WILLIAM SOWMAN – WW1 medal offered by Australian collector to Nelson’s SOWMAN family.  

2/2915 – WILLIAM SOWMAN    

Quite out of the blue a few months ago I received an unsolicited email from an Australian resident medal collector (AMC – an ex-pat Kiwi).  AMC had seen my Medals Reunited NZ website and was very supportive of the work we do.  As a result AMC offered me the opportunity to reunite any of over 400 New Zealand medals in his collection with a descendant of any of the recipients, who contacted me looking for their ancestor’s lost/missing medals.   

Wow ! … I was stunned … what an opportunity for some lucky families.  I was highly delighted to have this opportunity and eagerly accepted.  AMC as a long standing collector saw this as an opportunity to down-sized his burgeoning collection whilst also being able to recover his initial outlay.  AMC was surprised other collectors had not considered a similar offer – nothing to lose, and everything to gain ?  

The medals AMC offered me were all named to New Zealanders who had served in NZ Land Wars, NZ Militia/Permanent Forces, Boer War and the NZEF.  Provided a claimant/descendant could satisfy me with proof of their entitlement through their ancestry, address, and proof of their identity (photographic + birth/marriage certificate), I would be able to offer them a unique opportunity that most veteran’s families will never get.  AMC also advised that descendants who do not accept an offer of any of the medals listed when it is made, are unlikely to have the opportunity again to recover them back into their families!   

I scanned the list and immediately recognized a well known name from Nelson (my location), that of “SOWMAN” – a name well known throughout the Nelson, Tasman and Marlborough regions.  The Sowman family ancestors were early immigrant to Canterbury and migrated to the Nelson area in the early 1840s.  They had been instrumental in breaking in the Maitai Valley in Nelson as well as becoming well established brewers in the fledgling towns of both Nelson and Blenheim.    

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2/2915 Gnr. William Sowman – KIA France, 1916

A British War Medal impressed to, 2/2915 Gnr. William SOWMAN of Nelson, was available and would undoubtedly find a home with one of the numerous Sowman descendants still residing in the region.

William Sowman (‘Bill’ as he was known) came from a large family of 10 children – 5 boys and 5 girls – born to Arthur SOWMAN (a labourer) and his wife Mary Ann WILKS.  The Sowman’s established themselves at 136 Collingwood Street in Nelson where both Bill and his younger brother Halstead (Hal) had been born in 1891 and 1892 respectively. Being only a matter of months apart in age, Bill was said to be very close to and protective of his brother Hal.  The house in Collingwood Street was the center of Sowman family life and would remain the focus for many a happy and sad occasion.  It was the one constant through the trials and tribulations as the family grew and remained so for the duration of Arthur and Mary’s lives.  

Bill Sowman went to work as soon as he was old enough to swing an axe, pick and shovel. The six foot (and one half inch!) lad went to live and work with his father’s Arthur’s brother, uncle Walter Sowman who had secured a large tract of native bush in the Maitai Valley and became known as the “Richardson (or Maitai) Run”.  Bill, Walter and his family, together with local hired help slowly cleared the native bush to create essential productive farmland for the new settlement.   During this work Bill watched with interest the surveyors at work and soon decided that that was the job he wanted to do.  He soon ‘climbed onto the first rung of the ladder’ to become a qualified surveyor by relocating to Murchison where he was taken on as a Surveyor’s Assistant. 

Hal Sowman in the meantime had taken up work as a Printers Machinist which was cut short by ill-health after his lungs became affected by the lead.  He had by then married Annie MILLARD however had to quit his printing job.  Hal was eventually able to secure long term work with the Nelson Harbour Board working on the wharves until his retirement – he died in 1966.

Halstead (left) and William Sowman, c 1910

The First World War for most young male New Zealanders had started in Turkey with the Gallipoli Landings on 25 April 1915.  As the war expanded into Europe reinforcements were balloted for service and so it was only a matter of time before 24 year old bachelor Bill Sowman  was ‘Called to the Colours’ to fight for King and Country in France.  With trepidation and excitement he, along with many others from Nelson, enlisted on 16 November 1915 and shortly after proceeded to Trentham Camp.  Bill’s experience as a Surveyors Assistant stood him in good stead for Artillery service – he was enlisted in the 10th NZ Field Artillery where his survey skills would prove most useful for gun laying and positioning.

Gnr. Bill Sowman embarked for Suez on 03 Mar 1916 aboard the Willochra  (HMNZT 47) and arrived at Port Said, Egypt on April 10th.  Having completed the standard orientation and indoctrination training at Zeitoun Camp, Gnr. Sowman’s  first step to fighting in the field was his deployment from Port Said to the NZ Infantry Base Depot at Etaples, located on the northwest coast of France.  Etaples was a very large multi-nation base camp comprising administration, accommodation and hospital facilities through which all troops of the Empire passed on their way to and from France and the Western Front.

On 11 July 1916 Gnr. Sowman joined his NZFA unit in the field – 7th Battery, 1st NZ Field Artillery Brigade, for his first taste of combat.

After three months with 7 Bty, Gnr. Sowman was just hitting his straps as an effective gun number (crew man) and gun layer when suddenly his number came up.  Gnr. William – Bill – Sowman was Killed In Action instantly by an enemy artillery shell burst on 15 September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.  Gnr. Sowman was 25 years and 4 months old (headstone states 26) when his remains were buried in the Montauban Quarry Cemetery on the Somme, France.

For his war service Gnr. William Sowman was posthumously awarded the 1914-18 British War Medal and the Victory Medal.  These medals together with a Memorial (‘Death’) Plaque and Scroll that commemorated his service and death were sent to his still bereft parents and brother Hal, at their Collingwood Street home in 1920.

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Being a well known family in the Nelson-Marlborough region there was no shortage of historical references I could source to determine descendants.  Once I had crossed referred a number of Ancestry family trees and eliminated those with duplication, I could then follow the Electoral Rolls up to 1981 and then the telephone White Pages which, after a few phone calls, led me directly to William Sowman’s direct descendant, his great-nephew Wayne – grandson of Walter Sowman (“Richardson Run”). 

I contacted Wayne who was able to confirm his links to William Sowman in detail, thanks to the good work of Robert Sowman, the family genealogist who has published in book on the Sowman ancestry in New Zealand.  The photograph of Hal and Bill Sowman (above) appear in the book at the entry for William Sowman.

Gnr. William Sowman’s British War Medal is now on its way from Australia to a very surprised and delighted Wayne and Julie Sowman.  Wayne has advised me it will likely be presented to the Nelson Museum as part of a collection of Sowman family artifacts dispalyed there.

My thanks to AMC for his generosity which I am sure other NZ families will benefit from in the future.

The reunited medal tally is now 98.

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