Owen was born on 18 March 1893 at Plas Wilmot, a house in Weston Lane, near Oswestry in Shropshire. He was the eldest of Thomas and (Harriett) Susan Owen (née Shaw)'s four children; his siblings were Mary Millard, (William) Harold, and Colin Shaw Owen. When Wilfred was born, his parents lived in a comfortable house owned by his grandfather, Edward Shaw.
After Edward's death in January 1897, and the house's sale in March, the family lodged in the back streets of Birkenhead. There Thomas Owen temporarily worked in the town employed by a railway company. Thomas transferred to Shrewsbury in April 1897 where the family lived with Thomas' parents in Canon Street.
Thomas Owen transferred back to Birkenhead, again in 1898 when he became stationmaster at Woodside station. The family lived with him at three successive homes in the Tranmere district, They then moved back to Shrewsbury in 1907. Wilfred Owen was educated at the Birkenhead Institute and at Shrewsbury Technical School (later known as the Wakeman School).
Owen discovered his poetic vocation in about 1904 during a holiday spent in Cheshire. He was raised as an Anglican of the evangelical type, and in his youth was a devout believer, in part due to his strong relationship with his mother, which lasted throughout his life. His early influences included the Bible and the "big six" of romantic poetry, particularly John Keats.
Owen's last two years of formal education saw him as a pupil-teacher at the Wyle Cop school in Shrewsbury. In 1911 he passed the matriculation exam for the University of London, but not with the first-class honours needed for a scholarship, which in his family's circumstances was the only way he could have afforded to attend.
In return for free lodging, and some tuition for the entrance exam (this has been questioned) Owen worked as lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden near Reading, living in the vicarage from September 1911 to February 1913. During this time he attended classes at University College, Reading (now the University of Reading), in botany and later, at the urging of the head of the English Department, took free lessons in Old English. His time spent at Dunsden parish led him to disillusionment with the Church, both in its ceremony and its failure to provide aid for those in need.
From 1913 he worked as a private tutor teaching English and French at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux, France, and later with a family. There he met the older French poet Laurent Tailhade, with whom he later corresponded in French. When war broke out, Owen did not rush to enlist - and even considered the French army - but eventually returned to England.