Above: Tom Owen and father Bill in nifty headgear in episodes of Last Of The Summer Wine. Right: Bill and Tom in 1965 when the son was a teenager. Below: Bill in some of his early films; (left to right) The Way To The Stars (1945), Carry On Sergeant (1958), Carry On Cabby (1963) and Carry On Regardless (1961).
Below: Tom Owen with Last Of The Summer Wine co-stars Peter Sallis and Frank Thornton; Compo and the love of his life, Nora Batty; the most famous threesome of all the variations in Last Of The Summer Wine, Peter Sallis, Brian Wilde and Bill Owen.
THIS is the first time I have published my researches into a father and son acting combination! However, Bill Owen and his son, Tom, deserve equal billing because both starred in the world’s longest-running TV sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine, though they never appeared together in the series.
When Bill Owen, who played the much-loved character, rascally, scruffy Compo Simmonite, passed away in 1999 it was a stroke of genius to cast his real-life son, Tom, as his long-lost son and successor in the programme. Tom made himself as equally popular with viewers as his dad had been, especially as Tom played a very similar, “lovable rogue” character who became a big hit with fans.
Like so many people in show business, the Owens were born into a quite different surname and adopted the name by which they became universally known as a stage name. In the case of Bill and Tom Owen, the original family name was ROWBOTHAM. According to the Internet Surname Database website, this is a well-known surname of northern England of Anglo-Saxon origin.
The website says that it’s a topographical name from residence in an overgrown valley, deriving from the Old English pre-seventh century “ruh”, meaning rough and overgrown, combined with the second element “bothm”, a valley. It could also be a locational name from some minor, unrecorded or now lost place, believed to have been in Nottinghamshire or Lancashire because of the high incidence of early surname recordings from those counties.
A surname distribution map from the 19th Century British Surname Atlas reveals that ROWBOTHAM is principally a name from Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Midland counties.
Thomas William Stevenson ROWBOTHAM, professionally known as Tom Owen, was born on 8 July 1949 in the St. Marylebone registration district of London. He starred in Last of the Summer Wine from 2000 to 2010.
William John Owen ROWBOTHAM, otherwise known as Bill Owen, was born on 14 March 1914 in Acton, London. Bill Owen began acting in the 1940s and appeared in around 50 films, including several Carry On films, before achieving fame as Compo in Last of the Summer Wine, in which he starred from its very first episode in 1973 until his death in 1999. He was a man of many talents, including dancer, musician, playwright and composer of many pop songs.
He died from pancreatic & bowel cancer on 12 July 1999 at the age of 85 in Highgate, London, but was buried in St John’s Church, Upperthong, Holmfirth, Yorkshire. He had fallen in love with Holmfirth, where the hugely popular TV series was shot, and expressed a wish to be buried there.
Bill married Edith Emma STEVENSON in the January-March quarter of 1946 in Chelsea, London, registration district. Edith Emma Stevenson was born on 13 June 1910 at 43 Princes Square in Glasgow, Scotland. She was an actress and vocalist for BBC Radio Scotland and the pair met when appearing in a play together in Motherwell. Edith, who was four years older than Bill when they married, had had two previous marriages, firstly to a Yorkshire solicitor from Leeds and then a Scottish electrical manufacturer. Both marriages ended in divorce.
Left: a cutting from the Motherwell Times of 6 February 1948, with an article by Bill Owen describing how he met his wife, Edith. Below: the marriage of Bill Owen and Edith Emma Stevenson at Chelsea Register Office in 1946. They were divorced in 1964.
The couple lived in Brighton but divorced in 1964 because, according to Tom in a newspaper interview, they lived very different lives. His mother Edith came from a fairly wealthy Scottish middle class family – her father was a stockbroker – and was a social butterfly who enjoyed hosting parties for well-known showbiz people, but Bill, a lifelong socialist from a working class background, disliked the glitter of showbiz life and was something of a loner. According to Tom Owen, his mother thought Last of the Summer Wine was rubbish! Edith died in the October-December quarter of 1980 at the age of 70 in Brighton, committing suicide with an overdose of pills.
Bill Owen’s father and Tom’s grandfather, William George Davenport ROWBOTHAM, was born in 1888 in Enfield, Middlesex. In the 1911 census he was a draper’s porter. Later he became a bus driver. He married Louise MATTHEWS on 23 March 1913 at All Saints’ Parish Church, South Acton, Middlesex. He died in the July-September quarter 1953 at the age of 65 in Ealing registration district.
Louise Matthews was born in 1888 in Brentford, Middlesex. In the 1911 census she was a laundress. She died in the October-December quarter of 1962 at the age of 74 in Ealing registration district.
