02 April 2024


(How  A Neath Priest Disappeared)


There is no doubt that at the start of his long adult life Owen Charles Henry King wanted to serve both his heavenly King and his earthly Country.

However, this was not apparent when early in the morning of Sunday 8th October 1899, the congregation of St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, Neath gathered in the church, fully expecting to see Rev. Father King, their priest for the last three years, take the service. However, no priest, no service and the people were left to puzzle over his whereabouts in vain. In fact the mystery was never resolved for these parishioners. He had confided in no-one and he had no family in Neath who may have known.

Who was he? Where was he?

He was born on 5th December 1859 in Kentish Town, North London.1  His father was a merchant’s clerk and his mother the daughter of the King’s Lynn gaoler. There appears to have been a crisis in the family before Owen could be baptised, since he was only a few months old when he was sent to live with his paternal aunt’s family in Battersea, South London and his older sister was sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Norfolk. For a few years Owen’s parents were living separately. Owens’s mother took the post of sub-matron at the first Elizabeth Fry Refuge at 195 Mare Street Hackney, London, to help women just released from prison, while his father continued clerking.


Owen was brought up in Battersea along with his cousin, Charlotte by his aunt who had married a surgical instrument manufacturer and dealer. Owen is recorded as being with them in both the 1861 and 1871 census.  As a teenager he joined the Merchant Navy and served for several years, later recalling in particular his experience of the ship ‘Darling Downs’ carrying railway iron to Brisbane.2 By 1881, however, he was back with his aunt and cousin in Battersea studying theology at King’s College London, where he was awarded an associateship [i.e. a degree].3

SS Darling Downs - courtesy of State Library of South Australia


Owen became an Anglican clergyman in 1883 when he was ordained in a ceremony that took place unusually in a parish church, that of Canton, Cardiff.4 He was appointed curate of Llanfihangel Llantarnam near Cwmbrân, Monmouthshire. It may have been then that his widowed aunt and cousin Charlotte came to live with him and look after him. There must have been some very interesting discussions as Owen was coming to the conclusion that he could best serve God in the Roman Catholic Church. The Western Mail reported on 1st October 1885 that Owen had told his parishioners that he was about to leave the Anglican Church and join the Roman Catholic Church and on 8th October the paper carried a full report of the ceremony which had taken place the day before in St. Peter’s Church, Roath, Cardiff in front of a packed congregation. Owen was described as a ‘slightly-built young man with clean-shaven and rather pleasing face’.


Although his aunt died in Llantarnam in 1887, his cousin Charlotte was still living there in 1891. It is possible though that Owen had already moved about 30 miles away to Welsh Bicknor and the Courtfield estate of the Roman Catholic Vaughan family which he served for a number of years officiating at services held on their estate.


For some time after his change of allegiance Owen kept a low public profile, only appearing in newspaper reports as giving a fundraising sermon in Holyhead in December 18885 and gaining a St John’s Ambulance Association certificate in Aberdare in June 1890.6


However, from the autumn of 1890 at the age of 30, he was ready to launch himself on the social media of the day by pursuing with energy and zeal the promotion of Catholic issues through the press and by lectures and debate. He was particularly concerned to show that apostolic continuity and, therefore, legitimacy only existed in the Catholic Church.7 He now saw the Anglican Church as an (illegitimate) offshoot of the Catholic Church and wanted to persuade others of this, becoming in effect an influencer. He rebutted the idea that the Church of England retained continuity with the pre-reformation church.8 He also argued that Anglican clergymen had no right to ancient endowments of property that were given on condition that certain services were performed, since such clergy were not now performing those services and were not indeed able to perform them (because of the change in religion at the Reformation).9 There was a continuing debate that Owen took part in about the value of ritual in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches.10


It was around this time that Owen sprang to the defence of his patron Cardinal Vaughan who was made Archbishop of Westminster in 1892. In 1894 the Archbishop of York questioned the validity of Vaughan’s title and claim to jurisdiction over any part of the UK, calling him ‘the Italian Cardinal’.11 Owen wrote a letter to York published in the Yorkshire Gazette on 17th November 1894 saying, "I have the honour of filling the post of chaplain to the Vaughan family and I herewith avail myself of the liberty of reminding you that your statement is not true. Cardinal Vaughan is an Englishman…”


The following year in September 1895, Owen extended his experience of chaplaincy by joining the Indian Transport Service for British forces on their way by ship to India.12 His first trip, on Her Majesty's troopship Britannia, was with 1600 troops on their way to Bombay and his previous experience at sea would have helped. His cousin Charlotte also decided to move from her house in Llantarnam to the small village of Llangwm on the toll road between Usk and Chepstow (a journey from Battersea which I mirrored about a hundred years later, hence my interest in the family).13

