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Two Rooms And A View: 3 - To The River Tyne

Robert Owen tells of some of his forebears - along with other notable folk bearing the name Owen.

Just as Liverpool was the stepping stone to England for the Irish immigration during the potato famine, Manchester was the equivalent for the Welsh during the earlier industrial revolution.

The north-west 'Cotton City' attracted thousands of workers from north and mid-Wales and many were named Owen or Owens. One of them was Owen Owens who was born in Flintshire in 1764 and came to Manchester in the 1780's. His son John Owen became a wealthy spinner and on his death in 1846, bequeathed a fortune to establish Owen's College - the forerunner of Manchester University. Another was Robert Owen, the great social reformer. Born in Newtown, Montgomeryshire in 1771, he had moved to Manchester by the end of the century to manage his own textile company. He subsequently devoted his time to improving the living and working conditions of his employees, his philosophy being known as Owenism.

Anne Hinsley (1997) also points out that the Dictionary of National Biography is crammed so full of Welsh non-conformist ministers named Owen, it seems as if they had the monopoly on that profession.

Perhaps one of the thousands of unknown migrants from Wales to Manchester during the early nineteenth century was Edward Owen, my other paternal great-grandfather. Throughout his life, his son William, my grandfather, stated on census returns, birth certificates and family bible records, that he was born in Manchester in 1856 and that his father was a wire-weaver named Edward. Although registrations of birth were not compulsory at the time and many went unregistered, detailed checks of national, local and baptismal records were unable to confirm this date of birth.

There was, however, an Edward Owen who was a wire weaver. He lived in London Road, Manchester when he married Ellen Payne Quinn on 19th January 1851 at the Cathedral and Parish Church of the City. Edward and Ellen Owen were very likely the other half of my paternal great grandparents. Baptismal records indicate that a son, William Payne was born to them on 21st March 1854 and an Edward on 8th June 1856. Was this William Payne Owen my grandfather? If so, he soon dropped his middle name of Payne. Also, what was the reason for his incorrect date of birth? Did he confuse it with his brother's because throughout his life, William Owen claimed he was born in 1856 not 1854.

Whichever is correct, the family again disappeared from official records during the 1860's. One possible reason is the 'Great Cotton Famine' in Lancashire. Stimulated by the American Civil War, this caused mass unemployment in the Manchester area and many families moved out of the city. One of them was the Owen family, but where Edward and Ellen Owen moved to, remains a mystery. Their son William undoubtedly went to sea as a stoker and among the many places his seagoing adventures took him, was to the River Tyne. Here at nineteen years of age, I believe he went ashore with two main objectives. One was to shovel coal for better wages at the expanding Harton Colliery; the other was to find a wife. He fulfilled both objectives.

While living in Bede Street, Tyne Dock, William Owen met and married the eighteen year old daughter of another mariner from the next street. This was Mary Connell, the daughter of the afore-mentioned John and Jane Connell Their wedding on 1st April 1876 must have had an April Fool aspect when a three-month-pregnant Irish bride married a Welsh groom at St Mary's Church of England. When their son, another William, was born on 10th September, William and Mary Owen were living in Frost Street, one of the warren of streets around the Tyne Dock area. During the early years of their marriage, William returned to sea while his wife and family lived in Napier Street, the next street to Frost Street.

William and Mary Owen had seven children. In addition to William junior in 1876, Jane was born in 1879, Caroline in 1882, John Connell in 1883, Adelaide in 1888, James Petrie in 1891 (my father) and Edward in 1894. William Owen senior came ashore during the late 188O's to work as a factory fireman, before finishing his working life at Harton Colliery. The family moved house many times, slowly working their way up to the slightly better houses in Alnwick Road and away from the dirt and grime of Tyne Dock.

Not far from Alnwick Road, until well after the Second World War, there was an Owen Street just off Boldon Lane. Like Robert Owen Gardens in Gateshead, this was probably named after the famous 19th Century reformer. Yeoman (1962) however, cautions on this thinking and states, "It should be kept in mind that there was a local Tyne Dock family of that name, a descendent being John Owen, the former Clerk of Boldon U.D.C. who may also claim this distinction."

Research however, indicates this was not our family, although one of my uncles shared the same Christian name. It is more likely to be the family of brothers Staff Sergeant Major John Owen who was the Vice Chairman of South Shields A.F.C. before enlisting in 1915, and Chief Yeoman of Signals, William Owen, who had a distinguished 28 years service in the Royal Navy. Both were presented with Serbian gold medals during a special night at the former South Shields Empire Palace on 9th January 1920. Is this the family that Owen Drive in West Boldon is named after?

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