Wartime in Widnes: Gwyneth Rose Remembers

Wartime in Widnes: Gwyneth Rose Remembers

WARTIME IN WIDNES: GWYNETH ROSE REMEMBERS

By RON CAMPBELL
Widnes Weekly News (Cheshire, England)
June 10, 2004

PHOTO ABOVE: The Morris Family, Widnes, 1938. L to R, back row: Amy (sister), Amy (mother), Sydney, Gwyneth Rose. Front row: Gwladys.

WIDNES – Sixty years ago, former Widnes resident Gwyneth Rose Campbell first heard about the massive Allied invasion of German-occupied Europe on the radio and marveled at the “big, black headlines” in the newspapers the next day.

The tall, shy 15-year-old girl was known as Gwyneth Morris then, and she worked as a secretary for Appleton Land Co. She loved poetry, especially Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha,” which had enthralled her in Miss Ratcliffe’s English class at Fairfield Senior School. She loved Saturdays at the market by the old town hall and frequenting the little shops along Widnes Road: Ratcliffe’s bakery, Calvert’s clothing store, the stationer’s, the Co-op. She loved picking blackberries in the countryside surrounding the town and watching Widnesians bowling on the green in Victoria Park on Sundays.

She hated the war.

Campbell had spent many nights in her backyard bomb shelter during Nazi air raids, and she and her family were “fed up with rationing and skimping,” and fed up with World War II. The beginning of the end of the war finally came on June 6, 1944. D-Day. Gwyneth “just wanted the boys to come safely home.”

Her Uncle Jack (Jack Speakman), a British soldier who fought Hitler’s army on the bloody beaches of Normandy, France, came home shell-shocked. Many other sons of Widnes who fought for their country did not come home at all.

Campbell remembered wondering, when she saw her father walk down to the back gate at Greenway Road on his way to work, if she would ever see him again. Sydney Morris was a skilled tradesman at Imperial Chemical Industry, and chemical factories were among the favorite targets for the Luftwaffe, as were the docks in nearby Liverpool. Her mother, Amy Morris, tried to shield Gwyneth and her two sisters, Amy and Gwladys, from her own fears, and put up a brave front.

As horrific as the war was, though, something good came out of it that would completely change her life.

One evening shortly after D-Day, the younger Amy met an American GI named Vernon Robert Campbell at a dance. The handsome U.S. Army corporal was soon invited to the Morris home at 12 Wavertree Avenue.

“We had seen a few Americans around town; they were quite a novelty,” Campbell recalled. “To have one actually visit our home was exciting! We all liked him right away. He had a lovely voice, that American ‘drawl,’ and was so friendly and well-mannered.”

Robert Campbell, a 22-year-old supply clerk and athletic instructor, rode an old bike from his base in Warrington, Burton Woods Base Air Depot #1, to visit the Morris family many times in 1944 and 1945. Young, pretty Gwyneth Morris often deluged him with questions about the U.S.A. as he devoured the homemade chips Mrs. Morris made for him.

“The ‘spark’ was there,” Gwyneth Campbell said, but she was only 15 when their paths first crossed. Robert’s tour of duty in England lasted until January, 1946, nine months after the war in Europe ended. He rode over to 12 Wavertree on a winter afternoon to tell the family he was sailing back to the U.S., but they were visiting Gwyneth’s Auntie Evelyn (Evelyn Chamberlain, a much-loved teacher who taught for over four decades at the old Simms Cross School, where the Asda supermarket now stands).

When she discovered he had come to say goodbye while they were out, “I was so upset that I immediately sent him a friendly letter to let him know how sorry we were to miss seeing him on his last night at our house,” Campbell said.

Robert Campbell saved that letter. Among the words written neatly, in the scrawl of a teenaged girl, were these prophetic ones: “I haven’t got much to say, except that I hope we will one day meet again.”

Gwyneth saved his reply. It was written on University of Michigan stationary, where Robert was a busy student juggling courses in algebra, geometry, engineering drawing, English composition, public speaking and French. The latter turned out to be a much tougher course than he had expected.

“You should hear me studying it (French), making all sorts of grunts through my nose,” Robert wrote. “I didn’t know I had so many things in my mouth to get in the way of my tongue.”

“That was the start of a long correspondence,” Gwyneth Campbell said.

After serving in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) for three years in London, Gwyneth Morris married Robert Campbell on a windy, overcast day at St. Paul’s Church in Widnes on September 15, 1951. Gwyneth wanted to stay and live in England, but Robert had a job in the States, as a draftsman in suburban Detroit, Michigan, and felt that all the good jobs in post-war England would go to British men.

