Wilfred Owen: his Birkenhead years

This article exploring the First World War poet Wilfred Owen’s Birkenhead childhood first appeared in Issue 5 (2014) of The Merseysider magazine.

Britain’s greatest war poet lived in Tranmere with his family for seven years. But what brought them there, and what did Wilfred Owen really think of Birkenhead?

To answer these questions we really need to go back to Owen’s birth, and to the very different environment he knew in his earliest years. He was born on 18 March 1893 at Plas Wilmot, his family’s home in Oswestry, Shropshire. In the light of the later move to Birkenhead it is significant that his parents, Tom and Susan, had markedly different social backgrounds. His mother’s grandfather had built Plas Wilmot, a substantial five bedroom house with a large garden, a stableyard and adjoining paddocks and fields. Her father, Edward Shaw, had an ironmongery business in the town and during Susan’s childhood the family were wealthy enough to employ a governess, a cook and a housemaid. When she met Tom Owen he by contrast was a humble railway clerk, living and working in Shrewsbury but originally from Nantwich. At the age of eighteen he’d worked his passage on a ship from Liverpool to Bombay, where he stayed for four years, working as an office clerk. His love of the sea and interest in ships never left him, and in later years he would often make toy boats for his children. In 1891, seven years after his return from India, he married Susan and the couple began their married life at Plas Wilmot. Wilfred, their first child, was followed by a daughter and two more sons (one born in Birkenhead).

Susan’s father sold his business when he decided to retire, but in the final years of his life his financial position grew increasingly precarious. The reckoning finally came with his death in 1897. Plas Wilmot and much of its contents had to be sold almost immediately to pay off creditors. Tom, Susan and their children went to live in a much more modest house in Shrewsbury, before moving to Birkenhead in 1900, when Tom was appointed stationmaster at Woodside rail terminus.

7 Elm Grove

7 Elm Grove

The family’s first house in the town was at 7 Elm Grove. While very different from Plas Wilmot, it was a decent sized semi-detached with four bedrooms, in a respectable area of Tranmere. After two years the Owens moved, it is thought because Elm Grove was proving too expensive, or because the lease had expired. Their new home was 14 Willmer Road, still in Tranmere but a smaller terraced house further down the hill in a poorer district. They did not remain here long, moving after a year back up the hill to 51 Milton Road, another semi-detached in Higher Tranmere. This would be the family home until 1907, when they left Birkenhead after Tom gained a promotion to a more senior railways post in Shrewsbury.

Wilfred was seven when the family arrived in Birkenhead, and he was enrolled at Birkenhead Institute, where he remained a pupil until the Owens left the town. The Institute was nearby in Whetstone Lane and was then an independent school (later it was taken over by the local authority), popular with local middle class parents. Wilfred flourished at the school, working hard at his studies (excelling especially at English and French) and winning several prizes. He also made some good friends, including Alec Paton, who lived near the Owens at 37 Willmer Road. The two would visit each other’s houses and walk to school together. Paton – who only died a little over twenty years ago, at the age of 97 – later recalled Wilfred’s enjoyment of swimming and roller skating, and how as children they played with toy soldiers (a poignant memory in view of later events) and rode on horseback along the sands at New Brighton.

Christ Church, Oxton

Christ Church, Oxton

Christ Church in Oxton was another important institution in Owen’s life. His mother was especially devout and his father became a teacher at the Sunday School, which Wilfred attended. The canon, W.H.F. Robson, was a charismatic preacher who evidently made a deep impression on Wilfred, who often refers to him in his letters. Later he considered becoming a priest himself, but grew disillusioned with the established church and was angered by those church leaders who claimed the First World War had a divine purpose and that God was on Britain’s side.

What the Owens, especially Wilfred, felt about their years living in Birkenhead is partly a matter of conjecture, as the evidence is contradictory. The enforced move from Plas Wilmot obviously represented a social fall for the family, and Harold Owen (Wilfred’s brother) later recalled, ‘It was in this period that the acute lack of money began to exert its insidious influence…These years in Birkenhead were bad ones for all of us.’ Nevertheless Tom Owen, who was of course much less used to a life of comfort and privilege than his wife, seems to have enjoyed being near the sea, responding enthusiastically when a request from a Seaman’s Mission to help them distribute religious literature gave him the opportunity to visit ships in the docks. He also had a fine tenor voice and would willingly sing at concerts organised for local charities. Harold remembered one particular performance, at a dockland hall in Liverpool for an audience of ‘hard-bitten’ sailors, as ‘an enormous success’. He even seems to have taken to the local cuisine: when he secured the job in Shrewsbury he celebrated by cooking for the family ‘his famous lobscouse’.

