Spirit of Birkenhead Institute

The History and Heritage of Birkenhead Institute


This page is dedicated to the most famous pupil of Birkenhead Institute, Wilfred Owen, who died on 4th November, 1918, only a few days before the end of the Great War. Here is an item from Rob Wood, regarding the Wilfred Owen trail, which has been organised by the BIOB and the Birkenhead History Society. Thanks to Rob for submitting this at this special time, as we commemorate the 90th anniversary of Wilfred's death.

Also below is some information about Dean Johnson, former B.I. pupil, who is a Wirral musician, and has been influenced by Wilfred's work. Dean is working on a music project about Wilfred Owen, and he has kindly sent in details and information about the project, and how he was inspired to create it.

                                                                      WILFRED OWEN

Here is one of Wilfred's poems, (and probably his most famous poem) :


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, 
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, 
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs 
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. 
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots 
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; 
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! –  An ecstasy of fumbling, 
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; 
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, 
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime. . . 
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, 
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, 
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. 

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace 
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.




Here is the information, kindly sent from Rob:-
In this period of First World War remembrance , the name Wilfred Owen, an Old Instonian is everywhere.
Find attached an article for your site.
The Wilfred Owen Trail sponsored jointly by The Birkenhead Institute Old Boys and Birkenhead History Society to commemorate the 90th anniversary of his death is to be launched at the next meeting of the History Society 20th Nov 2008 at the Williamson Art Gallery Slatey Road.
All welcome.
Rob Wood
1954 to 1960
Please also see the Wilfred Owen articles below:-

These articles were taken from the Visor the school magazine of the Birkenhead Institute (1889-1997).


The Wilfred Owen article written by C D Greaves (an Old Boy and accomplished historian, writer and poet in his own right), was published in the Christmas 1933 edition, and the link with Mr A S Paton and the TGS  (Teignmouth Grammar School) magazine was established in 1935.




Dean Johnson, a former pupil of Birkenhead Institute, is working on a musical play about Wilfred Owen. The play is called "Bullets and Daffodils".

Here is an article about Dean's work, courtesy of the "Wirral Globe"  :-

A WIRRAL musician has put down his guitar to finish work on a musical play about First World War poet Wilfred Owen.

Dean Johnson's first play, Bullets and Daffodils chronicles the life of Wilfred, who was killed in action at the end of the First World War.

The play deals with Owen's life before and during the war.

It explores the relationship with his mother through his letters, poetry and his life's events.

The play has two characters, Wilfred and his mother Susan. It is set in a Victorian sitting room.

The dialogue is interspersed with songs written and performed by Dean. The play has the support of the Wilfred Owen Assocuiation.

A lifelong fan of Wilfred's work, Dean attended the same school as the poet, Birkenhead Institute.

The 50-year-old singer/songwriter, who hopes to take the play to schools and mainstream theatre, told the Globe: "I've loved Wilfred's work ever since I was in school. It's more than 90 years since he died and I think his profile is really low in Wirral."

Born in Oswestry in 1893, Wilfred was brought up in Birkenhead and is recognised as one of the greatest voices of the First World War.

He also has a road named after him, on the former site of the school, which is now a housing estate.

In 1915, he enlisted in the British Army and was killed, aged 25, on November 4, 1918, during the battle to cross the Sambre-Oise canal at Ors in Northern France.

At the time of his death he was virtually unknown. Only four of his poems were published during his lifetime.

But he had always been determined to be a poet and had experimented with verse from an early age. Among his 62 poems are 1914, Dulce et decorum est and Anthem For Doomed Youth.

Dean Johnson said: "When I was younger I used to set music to his poems, so the play seems a natural progression. I've been touring and performing for years, and am still as creative as ever.

"But I can?t scissor-kick around on stage all my life, so it's nice to be focusing my creative energy on something new.

"I've finished the play's first act and am now working on the second. I'd like to get it done as quickly as possible and then take it to the public.

"A play like this could only be good for the people of Wirral. In the play, I take these magnificently dark poems and hope to explore the experience of a mother?s feelings and loss through warfare.

"Hopefully it will bring home to the audience war-related issues that are relevant today. We hope the play will appeal to a wide audience and have educational value."

Dean has been in the music business for more than 25 years and spends much of his time helping aspiring Wirral songwriters.

He recently wrote a song supporting a campaign to turn Birkenhead Town Hall into an arts centre in memory of late Heswall-born DJ John Peel.

He also made himself the envy of Beatles fans across the world when asked by Radio Merseyside presenter Spencer Leigh to complete the lyrics of a song written by George Harrison. The song, Silence (Is Its Own Reply) has now been recorded.


