Early years

Owen’s mother

Wilfred Owen was born on March 18th, 1893, to Susan and Tom Owen. His mother Susan (née Shaw) came from a well-established family. Her father Edward Shaw was a landowner and man of property. He was a businessman and pillar of the Evangelical Anglican church, the chairman of the local conservative party and a town councillor.

Owen was born on the family estate, Plas Wilmot in Oswestry, Shropshire. Susan had lived all her life in the house and expected to inherit it on her father’s death. She assumed Wilfred would have been the next heir and clearly had great ambitions for her first born. When he was a year old, she saved a lock of his baby hair labelled with his name: Sir Wilfred Edward Salter-Owen.

Susan Owen aspired to the genteel middle class life in which she had been brought up, so it was a great disappointment when Plas Wilmot had to be sold to pay off her father’s business debts. Deprived of the family house, with its servants’ cottage and extensive gardens, the family went to live with her husband’s relatives in a small town house in Shrewsbury. Thereafter they lived in very different accommodation in Birkenhead and then back again in Shrewsbury.Shrewsbury 1900 image taken from Wikipedia

Owen’s father

Tom Owen worked for the railway. He came from a family of small shop keepers and commercial travellers. Wilfred’s father started his working life as a lowly railway clerk and served for a time in India, then part of the British Empire.

After the loss of Plas Wilmot, the Owen family moved to Shrewsbury where Tom found temporary work. He was then promoted to a permanent management job in Birkenhead near Liverpool, where Wilfred started school at the Birkenhead institute. By this time Wilfred had a sister and two brothers. 

The family later moved back to Shrewsbury when Tom had a further promotion into a responsible management position. However, Susan’s family always thought she had married beneath her.

Social class 

Wilfred Owen was therefore the product of two very different backgrounds. In the socially stratified world of the late Victorian / Edwardian era, owning property, having servants, yet being in business meant Susan’s father was upper middle class. Tom Owen’s background in commerce was lower middle class. The bottom level of society was the working class, the men and women who laboured in the mines and factories to provide the comfortable way of life the other classes expected. Owen was later to come across them as individuals in the social mix of the trenches, where servants and farm labourers had become soldiers, like the dead boy in Futility .