Wilfred Owen's Family

From curriers to Shoemakers, Taxidermists to Innkeepers, Tailors to Postmasters, Railway Clerks to Curates, Surgeons to Labourers, Cordwainers, Sailors, Ironmongers, Artists, Bookbinders and Bookshop owners all represented in the ancestral line of a poet.

Nantwich in Cheshire was where Wilfred’s Great Grandfather, John, was born in 1799 to a John Owen and his wife Ellen (Booth). In October 1835 John married Hannah Pace and their eldest son William was born in a tiny cottage in Nixon’s Row, Nantwich. By the age of 13 William was apprenticed to his father as a shoemaker. The family was still living in the same house along with three other children, two relations and two labourers. How they all fitted into this cottage goodness only knows. 

In January 1859 William married Martha Millard and on the marriage certificate his occupation is now Tailor and the couple took up residence in Welch Row, Nantwich, just around the corner from his parents. These two had three daughters and Tom their only son and by 1881 the girls and their parents were running a clothing shop and a Grocery store. Tom had moved on and he was living in Oswestry sometime in his mid teens. It is about this time he must have met Susan Shaw probably while playing sport when Tom may have met her wayward brother Edward who played for several teams in the town.

By the Autumn of 1880 aged eighteen, Tom signed on and worked his way to India on the SS Benalder. He found a job as a clerk working for the Great Peninsular Railway in Bombay at the Company’s head office. Tom became ill, and on advice, but unwillingly, returned to England where he started work with the London and North Western and Great Western Railways in Shrewsbury. Sometime in 1891 Tom and Susan Shaw became engaged. Sadly, Susan’s mother Mary (Salter) died on 29th November shortly before the planned wedding, leaving Edward her husband with many problems. Their only son had gone off the rails and sometime before his mother died he disappeared sending a message that he had gone to America.

Tom Owen and Harriett Susan Shaw, were married on 8th December only a few days after the funeral of her mother. The young couple moved into the family house, Plas Wilmot with her father and it was here that Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born on 18th March, 1893. On 30th May, 1896 Mary Millard Owen was born in the family home, a tiny baby who the doctors did not think would live. Mary survived but never grew taller than five feet.

On 15th January, 1897 Edward Shaw died and it was then that the state of the family finances was revealed. Tom and Susan had to sell the family home and, heart broken, they moved to Wilmot House, 54 Canon Street in Shrewsbury where William Harold Owen was born on 5th September, 1897. Early in 1900 Tom Owen moved to Birkenhead were he had been appointed Station Master of Woodside the Joint Railways main terminus. Colin their youngest son was born at 7, Elm Grove, Tranmere, Birkenhead on 24th July 1900. This little boy suffered from rickets and his legs were in irons for most of his childhood. This indicates that the family’s diet was not ideal but today we do know more about vitamins.

Wilfred and Harold both attended school in Birkenhead. Wilfred keen to learn and Harold more the outdoor child seems to have preferred to kick a ball and draw. In 1907 Tom moved the family back to Shrewsbury and after several moves found a house in Monkmoor Road which they named Mahim. Wilfred and Harold were away from home. On one occasion when Harold returned from a voyage with the Merchant Navy he is reported to have climbed the flag pole on the tower of the Abbey to dislodge the flag that had become stuck. On another day while he, Colin and Mary were at the top of the tower they witnessed one of the very earliest planes flying over. This must have been very exciting and the first they had ever seen.

Wilfred’s life has been covered in many published volumes but there is only a little about Harold and virtually nothing about Colin.  Harold had joined the Merchant Navy before the war and sailed to many parts of the world. In 1916 he was transferred to The Royal Naval Reserve for the period of the war. He left the Navy after the war and went on to study at St Martin’s College of Art living on very little.  Harold was married on 30th April, 1927 to Phyllis Beatrice de Pass and they built a house in the village of Ipsden, Rodgarden Shaw, a few miles from his parents and sister. His sister never married but looked after her parents until they died. Tom and Susan are buried at St. Dunsden’s in Dunsden village. Harold took up the task of writing  about his brother Wilfred and their family, the trilogy, Journey from Obscurity the second volume of which won him the Royal Society of Literature’s W.H. Heinemann Award. This was written by someone who had left school before he was fifteen and had little more than his memory to go on for facts.  John Bell of Oxford University Press heavily edited and organized one book into three. They, also, jointly published The Collected Letters.   Harold died on 26th November 1971.  Mary his sister predeceased him. She died on 27th November, 1956 and is buried close to her parents in the grave yard at the church in Dunsden village.

Colin Shaw Owen was working on a farm until he was of age to go to war.   By the time he joined the Royal Flying Corps the war was coming to an end.   In June 1939 he married Violet Cicely Mason. At this time he was working in London as a Probation Officer. In 1945 he was offered a job in Kenya to set up the Probation Service. The family, two sons at this time, followed in a troop ship that was equipped for the North Atlantic.  He retired and lived in the outskirts of Nairobi at Karen where he died on 3rd September, 1971 leaving behind a wife and three sons. He was the only member of his family to have children.

Elizabeth Owen

Next >>