Here is some more information and comments which Dean has kindly sent in about his Wilfred Owen music project, and how he was influenced by Wilfred's work:-

"Thank you so much for your reply,  It is such an interesting website, my brother Mark attended the school in Whetstone Lane and I was at the later school from the early to mid 70's, I was in the same house as Wilfred (Atkin), I think thats correct.  I remember him being a shadowy figure whose presence hung over the corridors of time, as I grew into a songwriter his words and brilliance became much more sublime to me, I have been in the studio today recording more songs for the play and one is about the Owen's arriving in Birkenhead , I will keep you posted as things progress.  Thanks again for posting my article on your website , it would be great to hear how some of the old boys recall the effect Wilfred had on their perspective of him and what he stood for."
If anyone has any thoughts or ideas about Wilfred Owen or his work, please send them in, and I shall pass them on to Dean. Please send your thoughts to my email address at:

I am pleased to feature Dean's work on this site, and more details can be found at his dedicated web site:-



Dean has very kindly sent in a file with the theme song from "Bullets and Daffodils". (See below). If anyone would like to hear it, please email me and I shall share the music file. Many thanks to Dean for making this available. Please email me if you would like to hear this at:

[email protected]

"I have been in the recording studio this week recording songs for my Wilfred Owen project , attached is the theme song 'Bullets and Daffodils' - it mentions B.I so I thought you might like to hear it , I hope you enjoy it and do feel free to share it with anyone you think might find it of interest."


Here is a copy of an article, courtesy of the "Shropshire Star" about Dean Johnson's work:-


Dean Johnson peered through into the garden of Plas Wilmot. The singer/songwriter from Liverpool was on the trail of Oswestry’s famed war poet Wilfred Owen. “I was taken by its beauty,” he says, in his gorgeously lyrical Scouse accent. “You know it was the house where Wilfred was born. It’s a beautiful house in a beautiful road.”


Dean absorbed the beauty of Owen’s former surrounds. Then, without further ado, he climbed into his car and raced back to his native Birkenhead. “Wilfred came here with his family and they took lodgings in the back streets. I went straight from Plas Wilmot to Elm Grove, in Birkenhead, to see what the differences were.


“There were huge contrasts. One was very beautiful and affluent and the other was harsh and industrial. I wanted to look at the social and environmental upheaval that Wilfred endured. I also wanted to consider the impact on his family. His mother, it seems, was something of a snob and for her to adjust to life in industrial Birkenhead, well, she must never have got over it.”


Johnson was researching Owen’s life so that he could write a song cycle, Bullets and Daffodils. The title of the project illustrated the differences between the poet’s artistic soul and the brutality of war. “I think Wilfred had an artistic sensibility, in some ways e may have been quite fey. I think he was a gentleman, very cultured and with high literary aspirations. That’s why I called the piece Bullets and Daffodils; it’s the contrast between Wilfred’s artistry, his innate sensitivity, and the horror of war.


“Before the war, I think Wilfred was very influenced by the Romantic poets, by Keats and Wordsworth. But after being in the Somme, I think his perception of reality was changed. His romantic outlook was quite literally blown away.


“I think he signed up before he was a patriot. He loved England and he wanted to protect its quintessential nature. But war stripped away that view; it took away any quasi-pretentious notion of a green and pleasant land.”


Johnson is following the illustrious footsteps of other cultural trendsetters by repicturing the events of Owen’s life. Pat Barker’s beautiful novel Regeneration, Benjamin Britten’s moving opus War Requiem and the rock band 10,000 Maniacs’ song Anthem For Doomed Youth have all been directly inspired by Owen’s output. The Liverpudlian singer/songwriter was, however, well qualified for the job. His live performances have taken him from the Wirral folk scene to the Royal Albert Hall.


“Wirral Borough Council contacted me and asked me to write a song about Birkenhead. They wanted me to focus on the positive aspects of the area. That was a tough commission because it’s a hard, gritty area. It’s a poor part of town.


“As part of my research, I looked into our local history. Wilfred Owen is one of our most famous sons and, even after I’d completed the commission, I was drawn back to his work.


“It seemed a good idea to write a piece about him, about his life, about the person he was. He was a massive figure when I was at Birkenhead Institute, which is where he also went. I decided to do a project that was intrinsically linked to Birkenhead, but that culturally and emotionally transfer to any part of the country.”


Johnson believes Owen’s message about the futility of war is move resonant than ever as British troops continue to fight in Afghanistan. “If ever the futility of war needed to be restated, it’s now.


“I went to the houses and to the streets where Wilfred used to live. In Birkenhead, he moved three times, each time to a very modest terraced house within a half mile radius of the others. I was walking in his footsteps, retracing the places that he knew.”


Johnson hopes he captured Owen’s voice in Bullets and Daffodils. “I tried to recast his songs and give them a new framework. My motto was that if I could concentrate on Wilfred’s story, the boy and the man, then I could tell the story of his war. Every now and then I kept on hearing that Wilfred was a pacifist. But I think that was a complete misconception. He got the Military Cross and his Englishness was so deep-rooted that he was the ultimate patriot, rather than a pacifist. He wrote without pointing the finger at anyone. He never mentioned the Germans or English, he just wrote about war. I believe soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan still draw strength and justification from his poems. They were balanced, non-judgemental and compelling.”


Johnson will premiere Bullets and Daffodils at The Ironworks, in Oswestry, on August 12 and tickets are available from the venue. The piece will then be transformed into a full stage production and a UK tour is planned.