The Leicester Owston Line is our second installment of the “End of the Line” series which discusses those who last bore the surname. The final male Owston in this lineage died in 1926, followed by his step-mother in 1928, and an unmarried sister in 1942; however, the name continued with a first cousin, once removed’s middle name that evolved into a double barreled surname. With the death of this cousin’s widow in 1981, the final usage of the name among those related to the Leicester Owstons ended.
The Leicester Line’s genesis is in the Sherburn family’s George Owston (1636-1676) Branch and is delineated as follows:
The line proper began with George Owston’s second great-grandson, Welborn Owston (1766-1838) who was born in Scarborough. His Christian name was derived from his mother’s surname and it was destined to repeat with a number of his descendants as a first and middle name. Upon the death of his father in 1772, Welborn became the ward of his uncle George Owston (1729-????) who was living in Leicester at the time as an Excise Officer. While George produced issue, it appears that this particular line died out within the next generation – nothing more is known concerning this family.
Welborn’s progeny, however, extended into the 20th century and included a number of interesting people. Welborn Owston, who is listed with the post-nominal “Gentleman,” began his professional career as a wool stapler. He later became an auctioneer and was eventually appointed as governor of the Leicester Town Gaol. His son George Welborn Owston (1797-1848), succeeded his father as the governor of the gaol. George, who also played for the Sheffield and Leicester cricket clubs, was known to be the “handsomest man in Leicester.”
While George produced no issue, It was the descendents of his brother John Hiram Abiff Welborn Owston (1796-1844) who continued to propagate the surname. John’s second son, Hiram Abiff Owston (1830-1905), was one of the better known bearers of the Owston name. H.A. Owston was a solicitor of some renown in Wigston Magna, Leicestershire. Wigston’s Owston Drive is named in his honor.
It is believed that this family employed the localized pronunciation of Owston – which sounds the “Ow” as “oo” and is reminiscent of the vowels in “through,” “blue,” and “shoe.” A village in Leicestershire bears the Owston name and “oo-ston” pronunciation. H.A. Owston’s firm, Owston & Co. Solicitors which later bore the name Harvey Ingram Owston from 1990 to 2005, used the localized pronunciation.
His success as a solicitor provided Owston the ability to purchase Bushloe House on Station Road in 1866 and redecorate the dwelling in grand Victorian style. One of the highlights of the dwelling is its numerous beautiful stained glass windows. Bushloe House is currently the home of the Oadby and Wigston Borough Council.
Many tragedies occurred at Bushloe House. One was the suicide of Mr. Owston’s coachman who hanged himself when Owston bought a motor car and had feared a loss of employment. Other misfortune centered in the family proper and legend has it that the structure is haunted by an old lady and children.
In 1866, Hiram Abiff Owston married Elizabeth Walley Varley and the couple produced six children. Of this lineage were three sons – two of which died untimely deaths as children. The first child, Harold Bertram Owston (1867-1869), met his demise after falling down a steep back staircase. The second son (and third child), Oswald Leycester Owston (1870-1882), died at age 11 after falling from his pony.
In 1883, Elizabeth gave birth to her sixth and final child: Leycester Varley Owston. Shortly following his birth, Elizabeth died puerperal fever – a complication that occurred during childbirth and was related to unsanitary practices of the day. Like many Owstons in his line, he was saddled with an unusual forename – one that also had been borne by his deceased brother as a middle name. While Leycester is a variant of Leicester, it is unknown if that was the intention of his parents for choosing the name. It is prophetic that Leycester Owston was the last Leicester Owston. Until the time of his demise, L.V. Owston would become a soldier of some renown.
His early education occurred at Twyford Preparatory School, and at the age of 17, Leycester Varley Owston completed his studies at St. Peter’s College at Radley in 1900. In February of the same year, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the local militia – the 3rd Battalion of the Leicester Regiment. On September 1, 1901, he was promoted to lieutenant of the same regiment.
Apparently he sought a position with the regular army as, on March 26, 1902, Owston was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 3rd Dragoon Guards also known as the Price of Wales’ regiment; however, the unit had not yet returned from the Boer War and he was temporarily assigned to the 2nd Provisional Dragoons.
