In memory of William Henry Owen

Photo of window and memorial to WH Owen in St Bartholomew's, DublinWilliam Henry Owen, killed in the 1868 Irish Mail train crash, was the first organist and choirmaster of St Bartholomew’s Church, Dublin, writes Hazel Pierce.

He was born in Chester in 1845 to noted musician John Owen (bardic name Owain Alaw) and Mary Williams. The couple lived in Chester after marrying.

William was described as a student of music when aged 15. He attended the prestigious Royal Academy in London. Shortly after graduating, at the age of 22 he obtained his position at the newly built St Bartholomew’s Church, Dublin.

In summer 1868, William spent his holidays with his family in Chester. On Thursday 20 August he left for Dublin, entering one of the ill-fated carriages which had been added to the front of the Irish Mail at Chester.

Photo of WH Owen memorial plaque in church in DublinAfter the crash, William’s family tried desperately to locate him. Telegrams from Dublin and the scene of the accident stated that he had not been seen, and these confirmed their worst fears. William’s remains were never identified and no death certificate was issued for him. He is commemorated by a brass plaque and stained glass windows at St Bartholomew’s Church (see photos, courtesy of Megan MacCausland).

In a cruel twist, Owain Alaw (pictured, courtesy of the National Library of Wales) had given a concert before a large audience in Abergele Town Hall in July. Less than a month later, the town hall was the scene of the inquest in which the details of his son’s death were revealed.

Portrait of Owain AlawAfter Owain Alaw’s death in 1883, aged 62, a newspaper tribute noted that he “was said never to have completely recovered from the shock consequent upon the death of his son in the great railway accident at Abergele”.

Owain Alaw’s parents originated from Llanfachreth, Meirionnydd, and he never lost touch with his Welsh roots. He initially worked as a cutler (someone who made knives, razors, scissors and other cutting instruments) but concentrated full time on music shortly after William’s birth. He was a talented baritone, composer, accompanist and teacher. His pupils included the Flintshire soprano Sarah Edith Wynne (Eos Cymru).

He received his bardic name (which means ‘Owain the Chief Singer’) at the Rhuddlan eisteddfod in 1851. In 1860 he published Gems of Welsh Melody, a selection of songs arranged or composed by himself. He is credited with popularising what is now the Welsh national anthem, written by father and son Evan and James James in 1856, by including it in this publication and changing its title from Glan Rhondda to Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.

Sources include: 'Dictionary of Welsh Biography'; 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1921-22); 'Death by Chance: The Abergele Train Disaster' by Robert Hume (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2004)

Return to 'Mass grave of train-crash victims' web page