John Owen (1945-2005)

I first met John Owen in the winter of 2002. I had just set out on a ludricously ambitious project to record all of the Memorials in Portsmouth on a website - this website. It was ambitious because I had next to no knowledge of the Army or Navy or indeed the history of warfare. I was referred to John by the Imperial War Museum (IWM) for whom John was working as a volunteer as part of their own project to record memorials throughout the UK.
John already had a lot of information on the memorials that I was preparing to record but had not covered Portsmouth in much detail as the IWM had claimed that they had already done so. In practice this proved not to be the case as they had records of only 150 memorials whereas we have (by 2006) recorded nearly 800. John quickly offered to help survey Portsmouth in more detail and took on the task of visiting all of the churches within the city - no mean task in itself. His photos, inscriptions and further information started to flow in by e-mail, so much so that they were often piled up in my inbox 10 or 20 deep.
Further valuable assistance came from John after the website was launched and the e-mails from visitors started to arrive. Most of them were asking for the type of information that would have required a mountain of research, but John took them on and answered virtually all of them. His depth of knowledge was astounding and I was able through a process akin to osmosis to develop a wider understanding of the world I had entered.
Although most of the contact between us was via e-mail, we did meet up a few times when memorials were threatened or the opportunity arose to visit plaques that were normally hidden from the public gaze. He was often accompanied by his wife Janice who has kindly provided material for this memorial.
It was a shock when I heard of John's death. Suddenly I was going to have to deal with all the enquiries myself, but thanks to his kind and patient guidance over the last few years I feel that I am competent to carry on this project. With the unveiling of this memorial, John is recognised as being a major contributor and inspiration. He died on 22nd September 2005 and will be greatly missed.
Tim Backhouse
John was born on 7th. August 1945 in Chirk, Clwyd, but whilst still a small boy his parents moved to Oswestry, Shropshire, where his father was a butcher. However, John always thought of himself as being Welsh. He started school when he was four years old at Oswestry School, which was the only school he attended. Whilst there he excelled at swimming and diving, winning many inter-school medals and cups, he was also in the school cadet force, where he became a sergeant. On leaving school he wanted to join the R.A.F. but his parents wouldn't allow it and they secured him a job with the National Provincial Bank, which proved a wise choice as it gave him a good and successful career, and it was also where we met.
John was always interested in military history, in the logistics of battle but more so the stories of the individuals within the battles. He started visiting the battlefields of Belgium and Northern France when his son went on a field trip for his school and they were short of an adult to accompany the children. He went on several of these trips when we were living at Horsham, with the Forest school.
On moving to Portsmouth in 1984 we started visiting the battlefields and cemeteries on our own, and when we went on holiday to other countries if the C.W.G.C. had sites there we always visited them. Eventually he got to hear of C.W.G.C. needing people to care for wargraves in the U.K. and he contacted them offering his help in any way they wished. This resulted in us carrying out in inspection of all the wargraves in Hampshire, and also 'adopting' some wargraves in local cemeteries. Along with that excercise we also began doing work for the National Inventory of War Memorials, which brought him in touch with Tim and the Portsmouth site.
John had a wide range of knowledge of the history of the 1st and 2nd World Wars and also built up a comprehensive library of reference books. He always had great respect for the men who fought in the wars and of their fortitude in such difficult conditions. It was the knowledge of the bravery of all these men, living in such hard times that helped give him the strength to fight a personal battle with his own fatal illness.
Janice Owen