John Gilpin
Randolph Caldecott [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

‘The Diverting History of John Gilpin’ is a comic ballad written by William Cowper in 1782. This is, I learnt from Wikipedia, based on a real-life wealthy draper from Cheapside in London. Cowper, it seems, heard the story from Lady Anna Austen and was so amused by it, he decided to put it in verse, and this poem was the result. And well over 200 years later, this one continues to be a great deal of fun.

As the story opens, John Gilpin, ‘a citizen, of credit and renown‘ is speaking to his wife. His wife reminds him that while they’ve been married twenty years, they haven’t had a holiday. Since the next day is their wedding anniversary, she proposes that they and with them their three children, her sister, and her sister’s child go to the ‘Bell at Edmonton’. The two ladies and children will travel in a ‘chaise and pair‘, while Gilpin for whom there would be no room, ‘must ride on horseback after [them]’.

Gilpin and his Wife
by Randplph Caldecott, via Wikimedia Commons

Gilpin readily agrees to this plan, and says that he’ll borrow a horse for the occasion from his friend the calendar, being also extra pleased with his frugal wife, who’s said they’ll carry their own wine ‘which is both bright and clear‘, for to buy it is dear.

The new day dawns, and as planned, the chaise arrives to pick up the travellers. But lest they be considered proud, it was not brought to their door,

So three doors off the chaise was stay’d,

Where they did all get in,

Six precious souls, and all agog

To dash through thick and thin,

As they set off, John Gilpin himself prepares to mount his horse, but as soon as he has got on all set to ride, he gets off again, having spotted three customers, for while loss of time ‘grieved him sore‘, ‘loss of pence, he fully well knew would trouble him much more’. Customers dealt with, he is about to set off once again, when Betty (the maid, I assume) comes rushing to remind him that he has left the wine behind. Mistress Gilpin has put the wine in two stone bottles which John Gilpin fastens to either side of his ‘leathern belt’, and now throwing on ‘his long red cloak, well brushed and neat‘, he is indeed ready to go.

And so he starts off finally, riding slowly and cautiously (as becomes his character), but unluckily for him, his horse has other plans. As soon as the horse feels the road get smoother under his feet, he begins to pick up speed, starting to trot, and before long, to gallop. So poor John Gilpin must hold on for dear life, grabbing onto it’s mane with both hands, leaving the creature,

…who never in that sort,

Had handled been before,

What thing upon his back had got,

Did wonder more and more.

As they speed on, Gilpin’s hat and wig fly off, the bottles swinging at his sides, dogs bark and children scream, while onlookers cheer him on, ‘Well done’. For seeing him ride at that pace, they’re convinced he’s riding a race, carrying a weight, and not any old race, but one ‘for a thousand pound‘. Under the same impression, the turnpike-men open the gates quickly as he approaches and Gilpin rides on, the bottles soon smashing and the wine pouring out, leaving only the bottle necks dangling from his belt. Soon he rides into Edmonton, his destination, where his loving wife, standing on a balcony tries to stop him and indicate where his family and his dinner awaits. But the horse does not relent, for his master, the calendar, has a house ten miles further at Ware. And it is there that he takes John Gilpin, flying like an ‘arrow swift…shot by an archer strong‘, finally coming to a halt.

Gilpin’s horse making away with him
Lodge, Henry C., [from old catalog] comp via Wikimedia Commons

Gilpin’s friend the calendar is naturally amazed to see him, enquiring why he is there unexpectedly, and bareheaded at that? Gilpin relates his tale and soon, the calendar brings him a hat and wig (his own and a little too big for Gilpin), and invites him in for a meal but Gilpin refuses wanting to join his wife for

…all the world would stare,

If wife should dine at Edmonton,

And I should dine at Ware.

The calendar offering Gilpin a hat and wig
Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0] via Wikimedia Commons

Before starting again, Gilpin ‘tells’ the horse that he’s come here at his own pleasure but must head to back to Edmonton for Gilpin’s. But did he really expect the reckless creature to understand? For of course, as soon as Gilpin is on the horse, with a snort the creature takes off once again, this time galloping even faster than before. Soon enough go the hat and wig again, as Gilpin is carried past his destination. Gilpin’s wife, looking on what has taken place, now asks a young postboy to follow her husband and bring him back, for a reward of a crown.

Gilpin’s Family Looking On as He Rides Right Past Them
by Randolph Caldecott, Edmund Evans [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Spotting this high-speed chase on the street, another misunderstanding develops, and some onlookers begin to shout, ‘Stop thief–stop, a thief—a Highwayman‘, and join in pursuit. But when they get to the turnpike again, the turnpike-men open the gates in the blink of an eye believing Gilpin to still be riding a race.

And so he did, and won it too,

For he got first to town,

Not stopp’d till where he had got up,

He did again get down.

And so came to an end Gilpin’s adventure, his outing that was and wasn’t, with Cowper hoping that ‘when he next doth ride abroad, May [he] be there to see!

In Pursuit of the Highwayman
by Randolph Caldecott, Edmund Evans [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

This is such a fun little story, one that brings a smile to one’s face, when reading and picturing what befell the poor linen draper, who only wanted to enjoy a day out with his family, but couldn’t thanks to one very obstinate horse.

Have you read this poem? Do you find it fun or just so-so? Any other poems on the same lines that you’d recommend? Looking forward to your thoughts!

Find the full poem here:

Wikipedia: on the poem:

and on Gilpin:


2 thoughts on “John Gilpin’s Ride of a Lifetime

  1. One of my favourites from school. I really enjoyed the illustrations you’ve unearthed. I’ve only seen one of Gilpin on the runaway horse before, that too in B&W.

    Liked by 1 person

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