Peninsular &Oriental - SS Britannia (Troopship No.3)  - Wikipaedia

It was not much more than a year later though that Owen was back on dry land as a guest at a Mayoral Reception in Neath on 31st December 189614 and he re-entered the Catholic vs Protestant lists with a number of lectures and letters to the press while he was a parish priest in Neath.15


As well as defending the Roman Catholic Church in matters of belief and practice, Owen was interested in promoting education. He helped to raise money for Catholic schools16 and in July 1898 stood for election to the Neath School Board which caused a stir among ratepayers who queried whether it was appropriate for a Catholic priest, who already had a (Catholic) school to look after, to be involved in managing local authority schools.17 He replied that he was a ratepayer and could, therefore, put himself forward for election and he canvassed support for a value-for-money approach to managing schools, gaining a place on the school board in the election.18


In October 1898 it was at an Anti-Ritualism lecture in Neath that Owen defended himself against personal insinuations made by the speaker in connection with his position as priest.19

A couple of months later Owen reported receiving anonymous threats in connection with his position on the Neath School Board, if he did not support a particular candidate as headmaster.20

Were these the issues that persuaded Owen to remove himself from the public arena?

As darkness fell on Saturday 7th October 1899 he packed a bag, walked out of the house, closed the door and never came back, knowing that his congregation would have no one to take the service the next day. He had not informed his Bishop of his decision, nor the Chair of the School Board and these vacancies had to be filled as soon as possible after much local speculation and no knowledge of the whereabouts of the former parish priest.

On the 28th October 1899 a report appeared in the South Wales Daily Post stating that it had been three weeks since Rev. Father King had disappeared and there had been no service at the church in Neath on Sunday 8th October. The Bishop was investigating but had not heard anything and had to appoint a successor straight away.


The report goes on to describe Owen thus ‘Formerly he was a lieutenant in the Navy21 and he was frequently talking of his love for the service. He was very popular locally, and at the election in connection with the Neath School Board, he obtained a high position in the poll. He is a clever speaker and a gentleman of intellect of no mean order. His sudden departure has caused quite a mild sensation locally.’

The South Wales Daily News of 30th October 1899 reported that he ‘left Neath by the night mail train and told an acquaintance that he was rushing away to London in order to be at the War Office early next morning.’


What he actually did was to disappear from the record until his death in 1939. He achieved this by dropping his first name, at least for official purposes and in 1911 and 1921 he adjusted his age and place of birth.

As the new century began, Owen now had to find gainful employment and probably used army connections, formed while working in the Indian Transport Service, to obtain a job as male nurse in the Royal Military Hospital in Stoke Damerel, Plymouth,22 which would have been receiving patients from the Boer Wars at that time. He retained his Roman Catholic allegiance, but did not serve as a priest or engage in public debate, only later writing a very occasional letter to the Western Morning News.

One day around this time, Owen, now in his early forties, was visiting a Roman Catholic boys’ school in Launceston, about 25 miles from Plymouth. There he met the housemaid, Ellen Jane Sandercock, about twenty years his junior.23 She was a local girl, elder daughter of John and Susan Sandercock. John had been a seaman in the Royal Navy, but died before Ellen was 12 years old. Susan would have had a small pension and supplemented this by sewing shirts (for sailors?). Ellen would have deputised for her mother in the house and looking after her brother, Ernest and sister Edith. She would have been well able to hold her own in male company, which she needed to do as the school was headed up by two middle-aged single men teaching 11 boys ranging in age from 10-18 years old. There were four female servants: cook, nurse, housemaid (Ellen) and a general servant.


Owen was perhaps missing the company of his aunt and cousin. Here was a competent young woman who would be a companion, as well as cook and housekeeper. Ellen saw an unattached young-looking mature man (who removed seven years from his age for her benefit), who was a people-person (he had been well-liked in Neath as a parish priest) and who could support her. They were soon married, not in Launceston or Plymouth, but in Camberwell, Surrey on 13th December 1902. They returned to Plymouth and the event was reported in the Cornish & Devon Post on 20th December and there followed a very affectionate, 33 year marriage.24

A couple of years later Ellen’s sister, Edith, married Frederick John Foster, who was a skilled dock worker. Edith and Ellen were evidently close, as Edith and Frederick named their son, who was born in 1907, Frederick Ernest Owen and in 1911 the two sisters and their families were sharing the same house. Owen had returned to the sea and was a ship’s steward, known as Charles Henry King, born in Weybridge, Surrey in 1866.

