An amazing story of a first and lasting love.

Did a Rochester marriage help reform a slave trader?

Marriage Announcement

12 February 1750 – Mr & Mrs George & Elizabeth Catlett are pleased to announce the marriage of their daughter Mary (Polly) Catlett, of Chatham, to Mr. John Newton – an adventurer, naval deserter, slave trader and an incurable romantic. The couple married at St. Margaret’s Church, Rochester, on February 1st. 1750.

John Newton wrote the words to the hymn Amazing Grace.

The young John Newton was a wild, angry, wastrel of a man. As an older man he was ordained as a priest and wrote the words to Amazing Grace which has been recorded by more artists than any other. In addition he made an important contribution to the abolition of the slave trade.

Mary, known as Polly, was the daughter of a pious woman. Polly became the focus of John’s affections in their childhood. When they eventually married at Rochester, his dependency on her was such that it is difficult to envisage their marriage not including discussion of his conversation to being an active Christian, his involvement in the slave trade and subsequently in its abolition. If this supposition is correct Polly may well have played an important – but unrecognised – part in the abolition of the slave trade.

John, born 1725, was the son of John Newton (senior), a respected sea captain, and Elizabeth, a devout Christian who dedicated herself to the upbringing and education of her son. When John was about seven his mother developed consumption (TB) and, in a very weakened state, came to Chatham to stay with her cousin Elizabeth Catlett and, would you believe, to take Chatham’s sea air! Within a few weeks of arriving she sadly died and John had to complete his education at a boarding school.

Despite numerous efforts by his father to secure a good position for his son, John thwarted them all through his self-indulgent behaviour. An event of lasting significance occurred in 1742. On the way back from Maidstone where he had been sent on business, the 17-year-old John decided to call in to see the Catletts whom he had probably not seen since his mother’s death. The door was opened by 13-year-old Polly and Cupid’s arrow found its quarry in John – marking the start of an eight-year courtship. (John later wrote that the passions he felt when he first saw Polly “equalled all that the writers of romance have imagined”.)

What should have been a three-hour visit to the Catletts lasted three weeks. John consequently lost his job and had to take a position as a low paid common seaman. On returning from sea in January 1744 John made haste to Chatham to visit the Catletts – or perhaps more accurately to see Polly.

Whilst staying with the Catletts John was warned against walking near Chatham Dockyard. True to form John ignored this advice and, surprise surprise, he was captured by a pressgang that was ‘crewing-up’ HMS Harwich which had to readying itself in case the French attempted an invasion. [John was held somewhere in Chatham, probably in the dockyard, until the pressgang had secured the required number of men. He was then transported, along with the other pressed men, to HMS Harwich.]

Despite representations made by his father and with an impending war, the Royal Navy was not going to release John who was a healthy young man with sea experience.

In December 1744, whilst HMS Harwich was anchored off Deal, John was granted one day’s shore leave. Although he would have known be couldn’t get to Chatham and back in a day, he set off to visit Polly – and thus turned one day’s leave into ten! On returning to the Harwich John was extremely lucky not to have been severally punish. Sources say he was either admonished or demoted. He certainly was not flogged nor was be threatened with a court martial that could have sentenced him to death. To the contrary, shortly after, and following representations made by his father, John was promoted to the rank of midshipman – a trainee officer position.

Four months after taking ‘unauthorised leave’ John learnt his ship was to be sent on a deployment that would take him away from Polly for five years. Rather than face a separation of this duration John deserted. He was soon captured, flogged and demoted back to the ‘ranks’ – he was quite lucky really because he could have been sentenced to death. Despite this ‘luck’ John felt great indignation about his treatment and became a very difficult crew member. This led to him and another man being exchanged for two pressed sailors from a trading ship – this was an established way for captains to rid themselves of problematic crew members.

Freed from naval discipline John’s life deteriorated into one of gambling and drunken whoring, and turned him into a slave trader and rapist. During this period John experienced a number of dangers, that included him being held as a slave, that caused him to plead to God for his deliverance. His recourse to God at these times suggests that some of his mother’s teachings may have registered with him.