Wilfred’s mother may well have been less happy, though if this was the case it is hardly surprising. She had grown up in a large house in rural Shropshire, had seen the house lost as a result of the financial calamity that had befallen the Shaw family, and now found herself in an unfamiliar, densely populated town, many of whose inhabitants lived in terrible poverty. There is an undeniable strain of social snobbery in Harold’s recollections of this period, with references to the ‘dank and evil smelling street’ in which they first lived (the accuracy of this as a description of Elm Grove has been understandably questioned), the ‘slatternly’ women who were their neighbours and the general ‘sordidness of our social surroundings’. He says his mother insisted on the move to Milton Road despite the strain it placed on the family’s finances because she wanted to go to ‘a better class locality’ and escape from ‘the slum and tenement area’. Susan’s ill health would have added to her melancholy. Soon after the initial move to Birkenhead the family’s youngest child Colin was born, and Harold says after this her health deteriorated and never fully recovered. She began to spend long spells away from the family home, staying with relatives in other parts of the country. However her time in Birkenhead cannot have been unremittingly bleak: she was an active member of the Christ Church congregation and took obvious pride in Wilfred’s progress at school. The recent discovery of a letter Susan wrote to a former neighbour, describing fond memories of their acquaintanceship, has been cited as further evidence that life in Birkenhead had its happier moments.

As for Wilfred, in letters written after the family moved away he makes occasional disparaging comments about Birkenhead, though the context here may be important. They are found in letters to his mother, with whose attitudes he quite possibly wanted to show empathy. In one he refers to ‘the old dark days in Willmer Road’, in another to clouds ‘which hang like dirty lace curtains in Birkenhead windows’ and in a third comments ‘Can’t think how We ever survived the place’ (when he wrote this last example he seems to have been in an especially sour mood – in the same letter he describes Southport as ‘the most unsatisfactory sea-side place in Europe’).

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that Owen had a more positive experience of Birkenhead than these quotations might suggest. The letters he wrote while living there as a child are lively and cheerful, and show a keen interest in his school work, describing homework tasks and recording his marks in tests. As has been mentioned he made good friends at Birkenhead Institute, and when his father gained the job at Shrewsbury he apparently didn’t want to leave. There was even some discussion of Wilfred living with the Patons during term time so he could continue at the school. This came to nothing, but in later years he certainly thought about returning to the Wirral to live. In 1910, when he was contemplating what he might do when he left his secondary school in Shrewsbury he wrote, ‘I see nothing I should rather do than enter – if possible – St Aidan’s’, a reference to the theological college in Birkenhead. Two years later an advertisement for a French teacher in Birkenhead caught his eye and he wanted his father to make enquiries on his behalf.

In 1908 an aunt and uncle who lived on the Wirral moved from Wallasey to a house in Bertram Drive, Meols and over the next few years Wilfred paid them several visits. ‘It is really lovely here,’ he wrote in one letter. ‘There are miles of fields in front of the house and it is not far from the sea.’ In other letters he speaks of going ‘on the lake’ at West Kirby and of visits to Liverpool (‘I like Anfield very much’). He also stayed in Birkenhead itself, at the house of a family friend. When he joined the army he encountered soldiers who were from the region, including one whose ‘delightful Liverpool brogue’ reminded him of ‘Tranmere, the Pier Head, Sefton Park and such like.’

After the family moved from Birkenhead Wilfred continued his education in Shrewsbury and worked as a pupil-teacher and a private tutor before enlisting in 1915, about a year after the outbreak of war. The main elements of the rest of his life are well known. He suffered a head injury in 1917 and, diagnosed as having shell shock, was sent to a hospital in Edinburgh, where he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, an important influence on Owen’s work. He returned to France but was killed a week before the end of the war, the news of his death reaching his parents on Armistice Day. In 1919 he was posthumously awarded a Military Cross. Owen knew before his death he had been recommended for an award, and welcomed it because he thought it would add authority to his anti-war views. These, and the poems that express them with such vividness and power, are much admired now, but this recognition also came after his death. Only five poems were published during his lifetime, and the first collection of his poems did not appear until 1920.

Owen’s time in Birkenhead was a significant portion of a tragically short life, and they were certainly important, formative years. His intellectual development was clearly helped by his studies at the Birkenhead Institute, and living in close proximity to people from a range of social classes might well have nurtured the compassion and humanity that are so evident in his poetry. Birkenhead is rightly proud of its Wilfred Owen connection, and does much to celebrate it. The central library has an impressive stained glass window (designed by the late David Hillhouse), commemorating Owen and all those who died in the First World War, alongside the Birkenhead Institute’s First World War memorial plaque, which lists Owen’s name together with those of the many other former pupils who were killed. There are also display cases with a variety of Owen-related exhibits. Dean Johnson, a Wirral singer-songwriter, is the author of Bullets And Daffodils, a musical play about Owen’s life, and a sequel, Vilomah. He is also the creator of The Wilfred Owen Story, a permanent exhibition devoted to the poet’s life and work in Argyle Street, Birkenhead.

As part of 2013’s national Heritage Open Days programme Rob Wood of the Birkenhead History Society led a very informative tour of the area Owen lived in as a child, including the family’s three houses, which all survive. The tour also visited the site of the Birkenhead Institute, which was demolished in the 1970s. The school moved to Claughton, but that too has now gone, replaced by houses and a new road called Wilfred Owen Way.

On the Wilfred Owen trail

On the Wilfred Owen trail

But as well as the family homes, much of Wilfred Owen’s Birkenhead remains: the streets he knew in Tranmere, Christ Church in Oxton, Birkenhead Park (mentioned in his letters) and, on the Wirral coast, his aunt and uncle’s house in Meols. His childhood years have a distinguished place in the history of the town and in 2014 they will be especially remembered.

Wilfred Owen portrait by Spanner

Elm Grove plaque

Elm Grove plaque