For their honeymoon, the newlyweds explored London, where they stayed at the Regent Palace Hotel and attended the Festival of Britain. Then they embarked on a one-way passage across the Atlantic on the R.M.S. Scythia. Gwyneth, 22 years old, said goodbye to her family and Widnes and began a new life in a new country.

“Our wedding day was the happiest day of my life, and the day after was the worst,” Campbell said, tearing up 53 years later as she recounted the scene at her home while she and Robert waited for the taxi that would take them to Lime Street Station in Liverpool. “Everybody was crying. That was an awfully emotional moment, leaving home. I remember my dear old dad shaking Robert’s hand and looking at him with those piercing blue eyes, straight in the eye, standing tall, and saying ‘Take care of her.’ ”

“I will,” Robert Campbell solemnly told his new father-in-law, locking eyes with him in return.

And the gentle man she affectionately called “My GI” did indeed take care of her, for almost half a century.

“It was very hard to see England’s shore retreat from view,” Campbell said about the bittersweet September day the Scythia left Southampton, bound for North America, “but my new husband was there for me. Robert and I had three wonderful sons and we were happily married for 44 years.”

Gwyneth made it back home to Widnes only four times in all the years since then. Her parents visited Michigan in 1961. Gwyneth’s mother passed away in Widnes in 1982, and her father died two years later.

Robert Campbell dabbled with technical writing, drafting, and engineering, and worked as a product designer for a company that manufactured hydraulic fittings for many years. He died in 1996 at the age of 74.

“I always missed my family, but I’d do it all over again,” said Campbell, now 75. She enjoys keeping up with her three grandchildren, reading and gardening, and maintains an elaborate collection of fine china and British memorabilia throughout her tidy home.

“I didn’t want to end up with just anyone,” she continued. “Robert was a wonderful man, a loving, caring husband and father. I couldn’t have left home for anyone else. He was my ‘Knight in Shining Armour’ and that ‘spark’ I felt in 1944 became a flame by 1950.”

As her thoughts turned once again to her beloved husband, she recalled an eloquent verse from the poem she learned in Miss Ratcliffe’s English class more than sixty years ago, beautiful words that soothed a shy, pretty girl in the midst of an ugly war:

All the wildflowers of the forest
when on earth they fade and perish
blossom in the heaven above us.

“No regrets,” Gwyneth Campbell said tenderly. “In spirit, Robert is with me still.”

–Detroit-based freelance writer Ron Campbell can be reached at roncamp22g@gmail.com.

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A Place Called Paradise

A Place Called Paradise

A PLACE CALLED PARADISE

By RON CAMPBELL
Senior Voice America
March, 2013

By the shore of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
At the doorway of his wigwam,
In the pleasant summer morning,
Hiawatha stood and waited.
All the air was full of freshness,
All the earth was bright and joyous …

PARADISE, Mich. – “Never in my wildest dreams,” the English Lady is saying over the roar of crashing waves at Whitefish Point, “did I imagine that I would one day stand at the shore of ‘Gitche Gumee’ and collect rocks for my Michigan garden.”

Against the ominous backdrop of the early rumblings of World War II in England, she had been enthralled by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” when Miss Ratcliffe recited the verses in English class. Hitler rained bombs on her childhood, but Longfellow brightened it with beautiful words about legendary characters in a beautiful land.

There was a time, during intensive Nazi air raids in 1940, when she huddled with her parents and two sisters in their backyard bomb shelter almost every night. But to the tall, shy, pretty 11-year-old girl, “It was kind of exciting. I didn’t know what it all meant.” And it was around this time that her lifelong love of poetry was sparked by the classic tale Longfellow wrote in 1855 about the noble Iroquois chieftain, Hiawatha.

If the Luftwaffe had not terrorized her country, the English Lady wouldn’t be here on this cold, windy, overcast October morning. Indeed, she probably never would have seen the awesome grandeur of Lake Superior, which Native Americans called “Gitche Gumee,” and the rest of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – affectionately known as “The Land of Hiawatha” – first-hand. The irony is not lost on her.

She met an American GI who was stationed near her hometown of Widnes, a city of chemical plants and factories in northern England, about 12 miles southeast of the busy port of Liverpool, and began exchanging countless letters with him when he returned home to Pontiac, Mich. after the war. “There was something about him that attracted me: his manners, his intelligence, his thoughtfulness; his fine qualities just came through,” she recalls fondly.

I am going, O Nokomis,
On a long and distant journey,
To the portals of the Sunset
To the regions of the home-wind …

The English Lady married the kindly U.S. Army corporal her parents had taken an immediate liking to at St. Paul’s Church in Widnes on September 15, 1951, at the age of 22. When she embarked on her honeymoon cruise across the Atlantic on the R.M.S. Scythia five days later from Southampton, she bade tearful farewells to her family, her friends – and her beloved homeland.

