Men and women at war often long for home. Quite what their image of home is can vary. During the Great War, an effort was made to provide a positive, homely and nostalgic vision of London for soldiers returning here on leave (or passing through). Illustrator and writer Will Owen produced words and images evoking ‘old London town’.
When service personnel arrived on the leave train at one of the London terminal stations in the last six months of the war, they could pick up the free weekly newspaper ‘Welcome’ from WH Smith. It provided those on leave with practical information about getting around, where they could find accommodation and how they could avoid scammers. Much of the material was produced by the propagandist National War Aims Committee.
Among those things, there was also a regular series called ‘bits of old London town’. This consisted of line-drawings and brief, chatty descriptions of old bits of London – buildings and things in the street that evoke a sense of London’s history.
William Widden Owen was born in Malta in 1869 but grew up in London. In 1881, he lived with his parents Thomas and Mary Elizabeth in Brixton; by 1891 he was a Government Clerk at the Post Office Savings Bank, still living with his parents, now at 35 Mervan Road. In around 1898, he married Irishwoman Margaret Florence; in 1901 they were living in Richmond and by 1911 they were raising their two daughters in Deal, Kent. By then, Owen’s profession is listed in the census as ‘Artist (painter)’ – he was writing and producing illustrations for various magazines.
His wikipedia entry describes his work during the war: “During the First World War he produced cartoons for the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, introducing readers to new terms such as ‘strafe‘, ‘Blighty‘, ‘pipsqueak‘ and ‘brass’.”
He also produced those illustrations for ‘Welcome’. They range from No 10 Downing Street and the Royal Hospital at Chelsea to the Wapping Old Steps and the London Stone, as well as points at the limit of the urban area of London like Neasden-cum-Kingsbury Parish Church. About the journey to the latter, he writes “A curious fact about Neasden Station is that if you turn to the right you will see nothing but bricks and mortar the whole of the way into London, but turning to the left you find yourself almost immediately in rural England at its truly ruralest.”
The illustrations are mostly street scenes, but there is very little of the streetlife of the war – the food queues and servicemen and women that wartime brought to the streets of London. A solitary exception is the illustration of Shepherd Market off Piccadilly, which shows an officer and a nurse.
In his thesis on propaganda and the NWAC, David Monger notes the role of these pictures as depicting an idealised British home-front community that servicemen and women were serving to protect.
Owen also continued to create more traditional images for magazines such as The Sketch. Lucinda Gosling’s book Brushes and Bayonets includes several examples.
After the war, Owen continued his work as an illustrator, including for the London Underground. Gosling describes Owen’s most famous work as the creation of the ‘Bisto Kids’.
Will Owen’s wartime illustrations for ‘Welcome’ were published in 1921 as Old London Town, which is available in its entirety on Project Gutenberg. The book has the rather nice preface, ‘I make no apology for the publication of this little book – on the contrary’.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to David Monger for alerting me to the original use of Will Owen’s illustrations, which is covered in his thesis ‘The National War Aims Committee and British patriotism during the First World War’ and more recent articles.