Meg Pybus: review of Wilfred Owen’s Shrewsbury; from the Severn to Poetry and War, by Helen McPhail

A book to treasure to read and re-read.

The cover deserves special mention. Helen’s title trumpets the long-overlooked association between Owen and Shrewsbury. A smiling Owen (so unusual in a military portrait) stand to attention, behind him is the English Bridge.

Many readers will be unfamiliar with the detailed locations. So, it is fitting that we begin with two maps. The first is an overall view of Shrewsbury and the second of Abbey Ward and Cherry Orchard. I shall come to Helen’s words, but her picture research deserves special mention. Where does she find these charming images of Wilfred and the other children? The photo of the sailor boy, holding the yacht, made by his father, ‘launches’ her introduction.

Cherry Orchard

This is no developer’s fruity fantasy, but the former cherry orchard of the Earl of Tankerville. There are four houses (all surviving) with Owen family links. The house of the grandparents, the house where Wilfred’s brother was born, the house where Wilfred wrote his schoolboy essay ‘Description of a Railway Station at a busy Time of Day’ and best of all Mahim. It was listed in 2014 “for its intactness: the house is little altered since the Owen family left, retaining fixtures and fittings that Owen would recognise… “

Helen’s book is sumptuous. It overflows with so much detail. If you are to portray family life, you need detail and she provides that in abundance. We are taken into the life of the family in Cherry Orchard. In the time of the Owen’s, before the motor car, an even quieter suburb behind the Abbey and overlooking the Severn. Family life was ruled over by his protective Methodist mother, in contrast to father, Tom, railwayman and veteran of his voyage to Indian railways. Tom’s idea of teaching his children to swim was to throw his sons into the deep-end of the pool. Wilfred’s creative skills were nurtured by these early days on the banks of the Severn and by expeditions on foot and by rail under Tom including his concessionary tickets.


Keith Pybus:

In November 2014 I looked at how Shrewsbury compared with other towns and their literary figures. I concluded “The First World War Centenary presents Shrewsbury with a once-in-several-lifetimes opportunity to establish a lasting awareness of its leading place in the story of Wilfred Owen.”

My first encounter with Owen’s poetry was Eng Lit ‘A’ Level in 1955. Despite the nigh-on 60 years which had elapsed by the outbreak of the War Centenary and over 30 years in Shropshire, I had no idea that all four of the houses with Owen family associations in Cherry Orchard had survived. It was hardly surprising, entering Wilfred Owen in the search-engine I found over 600,000 hits. Add Shrewsbury and the count dropped to just below 40,000. The references to Shrewsbury were brief. Shropshire Tourism had the poet under a category Famous Folk. There were two mentions of the town “His family moved to Monkmoor in Shrewsbury.” “Educated … Shrewsbury Technical College.” These references provided no incentive for visiting the town. By contrast Jane Austen, Bath scored 587,000, Brontë Yorkshire 410,000, and Dylan Thomas, Swansea 379,000.

The Owen page at Shrewsbury Abbey was more inviting “His link with the Shrewsbury Abbey is four-fold” The Forestry Commission also had one of the few features named after the poet: Wilfred’s Walk.

This was the paltry legacy Helen McPhail inherited. The author and I first met at ‘Shropshire’s War Cabinet’ (established under the auspices of Shropshire Archives to co-ordinate the county’s activities in support of the First World War Centenary).

Her book Wilfred Owen’s Shrewsbury trumpets that association.

By Meg and Keith Pybus

Wilfred Owen’s Shrewsbury; from the Severn to Poetry and War, by Helen McPhail and is published by Logaston Press