“Our wedding day was the happiest day of my life, and the day after was the worst,” the English Lady says, her eyes moistening as she recounts the scene at her home more than half a century ago while the newlyweds waited for the taxi that would take them to the train station in Liverpool. “Everybody was crying. That was an awfully emotional moment, leaving home. It just about broke my heart to leave everyone behind.”

The American soldier felt he had a better chance of landing a good job in the States than in battle-scarred post-war England, and that was that. She sent letters home as often as she could. Her parents passed away, her sisters raised families and her childhood friends faded into memory while she brought up three boys of her own with “my GI” in the country she’d learned about at Fairfield Senior School all those years ago. She returned to England only four times in the six decades since then.

All the wildflowers of the forest,
when on earth they fade and perish,
blossom in the heaven above us …

Her husband died in 1996, but he is never far from her thoughts. Especially not when she’s in Paradise, not when she revisits places of breathtaking beauty he introduced her to almost half a century ago.

“I remember him with every step I take through Michigan’s scenic landmarks. We enjoyed traveling to the U.P. to see the Soo Locks, the Porcupine Mountains and of course Lake Superior and the Tahquamenon Falls area. We loved walking through the woods to the falls,” the English Lady says. “I’d never seen a waterfall in the U.K. There is rugged countryside in Wales, with mountain streams cascading down rocks – water pure enough to boil for picnic tea – and Scotland and the Lake District are especially noted for their beauty. But I’d never seen a waterfall like Tahquamenon. It was a thrill to see this spot for the first time, and the association with Hiawatha made it even more so.”

In the solitary forest,
By the rushing Tahquamenaw,
When the birds were singing gayly,
In the Moon of Leaves were singing,
And the sun, from sleep awaking …

The sun has broken through the thick clouds of morning and the English Lady is now admiring the Upper Falls on this crisp afternoon in Tahquamenon Falls State Park. Glorious golden rays glisten on the swirling black water before it tumbles down into the rapids in a blend of amber and white foam. The reds, yellows, browns and greens of the surrounding forest frame and complete the picture-perfect postcard view.

“I really think fall is the best time to visit Tahquamenon,” the English Lady says, then adds wistfully: “How I wish I could have brought my mother and dad here! They would have had a tale to tell back home. Strangely, my mother also remembered parts of “The Song of Hiawatha” from her school days. And since my dad loved to walk, he would have enjoyed the trail through the park. It would really have been an earthly paradise to him.”

Beautiful is the sun, O strangers,
when you come so far to see us!
All our town in peace awaits you.
All our doors stand open for you …

According to local legend, an early logger named Curly Lewis took one look at the pristine wilderness surrounding the point where the mighty Tahquamenon River meets storied Lake Superior and had the same thought the English Lady’s father would have had: “This is paradise!” So that’s what the lumbermen named their settlement on Whitefish Bay.

Farewell!” said he, “Minnehaha!
Farewell, O my Laughing Water!
All my heart is buried with you,
All my thoughts go onward with you …”

She marvels at the magnificent myriad of colors above her head and beneath her feet as she follows the short path from the mist-shrouded overlook by the crest of the Upper Falls to the parking lot. Finally, reluctantly, she prepares to return home to Berkley after three days in Paradise, and her thoughts turn back, as they always do, to her husband.

“Maybe he was with us in spirit, as Hiawatha’s spirit lives on in this gorgeous U.P.,” the English Lady – my mother, Gwyneth Rose Campbell, formerly Gwennie Morris – says softly.

“He” is Robert Campbell, a man she never would have met if a terrible war had not ravaged her homeland, the man I will be forever grateful to for instilling in me a deep love and respect for Michigan’s “Land of Hiawatha.”

Of course the spirit of her husband was there. Of course the spirit of my father was there.

If you can’t believe that a loved one’s spirit is with you in a place called Paradise, then there’s nothing left to believe in.

Detroit-based freelance writer Ron Campbell can be reached at roncamp22g@gmail.com.

The Queen Rides in a Black Car

The Queen Rides in a Black Car

THE QUEEN RIDES IN A BLACK CAR

By RON CAMPBELL
Special to the Daily Messenger (Canandaigua, NY)
December 1, 2014

CANANDAIGUA, N.Y. — “The Queen rides in a black car,” Mum casually observes as we pull out of her suburban Detroit driveway, demonstrating the ever-so-gracious Queen Wave with exaggerated royal flair. It is June 25. Gwyneth Rose Campbell and I are heading to our much-anticipated, long-overdue rainbow family reunion in Canandaigua.

I’ve rented a shiny new black Chevy Malibu for the 360-mile drive. Compared to my rusty white van, it seems like a Rolls-Royce to her.

