William Morrison Cowan

Sir John Cowan LL.D., D.L., only son of Rev. John Cowan, B.A., born 12th Dec. 1844, died 7th Feb. 1929; Marion Dickson Wallace, his wife, born 15th Sep. 1851, died 14th Aug. 1932; their children: Elizabeth Gertrude Mathewson, born 19th Jan. 1875, died 24th Nov. 1910; Robert Wallace Cowan, born 24th June 1881, died 10th April 1882; James Marshall Cowan, B.A. Cantab, born 22nd June 1873, died 2nd Aug. 1912; William Morison Cowan, Lt. The Royal Scots, born 7th Nov. 1895, died 5th June 1919; Agnes Marshall Cowan, M.B., Ch.B., M.C.O.G. of Manchuria, born 19th April 1880, died 22nd Aug. 1940; Jessie Helen Hislop, born 16th Feb. 1888, died 13th Aug. 1951; George Middleton Cowan, M.C., born 20th April 1891, died 15th May 1952; Margaret Marshall Matheson, born 1st March 1876, died 8th Oct. 1959; Mary Blandford, born 8th Dec. 1883, died 9th Oct. 1961; John Alexander Cowan, born 19th April 1878, died 30th Nov, 1967.

Base. Alice Marion Cowan, born 3rd Aug. 1886, died 20th Dec. 1969; Andrew Wallace Cowan, J.P., F.R.S.A., born 7th March 1877, died 28th Nov. 1964; and his wife Charlotte Mervyna Pillman born 29th Oct. 1883, died 28th July 1962.

CWGC: Lieutenant William Morrison Cowan, Royal Scots, 1st/4th attd. 1st/7th Bn.; died 5 June 1919.  I 179

William Morison Cowan was born on 7 November 1895, the youngest of the 12 children of John Cowan (1844-1929) and his wife Marion Dickson Wallace (1851-1932).  John Cowan was the son of another John Cowan (1805-1878) and his wife Margaret Marshall (c.1808-1886), who married in September 1831 before leaving for Jamaica where John Cowan was a United Presbyterian Church missionary from 1832 until 1854.  John and Margaret Cowan had six daughters all born in Jamaica and their son John who was born at sea off Jamaica as his parents were returning from a visit to Scotland.  When the family returned permanently to Scotland John and Margaret settled in Stow, Midlothian, with Margaret’s recently widowed brother-in-law, Thomas Stewart, a substantial tenant farmer.  Their children, however, settled in Edinburgh with their uncle, James Marshall (1795-1873) and his wife Agnes Young (c.1806-1901).  James and Agnes don’t appear to have had any children of their own but always had a houseful of relatives in the various censuses.  Margaret Marshall or Cowan moved to Edinburgh after both her brother-in-law and her husband died in the autumn of 1878.

James Marshall was an iron merchant who had started as an apprentice in the firm of Redpath, Brown & Co. in 1811 and by February 1861, when he celebrated 50 years with the company, was the senior partner.  John Cowan joined the firm as an apprentice in 1860 and was taken into partnership in 1868.  In the 1871 census he was recorded as an iron merchant employing 30 men and 16 boys.  Under his control the business moved from ironmongery to structural steel engineering on a major scale.  As well as being a successful business man he was active in temperance work, served briefly on Edinburgh Town council, being elected for Calton Ward in 1906, and was an elder of Rosehall United Free Church.  He was knighted in the 1915 New Year Honours.  Not surprisingly in view of his parentage, he was a supporter of missionary work and one of his daughters, Agnes Marshall Cowan (1880-1940), studied medicine at Edinburgh University and worked as a medical missionary in China for many years.

William Morison Cowan was educated at George Watson’s College where he was a member of the Officer Training Corps (O.T.C.) 1910-1914.  He joined the 4th Royal Scots (Queen’s Edinburgh Rifles) Territorial Force on the outbreak of war and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1915 and Lieutenant in 1916.  The 4th Royal Scots embarked from Liverpool in May 1915 and arrived in Gallipoli in June.  For a time in 1915 they formed a composite battalion with the 7th Royal Scots as a result of the heavy losses they had both suffered.  They were evacuated to Egypt in January 1916 and took over the defence of the Suez Canal before moving on to Palestine and then in April 1918 to France.  Cowan was wounded in Egypt in 1916.  He returned from active service after the end of the war intending to study engineering but died at home, 6 Salisbury Road, on 5 June 1919. The cause of death on his death certificate reads “Carbuncle & Cellulitis of neck 10 days Infarct of Right Lung”, essentially a bacterial infection leading to tissue death and a fatal combination which years later could have been treated with antibiotics.  

At least two of William’s three surviving brothers also served in the war – George Middleton Cowan (1891-1952), an engineer working for Redpath Brown Ltd., had enlisted in the 4th Royal Scots Territorial Force in 1910 and also saw active service in Gallipoli and Egypt (1915-1916) and John Alexander Cowan (1878-1967), was a Lieutenant in the 11th Service Battalion of the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment and served in France, landing in Havre on 5 May 1916 and being wounded in 1916.  Their sister, Agnes Marshall Cowan (1880-1940), qualified as a doctor in 1906 and from 1910 to 1917 worked as a United Free Church medical missionary in China, including between 1915 and 1917 at Mukden Medical College with Dugald Christie, who is also buried here in the Grange Cemetery (see More Notables).  Agnes returned home in 1917 and worked as Assistant Medical Officer at the huge explosives factory at Gretna, April 1917- 1918. She went back to Manchuria in May 1919 and worked there for thirty years, returning home in March 1940 only a few months before she died.

Edinburgh News, Sat. 16 Feb. 1861, p. 4, James Marshall jubilee 

The Scotsman, 8 Feb. 1929, obituary of Sir John Cowan

https://www.devilsporridge.org.uk/agnesmarshallcowan (Devils Porridge was the name given to the mixture of nitroglycerin and gun-cotton used to produce cordite at the Gretna factory)