Marriage of William George Davenport Rowbotham and Louse Matthews at South Acton in 1913.
Thomas STEVENSON was born in 1881 in Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland. In the 1911 census he was a stockbroker at 43 Princes Square, Glasgow. He married Edith Openshaw STRANG on 21 June 1906 at a private house called The Peel, Busby, East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, after banns according to the forms of the United Free Church. Thomas Stevenson died on 25 November 1957 at 391 Albert Drive, Pollokshields, Glasgow.
Edith Openshaw Strang was born in 1879 in Bowdon, Cheshire. She died on 28 November 1954 at the age of 75 at 12 Claremont Terrace, Kelvingrove, Glasgow, Scotland.
Edith Emma Stevenson, wife of Bill Owen and mother of Tom, with her parents, Thomas and Edith Stevenson, in the 1911 census of Scotland at 43 Princes Square, Glasgow (schedule 123). Edith was only nine months old.
The house where Thomas and Edith were married was known as a peel tower and parts of the building dated back to the 17th century. It was the home where Edith lived with her parents. At the time of the marriage Thomas was also living in a large house, a mansion called Hawkhead House at Paisley.
Top left: The Peel, Busby, East Kilbride, Lanarkshire. Top right: Marriage of Thomas Stevenson and Edith Openshaw Strang. Above: Hawkhead House, Paisley, home of Thomas Stevenson,
Paternal great grandparents
William James ROWBOTHAM was born in 1859 in Enfield Lock, Middlesex. In the 1911 census he was a sword grinder. He married Amy Louisa NICHOLLS in the April-June quarter of 1886 in Edmonton, Middlesex, registration district. He died probably in the January-March quarter of 1928 at the age of 69 in Staines, Middlesex, registration district.
Amy Louisa NICHOLLS was born in 1865 at Little Heath, Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. She died in the October-December quarter of 1944 at the age of 79 in Brentford, Middlesex, registration district.
James MATTHEWS was born about 1836 in Bethnal Green, Middlesex. In the 1891 census he was a sign writer. James married Louisa Ellen WESTON in the October-December quarter of 1879 in Brentford, Middlesex, registration district. He died in the last quarter of 1892 at the age of 56 in Brentford, Middlesex, registration district.
Louisa Ellen WESTON was born illegitimate at Chisledon, Wiltshire, in 1860 and baptised on 30 September 1860 at Chisledon. Her mother was Sarah Weston, father not known. In the 1911 census she was a maternity nurse.
Maternal great grandparents
William STEVENSON was born about 1828 in Stewarton, Ayrshire, Scotland. In the 1901 census he was a quarry master. He married Annie MCCREATH on 13 August 1874 in Drumpark, Old Monkland, Lanarkshire, Scotland. Annie MCCREATH was born in 1848 in Scotland.
James STRANG was born on 26 June 1848 in Cathcart, Renfrewshire, Scotland. In the 1881 census he was a drysalter in Bury, Lancashire. He married Emma OPENSHAW in the July-September quarter of 1877 in Bury, Lancashire. His death has not yet been found.
Emma OPENSHAW was born in 1853 in Bury, Lancashire. She died possibly in 1947 at the age of 94 in Denbighshire, North Wales. Emma is something of a mystery! She appears with her husband James and daughter Edith in the 1881 census at Bowden, Cheshire, aged 29. However, I was unable to find her in the censuses of 1891 or 1901.
In the 1891 census James Strang and his daughter Edith Openshaw Strang are found at Chapel En Le Frith, Derbyshire, in an apparently large household with three male siblings of Edith’s and four servants. James, still a drysalter, was described as married but Emma was not there? So where was she?
In the census of 1901 Edith, then aged 21, was in East Kilbride, Scotland, in the household of her uncle, William Strang, at Peel House – presumably the same place called The Peel where she and Thomas Stevenson were married in 1906. Again, I could not find Emma in 1901.
However, I believe I achieved a breakthrough when I found in the 1911 census a female named as E. Strang, aged 57, a widow who was a patient in a private lunatic asylum at Heald Green House, Heald Green, in the civil parish of Northern Etchells, Cheadle, Cheshire, which is today a suburb of Stockport and a few miles south of Manchester. The single-page entry showed a matron and four other female staff, with a dozen women aged between 45 and 78, all of whom were patients and who were all described as being “of independent means”, indicating that they probably came from well-off families. The last column headed “Infirmity” revealed that E. Strang had been a lunatic since she was 32 years of age, suggesting she had become mentally ill about 1884-5.
