John Hall Magowan (1893-1951): WWI + the aftermath

[Article sent by James Magowan, written by his sister, Rachel]

(John was born at Tullyherron, Mountnorris, Co Armagh on 5 October 1893. After initial education at Mountnorris primary school, and at Royal School Armagh, he entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1911, to study Modern Languages. While at Trinity he joined the Dublin University Officers’ Training Corps. [1] He also met, and became engaged to Winifred Ray, a fellow language student whose family lived in Dublin).

Aged 22, John was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the ‘Special Reserve of Officers’ on 4 November 1915.

‘You are therefore carefully and diligently to discharge your Duty as such in  the Rank of Second Lieutenant… and you are at all times to exercise and well  discipline in Arms the inferior Officers and Men serving under you, and use your best endeavours to keep them in good Order and Discipline. And We do hereby Command them to Obey you as their superior Officer, and you to observe and follow such Orders and Directions as from time to time you shall receive from Us, or any your superior Officers, according to the Rules and Discipline of War in pursuance of the Trust hereby reposed in you’… [2]

After some initial training at Athlone John found himself in France, serving with the Royal Field Artillery, as part of the British Expeditionary Force. He had travelled by train from Waterloo station, in London, to Southampton, and then crossed the Channel on a troopship to Le Havre. A letter to his father from ‘No. 13 Camp, No. 2 General Base Depot, Havre’, dated 15 March 1916, contained his first impressions:

‘We landed here this afternoon and after a long bit of racing around I have arrived at the above address. How long I shall be here I do not yet know (but probably not for long) but letters will be forwarded if you write here when I have moved…this is quite a comfortable spot as regards quarters etc, and although it’s raining pretty hard, things aren’t a bit more uncomfortable than at  Athlone. The four of us who came from Athlone are together still. I missed them at Waterloo but found them again in Southampton and we came on here together. I left a suitcase full of things and a sword in Dublin for the girls to take home. They are things I don’t want here so they can be sorted out and kept till I need them again’ 

The ‘girls’ who were to look after his excess baggage were probably his sisters Eliza and Mary, who were both, at the time, students at Trinity. What the sword was for, and where it is now – who knows?

John was wounded in September 1916, and was sent home for a short period to recover. He was evidently also home on leave the following summer - he married Winifred Ray at Rathfarnham Church, Dublin, Ireland, on 22 June 1917. He gave his address at the time as being ‘37 Queens Gardens, Lancaster Gate, London W2’. The marriage was witnessed by John’s friend, J A Acheson, and Win’s father, John Titterington Ray.[3] Photographs taken on a sunny summer’s day shortly afterwards, at his parents’ home at Mountnorris, show him in his uniform, with his family, and with Win.

John was made a Lieutenant in 1917, and moved into a staff appointment later that year. In November 1918 he was ‘mentioned in despatches’:

‘Lt J H Magowan was mentioned in a Despatch from Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig… dated the 8 Nov 1918… for gallant and distinguished services in the Field.’ [4]

By May 1919 John had served overseas for three years. His group (HQ Light Division, Army of the Rhine), had been moved from Düren, a ‘fairly big town’ to Harff, a ‘little place northwest of Cologne’. He described the setup in a letter to his father:

‘We have our offices, and the general and senior officers live in the Schloss, which was the residence of the Count Mirbach who was murdered by the Bolsheviks in Moscow last year. His younger brother, the present count, and another brother, a baron, all live here with us, so you see we only associate with the top-notch Huns’[5]  

Hoping to be demobilised soon, he had an interview with the Foreign Office and wrote to his mother:

‘It was fairly successful, and I got unofficial hints that I’d be nominated to the Consulate in Germany as soon as peace relations were resumed’.[6]

Peace negotiations dragged on for another six months before John was able to take up his post as a Junior Vice Consul in Bremerhaven. On 10 January 1920 he wrote to his father from London, explaining that he and Win intended to travel to Edinburgh (where they would visit John’s widowed aunt, Fannie Magowan), and sail from Leith to Hamburg within the next few days:

