Foyle College’s Norwegian Star

Trondheim Cathedral where Thoning Owesen is buried.
Trondheim Cathedral where Thoning Owesen is buried.
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In the early 1800s, four boys go from here to study in Norway while four boys come from Norway to school in Derry. It’s certainly one of the earliest examples of educational exchange I’ve ever come across and remarkable that the city should be at the heart of it.

This unusual tale comes from that far-off time when Derry sent its tall ships to the land of the midnight sun – especially Norway. It has the ring of Norwegian names we hear in Ibsen plays and the haunting melodies of the composer Greig – but most of all, it is the tale of a boy, Thoning Owesen, who came to the city and whose adopted family in Ireland broke their hearts when he left never to return.

Thoning Owesen.

Thoning Owesen.

Foyle College, originally known as the Free School, started life inside Derry’s western wall in what is now Society Street and moved to a campus just off the Strand Road in 1814. In those days, this part of the city was all but in the country and the newly installed school was surrounded by attractive gardens that stretched to the edge of the River Foyle. It was well described as occupying ‘...a grove the Foyle commanding...’

And, odd to relate, it was here that a Norwegian boy came to be schooled all those years ago. But why should a lad cross the seas from far-off Norway to Derry?

Firstly, it appears that there was considerable trading between Ireland and the Norwegian port of Trondheim in past times. Trondheim, located on a beautiful fjord, was Norway’s third city and the ports of Derry and Ballyshannon, County Donegal, were much involved in sending out local produce and taking back timber in return. Ballyshannon ships, belonging to the Allingham’s frequently docked at Derry and, eventually, one of the Allingham’s married into a Derry family.

The story properly commences when Otto Owesen, a merchant from Trondheim, visited John Allingham in Ballyshannon at the start of the 1800s. Owesen received such hospitality and got on so well with Jane, the daughter of the family, that he asked for her hand in marriage and the pair were wed in 1803. A year later, a boy was born to them in Dublin and christened Thoning after Otto Owesen’s business partner in Norway.

In 1804, Otto Owesen and Jane moved to Norway with their new baby Thoning and one of John Allingham’s sons, Edward, who was to go to college in Trondheim to learn Norwegian. In doing so, John started a trend for, in all, four boys went to study in Norway to help improve the shipping business in the north west of Ireland and, similarly, four boys from Trondheim came here to Derry to study English.

Jane loved Norway and soon won a place in the hearts and minds of the folk of Trondheim. However, Otto Owesen, now a very rich man, would soon be overcome with unbelievable grief. Firstly, a daughter, born in 1806, died within a year and, soon after, there was absolute tragedy when his beloved wife Jane succumbed to what appears to have been TB. The devastated Owesen had no immediate family to care for the young Thoning and, after much thought, it was decided to send him to his late mother’s family in Ireland.

So it was that, from the age of three, Thoning Owesen, the Norweigan boy, was brought up a young Irish man within the loving fold of the Allingham family. Sadly, his father Otto died in 1812 and had never been able to see Thoning again because the sea route to Ireland was blockaded in the British-Danish-Norwegian War (1807-1814). However, Thoning became a very wealthy young man upon his father’s death. At this stage, the boy was almost ten years old and just about to embark on his mainstream education here in Derry.

The Allinghams and Otto Owesen knew the city well and set their eyes on Foyle College as the location for Thoning’s schooling. By now, the college stood shoulder to shoulder with the finest educational institutions of the time.

There was every reason to believe that Thoning Owesen would be in good hands for the Allinghams had become in-laws of Derry man David Watt who could keep an eye on the boy’s progress. David’s nephew, AA Watt, was himself a ‘Foyle’ boy and the driving force behind the Derry whiskey company that became the biggest distiller in the world.

Thoning Owesen first saw Derry in 1813. He attended the Free School in Bishop Street and, in 1814, at eleven years of age moved to the new campus near the river. There he stayed as a boarder along with his uncle James Allingham, who, oddly enough was the same age as him. A fellow pupil was Henry Lawrence, just arrived from Ceylon and who later, with his brother John (Lawrence Hill is named after him), would govern India’s Punjab.

Thoning studied at ‘Foyle’ for five years and left at the age of sixteen in 1819, returning to Trondheim the following year to be welcomed by all his father’s old friends. It was a short sojourn but enkindled within him the desire to do something special in the land of his ancestors.

Two years later, having come of age, he moved permanently from Ireland to Norway and, with the help of a friend of his father’s, tied up all the loose ends of his inheritance. A memoir of the time talks of him speaking Norwegian with an Irish accent.

Yet, mystery remains in why he never returned to Ireland and the Allinghams. They broke their hearts whenever he left. But is there a clue in a quarrel over finance with his uncle Edward Allingham? They had been the best of friends but Thoning maintained outstanding monies were owed to him and that Edward failed to address these.

As a result, there appears to have been a breakdown in relations. Yet, whether this developed into a wider dispute is not known for Thoning continued to keep up correspondence with the other family members.

Thoning’s business, including his farm, continued to prosper and he became well known in public life in Norway through serving on several prestigious bodies. In his remaining years Thoning Oweson led a subdued existence and became very religious. He never married. Instead, he devoted all his time to charitable works, to helping the poor and supporting the missions.

His religion was Lutheran and he built a church in Trondheim that still stands to this day. Not long before his death he made preparations that were to make him one of Norway’s outstanding benefactors. Firstly, he opened a home for women living in poor conditions.

Next, he built schools for boys and girls and finally he provided an institution for the blind, the only one of its kind in Norway at the time and still flourishing today. His will also contained financial bequests for his beloved Allinghams in Ireland.

A hundred carriages and vast crowds attended Thoning Owesen’s funeral and on the gravestone of the boy who attended ‘Foyle’ and walked the streets of Derry was written: ‘He brought light to those in darkness; help for those who lost their way.’

The Foyle College book will be launched in the ‘Old Foyle’ building, Lawrence Hill, on Friday, March 8.