Unfortunately, the 1911 census did not give her place of birth. However, further research with Google indicated that Heald Green House was probably part of the Cheadle Royal Hospital, which was originally opened in 1849 as a replacement site for the Manchester Royal Lunatic Asylum. Another vital piece of evidence emerged when I found in the Wikipedia entry for the establishment a mention of a convalescent home connected to the hospital being opened in 1911 at Colwyn Bay, North Wales.
The final piece of the jigsaw appeared to fall into place when I found at the FreeBMD website the death of an Emma Strang in the January-March quarter of 1947 in the registration district of Aled, Denbighshire, aged 94. One of the sub-districts of the registration districts from 1935-68 was Colwyn Bay.
Was this the former Emma Openshaw, the unfortunate great grandmother of Tom Owen? I believe it is very likely. And did she die in the convalescent home after more than 60 years of suffering from mental illness? I intend to obtain the death certificate and will add the details later.
The entry for E. Strang in the 1911 census of England and Wales (schedule no. 15). If this was Emma, she was a patient in a private lunatic asylum in Cheshire.
Great great grandparents
John ROWBOTHAM was born circa 1828 in Nottingham, Nottinghamshire. He died in the October-December quarter of 1911 at the age of 83 in Edmonton, Middlesex, registration district. In the 1901 census he was a gun polisher. He married Matilda DAVENPORT in the third quarter of 1851 in West Bromwich registration district.
Matilda DAVENPORT was born on 8 April 1830 in Birmingham, Warwickshire. She was baptised on 23 May 1836 at Saint Martin’s Church, Birmingham. She died in the January-March quarter of 1904 at the age of 73 in Portsmouth, Hampshire. It was no doubt Matilda whose surname of Davenport passed into use in the Rowbotham family as a middle forename.
George NICHOLLS was born in 1831 at Potters Bar, Middlesex. On his marriage certificate and in the censuses he was a tailor. He married Martha PALLETT on 4 February 1856 at the Parish Church in Islington, Middlesex. Martha Pallett was born in 1831 at Potters Bar, Middlesex.
The marriage of George Nicholls and Martha Pallett at Islington in 1856.
Sarah WESTON was born circa 1839 in Chisledon, Wiltshire.
Hugh STEVENSON was born (date unknown).
Elizabeth CRAIG was born (date unknown).
William MCCREATH was born (date unknown).
Margaret was born (date unknown).
James STRANG was born on 6 September 1813 at Mearns, Renfrew, Scotland. He married Margaret HOWIE on 29 June 1841 in Fenwick, Ayrshire, Scotland. Margaret HOWIE was born circa 1820 in Fenwick, Ayrshire, Scotland. James Strang died on 5 March 1893 at The Peel, Busby, East Kilbride.
James OPENSHAW was born on 20 April 1814 in Bury, Lancashire. He married Martha Ann JACKSON on 22 August 1837 at St Mary’s Church, Bury. He died on 16 November 1867 at the age of 53 in Lower Chesham, Bury. In the 1861 census James was a cotton spinner employing 160 hands in Bury, so he was a large-scale employer. He was buried in St Paul’s Church, Bury.
A report of the death of James Openshaw in the Bury Times on 23 November 1867.
Martha Ann JACKSON was born about 1817 in Bury, Lancashire. She died in 1895 at the age of 78 in Bury.
Great great great grandparents
In the 1841 and 1851 censuses Thomas DAVENPORT was a pearl button maker in Birmingham, Warwickshire. He married Louisa HASHTON on 5 October 1828 at St Mary’s Church in Handsworth, Staffordshire. Louisa HASHTON was born (date unknown).
Henry WESTON was born circa 1811 in Chisledon, Wiltshire. In the censuses he was an agricultural labourer. He married Jane BAKER on 30 September 1833 in Chisledon, Wiltshire. Jane BAKER was born circa 1814 in Hodson, Chisledon, Wiltshire.
Family tree chart of Tom Owen and his father Bill (clicking on the image should enlarge it).
Sources of research include:
FreeBMD (http://www.freebmd.org.uk/cgi/search.pl) which has many millions of birth, marriage and death records from the General Register Office for England and Wales.
Findmypast (http://www.findmypast.co.uk/) a major genealogical website which carries all the census records and images from 1841 to 1911, also the US censuses.
FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/), the website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
London Metropolitan Archives (http://www.ancestry.co.uk/cs/uk/lma)
ScotlandsPeople (http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/), the official Scottish genealogy resource.
British Newspaper Archive (https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/), many millions of pages from newspapers in the British Library’s Newspaper Collection.
British 19th Century Surname Atlas (http://www.archersoftware.co.uk/satlas01.htm)
Internet Surname Database (http://www.surnamedb.com/)