The next sighting occurred in 1918, when Owen commented on ‘The Pope and the War’ in the Western Morning News under the name Chas H King.25 Pope Benedict XV had issued a Peace Note in August 1917 in a failed attempt at brokering peace. In January 1918, US President Woodrow Wilson put forward his Fourteen Points (incorporating much of the substance of the Pope’s Peace Note) which eventually led to the 11th November armistice.

In 1921 Owen and Ellen were still in Plymouth. Owen continued to use the name Charles Henry King born in Weybridge in 1866, but at 62 was working on land as a caretaker for a firm of solicitors, Watts & Anthony with offices at 4 Princess Square,26 which is where Owen and Ellen lived.27

Owen and Ellen did not have any children and in 1935 Ellen died aged 56 while she and Owen were living at 4 Princess Square.  With Ellen’s death, Owen at the age of 75 gave up his job and moved to Chudleigh near Newton Abbot, home of the Roman Catholic Clifford family at the Ugbrooke House estate with its St Cyprian’s Chapel in the Diocese of Plymouth. He wrote several letters to the Western Morning News, from Chudleigh, between 1936 and 1938 about Christian doctrine.28

His sister-in-law Edith, who had been widowed in 1933, died in 1937, also aged 56, after poisoning herself when mentally ill. Owen’s cousin Charlotte had died in 1929, so of all the close relatives of his generation, only his younger brother Reginald, in Surrey, and his brother-in-law Ernest, in Plymouth, remained to keep him company.

When Ellen died on 25th August 1935 she left the equivalent today of £51,800 in her Will, probably mostly to Owen. In the three following years, most of this had gone as Owen left behind only the equivalent of £13,300 when he died on 12th January 1939 in his 80th year. Had he given that money away? His executor was John Patrick Barrett, RC Bishop of Plymouth. RIP.


A hundred years on, can Owen’s life resonate with ours today? He lived through very stressful times of tectonic shifts in the world order: the Boer Wars, the Great War (WW1) and the Great Depression and he saw the Second World War on the horizon. The differences between Roman Catholic and Anglican beliefs and practices are no longer flashpoints in the public eye, but there are others and always will be. Perhaps what Owen brought to the table was an understanding of both sides of the argument and the ability to explain and persuade in the spirit of service to God his Judge and to his fellow human beings.


1. He was baptised on 24th October 1860 in St Mary, Battersea (with his Norfolk grandmother’s maiden name as his first name) where his birth on 5th December 1859 is also recorded. His birth was registered in Pancras RD and the 1861 census gives his birthplace as Kentish Town, which is in Pancras RD.

2. Western Morning News - 25th May 1938. The Darling Downs was a sail and steam passenger/cargo ship built 1852 and wrecked by collision in 1887, owned by Taylor, Sons & Co, London 1868 - 1887.

3. Weekly Mail - 29th December 1883

4. ibid

5. North Wales Express - 12th October 1888

6. Aberdare Times - 28th June 1890

7. South Wales Daily News - 3rd March 1892

8. Barry Dock News - 25th September 1891

9. Western Mail - 27th September 1892

10. South Wales Daily Post - 29th July 1899

11. South Wales Daily News - 6th December 1894

12. Evening Express – 27th September 1895

13. 1901 Census for Llangwm Uchaf, Monmouthshire

14. South Wales Daily Post – 1st January 1897

15. South Wales Daily Post - 22nd January 1897

16. South Wales Daily News – 2nd December 1898

17. South Wales Daily Post – 26th July 1898

18. South Wales Daily News – 29th July 1898

19. South Wales Daily News - 5th Oct 1898

20. Evening Express – 7th December 1898

21. No official records yet found. The rank of lieutenant belongs to the Royal Navy, not the Merchant Navy. It is possible that Owen was paid equivalent to a lieutenant as chaplain in the Indian Transport Service.

22. 1901 Census for Devonport, Devon

23. 1901 Census for St Stephen by Launceston, Cornwall

24. In ‘A Short History of St Joseph’s Parish’ by Sandra Davies she mentions a letter from Claire Foster, the wife of Ellen King’s nephew, contesting Owen’s Will in which Ellen is described as lavishing affection on her husband.

25. Western Morning News – 27th April 1918

26. Kelly’s Directory, Devon 1919 lists Watts & Anthony, Solicitors at 4 Princess Square, Plymouth

27. Plymouth Electoral Roll, 1927

28.Western Morning News - Between 17th April 1936 and 8th December 1938

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