On 1st February, 1750 John married Polly, the daughter of George (a Customs Officer in Chatham Dockyard) and Elizabeth, his mother’s cousin. John intended to give up slave trading but with debts from gambling and the need to support his wife, he secured a position first as First Mate and Master on a slave ship.

Although John was apparently more concerned about is ‘cargo’ than most captains, his involvement in the trade and his treatment of the people captured and torn from their families, was still appalling.

Despite being married to Polly and making a commitment to God, John could not trust himself not to add more humiliation and degradation to the inhumanely held women on his ship. In order to curtail his lust he apparently put himself on a diet of water and vegetables – but seemingly with little affect. There is one report that he witnessed a woman who was about to be abused by the crew of his ship, throwing herself over-board knowing that she would be hung by the manacle around her neck. Her death apparently had a profound affect on him.

John eventually ended his involvement with slaving in 1754 after a seizure which he took as a ‘sign’.

Just before his 33rd birthday (1758) John felt the calling to become an ordained minister. His early efforts were unsuccessful as bishops who met him questioned his suitability. However the Earl of Dartmouth, an enthusiastic Christian, persuaded the local Bishop to ordain John and to appoint him as the curate for Olney in Buckinghamshire. John turned out to be an inspirational curate who trebled the local congregation. People attended his services from nearby parishes and some even travelled from London to hear him preach. Among those travelling from London was the Wilberforce family that included the young schoolboy William Wilberforce who in adult life would lead the movement to end the slave trade.

When William Wilberforce became a Member of Parliament he turned to John for advice and support for what turned out to be his successful campaign to get slavery abolished; John’s personal testimony of the appallingly cruel treatment of slaves proved particularly powerful.

John’s life as a clergyman is not for the telling here but he went on to write the words of Amazing Grace. It was written to illustrate a sermon for New Year’s Day, 1773, and was published in 1779. The words contain the message that forgiveness and redemption are possible regardless of the sins committed – perhaps written by John more in hope than expectation!? The hymn has now been recorded by more artists than any other song, and perhaps more amazingly, the words penned by a slave trader have become closely associated with the African American community.

It is only with hindsight that we can condemn John’s involvement in the slave trade – it was at the time an accepted business. Indeed Joseph Williamson who left £5,000* in his will to establish a school that went on to become the Maths School, may have gained a considerable part of his wealth through involvement in the slave trade, and possibly impressment – the running of pressgangs. A company of which Williamson was a member, was established in 1660 and granted a charter by Charles II that effectively gave the men a monopoly over the trading arrangements with African. The group was first known as the Royal Adventurers and later became the Royal African Company.

Having made some excuse for John and perhaps Joseph Williamson for their involvement in the slave trade, I cannot find it in me to excuse the infliction of unbelievable cruelty on another person. The pain, anguish and distress caused to the people he was party to enslaving must have been blatantly evident to John.

Final thought

Obviously I have no personal knowledge of John Newton but he clearly had ‘issues’, and when it came to proposing to Polly he became so tongue-tied she had to help him out. Before they married he obsessed over the possibility that she would meet someone else, and after their marriage he was highly dependent. He often found he could only express his feeling to Polly in letters – saying things to her in writing that he could’t say to her face-to-face. I’m therefore inclined to think that her strength and goodness must have helped guide the transformation of John – the slave trader whose experiences demonstrated the abhorrence of the slave trade and that subsequently aided its abolition.

Poly died in October 1790 of breast cancer – with a tumour that grew until it was half the size of a melon. Despite being very low and in severe pain, for almost twelve months, it is said that she maintained a quiet ministry to all who came to see her.

Geoff Ettridge. 10 February 2018.

Main sources

John Newton – From Disgrace to Amazing Grace. Jonathan Aitken. 2007.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (www.oxfordnb.com).

DVD: Amazing Grace. 2006.

£5,000 could have been worth about £400,000 in today’s money.

Lyrics of Amazing Grace

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

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