‘As the Peace Treaty has probably been in force since 4pm today, we shall  probably be pushing off to Hamburg in a day or two, and the present arrangement is… that we go to Edinburgh on Tuesday night, stay in Edinburgh on Wednesday, and sail from Leith to Hamburg on Thursday. I have been a good son and written to Aunt Fannie to say that unless she heard to the contrary in the meantime, Win and I will call and see her on Wednesday afternoon, your affectionate nephew John Hall Magowan’.[7]    

John was one of two Vice Consuls who had been appointed to help the elderly Consul General in Hamburg. As his wife Win explained in a letter to the family at Mountnorris, there was plenty for them to do:

‘John is very fit, but I can’t say he is getting any fatter.  He is at the Consulate all day from 10-5, and sometimes later, and has even spent a couple of Sunday mornings there, which I don’t approve of! But I can’t make a fuss yet, as they’ve really had a very heavy time getting the place cleaned up – painters and business started simultaneously – and the brunt of the ‘muck’-work falls on him and the other Vice Consul, as the Consul General is fairly old and not strong’.

In common with Mr Simpson (the other Vice Consul) and Miss Jeffries (the lady typist at the Consulate) John and Win spent their initial weeks in Hamburg at the Hotel Atlantic. In the evenings they went to the local opera (‘streets ahead of anything we saw in England’), and played bridge with Mr Simpson and Miss Jeffries. Accommodation was difficult to find, and frequently let ‘unter der Hand’ – an avenue not open to consular staff. In anticipation of finding unfurnished accommodation to rent they began to build up a collection of secondhand furniture:

By dint of watching the newspapers and wandering round the town we have picked up almost enough things (mostly secondhand odds and sods from private families) to start a small home with – if only we had one’.[8]

(Eventually they found a house to rent on the outskirts of Bremerhaven, at Parkstrasse 10, Speckenbüttel, Lehe am Weser. They had one daughter, Ann, born on 5 Sep 1921, and a son, Andrew, born on 20 Jun 1922. John’s next posting was at Mainz, where their son David was born, on 16 Jul 1928. Subsequent postings took him to Haiti, Washington and Berlin. He was awarded a KBE in 1946, and appointed HM Ambassador to Venezuela, in 1948. John died, aged 52, while on leave at Rostrevor, Co Down, N Ireland, on 5 April 1951,[9] and was buried at Mountnorris).





[1] War List, 1922, University of Dublin. Trinity College

[2] King George V, Commission, 4 Nov 1915 (John Hall Magowan, Second Lieutenant, Special Reserve of Officers)

[3] Marriage Certificate (John Hall Magowan, Lieutenant, Royal Field Artillery, m. Winifred Isabel Ray, at Rathfarnham church (Church of Ireland), Co Dublin, 22 Jun 1917, by Rev A  Hughes. Witnesses: J A Acheson, John T Ray)

[4] Winston S Churchill, Secretary of State for War, 1 Mar 1919 (J H Magowan, mentioned in Despatches, 8 Nov 1918)

[5] Letter from John Hall Magowan, to W H Magowan, 11 Apr 1919

[6] Letter from John Hall Magowan, to S A Magowan, 31 May 1919

[7] Letter from John Hall Magowan, to W H Magowan, 10 Jan 1920

[8] Letter from Win Magowan to the Family at Mountnorris, 13 Feb  1920

[9] Death Certificate (John Hall Magowan, d. 5 Apr 1951)


In the accompanying audio recording, James Magowan of Ballygorman, talks about his home, his grandfather, Sir John Hall Magowan (who fought in WW1), and his father's experiences in WW2 as an airforce navigator (13 min 44s).

Photo of James Magowan in 2014.

Use the audio controller to listen to this talk, given in 2014.