She was buried in the family vault in the churchyard in Croydon, as were Ann, her son and her daughter.

What a family they were, the Unwins. You can just hear John telling everyone about his grandfather and his work with the Earl of Oxford while he stands in front of his portrait painted by Kneller. There is the youngest William explaining that his grandfather had been thrown off his horse and lost his life, but how his father had been taught in his younger years by the greatest living poet of the day.

Rev Morley Unwin, whose evangelical lifestyle prevented him from gossiping or claiming any credit for the poet’s renewed creativity, would have felt such great pride in his achievements. Mary Unwin, buried in Dereham, Norfolk, continued to support and encourage the poet throughout her lifetime.

The Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney have helped in providing material for this article. Even they were unaware of this branch of the family being buried in Croydon. When congregations are able to sing again in church, I must encourage our vicar to choose some Cowper hymns and share with him the links with the Unwin family buried here in our churchyard.

Read more: 200-year-old documents reveal story behind the graves
Read more: Cleric who faced court at time of Pepys, plague and puritans


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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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