Prior to the First World War, the 3rd Dragoons served in Ireland, England, and India. Because of the yellow facings on their uniforms, they received the appellation of the “Old Canaries.” Although the rank of second lieutenant was a step backward from his lieutenancy in the 3rd Leicester Regiment, a lower commission in a regular army unit held more status than his current position in the militia.
It is not known when he was promoted to full or first lieutenant; however, on September 20, 1911, Owston was named as regimental adjutant. His promotion to a captaincy occurred on April 3, 1912; however, this advancement was a supernumerary promotion that was only guaranteed as long as the regiment remained in full strength. It apparently had as he is referred as “Captain” Owston until later promotions occurred.
With the outbreak of the Great War, the 3rd Dragoon Guards were sent to France in October 1914. During trench warfare in May 1915, Captain Owston was wounded in the thigh by a German bullet. He returned to the front in July and was attached to the Heavy Machine Gun Corps on September 21. The unit was sent to Egypt and fought the Senussi Arabs in Western Egypt and Libya.
It was in Egypt that Owston’s metal as a soldier was forged. On May 18, 1916, he was promoted as Acting Major and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order on March 3, 1917. It is one of Britain’s highest honors, and Owston received the medal “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He has rendered valuable service in command of armoured cars, and his personal gallantry has been on more than one occasion brought to notice.” The honor afforded him the opportunity to use the post-nominal “DSO” in recognition of the award.
Later in 1917, he was knighted as a Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Corona d’Italia (Order of the Crown of Italy); however, since the British Crown did not recognize knighthood outside of the realm for its subjects, he could not utilize the title of “Sir” for this honor. The Acting Major was further assigned as Temporary Lieutenant Colonel while employed as a Machine Gun Officer. This promotion occurred on August 31, 1917.
For several decades, L.V. Owston was immortalized on maps of Western Egypt with an abandoned fuel depot at a crossroads identified as “Owston’s Dump.” It was located at latitude 29.4166667 and longitude 28.8666667. It currently is a crossroads and has no particular significance.
Towards the end of the war, he served in Palestine as a Machine Gun Officer with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. For his service in World War I, he also was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British Service medal, and the Victory medal. Following the war, he was reduced to his active rank of captain – a typical occurrence at the end of hostilities. By 1920, he rejoined the 3rd Dragoon Guards in India with the promotion as a Major.
In 1925, he was forced to retire the military due to a medical condition that was believed to have been contracted in India. Owston was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel upon his resignation. On March 3, 1926, Lt. Col. Leycester Varley Owston died at Bushloe House in Wigston Magna – the last of the male Owston in the Leicester Line.
Additionally, L.V. Owston was probably the inspiration for the character of Major Henry Owston in E. Phillips Oppenheim’s The Treasure House of Martin Hews. Oppenheim was a native of Leicestershire and Henry Owston’s military exploits mirror those of local hero Major (later Lt. Col.) L.V. Owston. The book was published three years after Owston’s death. The entire book was serialized in newspapers across the globe.
Although Colonel Owston was the last male Owston of the line, the surname continued with four individuals. His step-mother, the former Ann Vann Stone who was described by Owston descendants as the archetypical Victorian stepmother who neither loved nor received love from her step-children, died at the same residence on September 5, 1928.
L.V. Owston’s unmarried sister, Evelyn Amy Owston, carried the surname for another 14 years. Although Amy had lived in Bushloe House all of her life, she died in a Leicester nursing home on August 11, 1942.
While Amy’s death signified the end the name Owston as a surname per se for the Leicester Owstons, it wasn’t quite exactly. The grandson of Hiram Abiff Owston’s brother Welbon Owston (1820-1849) had been christened as Welborn Owston Smith with his birth in September 1877. What was given as a middle name became treated as combined surname of “Owston Smith” without a hyphen.
Owston Smith, a Cambridge graduate holding a Master of Arts degree, spent a number of years India. He first traveled to the subcontinent as a volunteer Methodist missionary with his salary commissioned by his own family. He later accepted professorships at several Indian universities before returning to the UK. Later in life, Owston Smith was better known as a numismatic expert and served as Vice President of the Royal Numismatic Society.
Welborn Owston Smith lived until the second quarter of 1954. His widow, the former Alice Maud Neville Edwards, later hyphenated the surname as Owston-Smith. With her death in September 1981, the Owston usage among this line vanished completely.
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