Wilfred Owen in Scarborough
Courtesy of Roy Field, the retired Shropshire county librarian, I have received a copy of the Free Trail Guide ‘Walk in the Footsteps of Wilfred Owen in Scarborough’. Roy also took some photographs for this piece.
After his discharge from Craiglockhart and a short spell of leave, Owen re-joined his unit (the 3/5th Bn the Manchester Regiment) in Scarborough. The late Peter Owen said of his time here “Scarborough really was the first area of peace Wilfred came to after being treated for shell shock, and he enjoyed his time here.”
The trail begins at the Clifton Hotel, where with 70 other officers Owen was quartered. In the First World War this was doubly camouflaged. The hotel went under the name Clarence Gardens and was the Officer’s Mess where Owen occupied the two top Turret Rooms. He was Mess Secretary with much clerical work.
During this spell in the town he began drafting or revising some of his first poems, including Miners his first commercially published poem (in The Nation on January 26th 1918.) When the cheque arrived Owen wrote to his mother “for half an hour’s work I think Two Guineas is good pay”. It was one of only five poems published in his lifetime.
The occasion was the Minnie Pit Disaster in Halmer End, North Staffs coalfield. Within minutes of an enormous explosion from fire-damp, 155 men died from the effects of the explosion, roof falls or inhaling methane (12th January 1918). Owen knew miners; many of the men in his platoon had worked in the pits before the war. In 1916, he had described them as “hard-handed, hard-headed miners, dogged, loutish, ugly. (But I would trust them to advance under fire and to hold their trench;) blond, coarse, ungainly, strong, ‘unfatiguable’, unlovely, Lancashire soldiers, Saxons to the bone.”
“Miners” begins with the most domestic scene, coal burning in the hearth, via the primeval forests, in the glowing coal Owen sees the bodies of men killed at the Minnie Pit but also of the bodies of soldiers killed underground with the Royal Engineers’ Tunnelling Companies.
Comforted years will sit soft-chaired,
In rooms of amber;
The years will stretch their hands, well-cheered
By our life’s ember;
The centuries will burn rich loads
With which we groaned,
Whose warmth shall lull their dreaming lids,
While songs are crooned;
But they will not dream of us poor lads,
Left in the ground.
The trail includes other points from the story of the publication of Owen’s poems. One high point is Woodend the former home of the Sitwell family.
Edith Sitwell had published seven of his poems in Wheels, the magazine she edited. . It was then that Sassoon became involved. Sitwell, in a letter dated 3 October 1919, wrote to Susan Owen and told her, “I wrote to Captain Sassoon, to ask him if he could help me about them. He came to see me; and told me it would have been your son’s wish that (he) should see to the publication of the poems, because they were such friends. In the circumstances I could do nothing but offer to hand them over to him.”
Then in a letter from late January 1920, Sitwell tells Susan Owen that Sassoon, “has suddenly gone off to America, leaving all you (sic) son’s manuscripts with me to get ready for the printers by February 1st. Captain Sassoon has done nothing in the way of preparing them. All he has done in the matter is to arrange with Chatto and Windus to publish them.”
Sassoon, the bounder, did ensure he was credited as editor.
When you come to the Railway Station, I am particularly fond of the poems Owen wrote away from the Western Front, such as The Send-Off, which portrays the universal experience of the young men leaving the local station for the War. With the arrival of the railways, men like Thomas Cook planned their excursions to the seaside towns. Don’t miss the world’s longest platform bench on the station: all 93 yards of it.
Northern Cavalry ‘Barracks’ Burniston Road
When Owen returned to Scarborough after a short spell in Ripon, he had to trade in his tower rooms for a tent. Today the site is a housing estate, however, the cavalry units are remembered in the names of the roads. From here he left for France.
In the Art Gallery (Tues-Sun 10am – 5pm) there is a bronze bust of Owen by Anthony Padgett. When the same sculptor presented a similar bust to Shrewsbury Padgett said: “My proposal is to donate the sculpture for a site in Shrewsbury with no costs to the town … . Most important for me is the honour of having the work sited in such an appropriate location. Owen spent many years in Shrewsbury and the many letters that he wrote to his mother are addressed to here.”