A Brief History of Olney.
It is not known exactly where the name Olney originated, although it is known to date back to Anglo Saxon times and was mentioned in the Treaty of Wedmore in 876AD when the Danes were here.
The town’s name could have originated from a couple of possibilities. ALN-EY, which signifies Island of Alder Trees is one of the possibilities or alternatively it was named after a Saxon King called Ola, who was reputed to have owned the land at one time. The syllables Ey or Eye denote a watery place, which accurately describes the periphery of Olney.
The spelling of Olney has changed many times over the centuries with O L N E I recorded in the Domesday Book. The current spelling of O L N E Y was settled on in the 18th century. The various spellings probably account for the pronunciation by long standing residents as Oney and some newer residents as Olney.
Whilst this causes some light-hearted banter between Olneyites and other Olney residents both pronunciations are acceptable.
In terms of size, Olney is 4 miles long, 2.5 miles wide, totals 3,410 acres and has a population of around 6,000. Olney is a market town and as you enter the town travelling North on the A509 you will see the 185ft Spire of the Parish Church of St. Peter & St. Paul blending in beautifully with the surrounding countryside. Once in the town you will see the Market Place on the right bordered by delightful sponsored flowerbeds and hanging baskets that are so well looked after by the council ground staff. Records of a market being held in Olney date back to 1205 and today we still have a flourishing weekly Thursday market. In 2003 a Farmers’ Market was set up by the Town Council to operate on the first Sunday of each month. The Farmers’ Market has been an unqualified success and continues to attract new stallholders.
On the South side of the Market Place stands the Cowper & Newton Museum. The museum was the residence of the renowned Poet and world famous literary scholar William Cowper. He, together with his close friend the Rev. John Newton, the reformed Slave Trader, who was to become Curate of St Peter & St Paul’s Church have been the two most prominent residents of Olney over the years. Together they wrote the Olney Hymns, the most famous of which is Amazing Grace, which I am sure you are all familiar with. As well as artefacts and details of the lives of William Cowper and John Newton there are examples of the lace making and boot and shoe trades, which apart from agriculture were the main businesses employing residents of Olney from the 18th to early 20th centuries.
One of the most enjoyable features of living in Olney is the feeling of being in a close community who interact and support each other in so many ways. Our local monthly publication called the Phonebox, avidly read by most residents publishes a wide range of editorial, publicity and advertising features, which provide information and details of so much of what is available and happening in Olney. There is a list of all the clubs, associations and societies at the end of each publication and these number in excess of 70. To give you an idea of Olney’s community spirit you just need to walk down to the extensive recreation fields, which so many of our visitors drool over, at the week-ends. There you will find literally hundreds of youngsters being coached throughout the seasons in the sports of cricket, football, rugby and tennis. The coaches are usually mums and dads from the town who are either still playing or have played the various sports and through their efforts will keep the clubs strong in the future.
Another feature Olney is well known for is the annual Pancake Race held on Shrove Tuesday, which dates back to 1445. The Olney Race is based on a tale that a housewife was in her kitchen making her pancakes on Shrove Tuesday when she heard the Church Bells ringing for the Shriving Service. Desperate not to be late she made a mad dash for the Church with her frying pan still in her hand. Moving on to 1950 the town of Liberal in Kansas USA read about the Olney Pancake Race tradition and decided to adopt the tradition themselves and then challenged Olney to an annual race with the fastest time from the two races declared the overall winner. Olney accepted the challenge and the two towns have competed each year ever since.
Cherry Fair is an annual summertime event which is supported by many residents in the town. It is a traditional village style fete run by St Peter & St Paul’s Church, which takes place on the last Saturday in June. The next day a Duck Race, when hundreds of little yellow rubber ducks are launched from the weir bridge with the winner being the first duck to reach the main bridge. This is followed by a Raft Race with different categories of rafts needing to be paddled approximately 1.5 miles ending at the river steps in the Recreation Ground alongside an arena area, which contain a number of stalls and attractions.
Probably the most popular day in Olney is a Sunday in early December called Dickens of a Christmas, which is organised by Olney Town Council. A variety of stalls and entertainment at a number of locations up and down the High Street, both indoors and outdoors, with participants dressed appropriately for the Dickens era brings thousands of people from near and far into the town.
Educationally we are fortunate to have an Infants School, a Middle School and a new Secondary School in the town. The Infants and Middle Schools both play an integral role within the community and participate in many of the town’s activities such as Cherry Fair, Dickens of a Christmas and The Pancake Race. The Secondary School has been built for youngsters from the age of 11 to 16 and opened for the 2007 summer term.
I hope that gives you a thumbnail sketch of Olney’s historical background and life today in Olney. We all love our beautiful town and the Estate Agents down the High Street will be happy to see you if you feel you would like to come and live with us in our little English Oasis.
We hope you will visit Olney and enjoy your time with us.