Mum cracks me up when she talks about “old people” as though she’s still a tall, shy, pretty teenager at Fairfield Senior School in her former hometown of Widnes, about 12 miles southeast of the busy port of Liverpool, England.

Not that the 85-years-young grandmother of four children from across the globe isn’t tall, shy and pretty still.

Hitler’s Luftwaffe rained bombs on Mum’s childhood during World War II, and she often huddled with her parents, Amy and Sydney Morris, and two sisters, Amy and Gwladys, in their backyard shelter. It seems strange to say, but if not for those bombs, the family she is heading to Canandaigua to reunite with would not exist.

Gwyneth Morris married Robert Campbell, a kindly U.S. Army corporal who befriended the Morris family while he was stationed at a base near Widnes, at St. Paul’s Church on September 15, 1951.

“Our wedding day was the happiest day of my life, and the day after was the worst,” Mum recalls wistfully. “Everybody was crying. That was an awfully emotional moment, leaving home.”

But she had to make one of those difficult decisions love often forces you to make. Robert was working as a draftsman in Detroit; all the jobs in post-war England were going to British men. Gwyneth Rose was 22 years old, and already tired of sad goodbyes.

Even so, Mum and “My G.I.” – as she fondly calls Dad – were happily married in her new country for 44 years, until he passed away in 1996. They raised my two older brothers, Rod and Rich, and me in the Detroit suburb of Berkley, Mich. Mum lovingly tended her garden, avidly kept up with news about the Royal Family and exchanged countless letters with her beloved mother and father – the grandparents I never got to know – and her dear sisters and friends on the other side of the Atlantic. But she has only been able to make it back to her homeland four times in the six decades since that tearful farewell.

When Beatlemania swept across the U.S. in 1964, Grandma Morris expressed her concerns about the four shaggy-haired, mischievous Liverpool lads in one of her posts. “I hope Americans don’t think all British boys are like that,” she wrote.

Although our family matriarch – our Queen, in her own modest way – has lived in the States for over 60 years now, she still takes tea six times a day and won’t let anyone else use her Union Jack mug. She still puts “toe-MAR-toes” in her BLTs and “harf and harf” in her coffee. She still quotes Sir Winston Churchill and her favorite poet, Rupert Brooke. And she still proudly remembers the exciting day in Berkshire in April, 1948 when her Women’s Royal Naval Service squad marched before Queen Elizabeth, later known as The Queen Mother, Elizabeth II’s mum.

The Queen rode in a black car that day.

This perfect early summer day is exciting, too. Rod, a 61-year-old software engineer, his wife Lynette and their younger daughter Alicia, 19, are driving to Canandaigua from Mt. Joy, Penn. to meet up with us.

Rich, a 59-year-old running enthusiast who holds an Sc.D in work environment policy, is coming in from suburban Boston with his wife Anne Maillet, a nurse practitioner, and their two children, 14-year-old Gabriel and 9-year-old Grace.

Rod and Lynette’s eldest daughter Carla, 22 – who couldn’t make the trip because she had an important summertime math class – and Alicia were adopted from Paraguay. Gabriel is an Aymara Indian from Bolivia. Grace came to our family from China.

None of us knew exactly when we’d all been together last; we just knew that it had been too long. So Lynette, a retired occupational therapist, masterminded a plan to rectify that last winter.

Canandaigua – “The Chosen Spot” in the Seneca Indian language – was the perfect choice as the site for our reunion, a delightful, historic resort town about a six-hour drive for each of our three family groups.

Finally, Mum and I pull up in front of Simply Crepes. The whole family is there. Smiles and hugs all around. Alicia is now a blond. Gabriel is a video game whiz. Grace is an irrepressible force of nature.

Grandma’s heart overflows with love.

For three magical days in Canandaigua, we live side by side by side at the Holiday Inn Express. We pop in and out of each other’s rooms. We share more meals in the hotel dining area, at Peppers and across Eastern Boulevard at Wegmans. We play in the sand and swim at the Canandaigua Lake beach at Kershaw Park.

Grace makes us bracelets. Grace makes us laugh. Grace makes us wish we lived closer to Boston.

We watch the U.S. lose to Germany, 1-0, in a World Cup soccer match. Mum is confused when she sees on a TV news program that the Americans have advanced to the next round despite the loss.

“I thought the U.S. was out of it now!”

“No, Mom, ENGLAND is out of it!” Rich needles her. The English team had been eliminated the week before, much to the chagrin of my cousins across the pond.

We eat lots of ice cream at Scoops.

We marvel at the beauty and grandeur of Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park. It reminds Mum of English country estates and one of her favourite television shows, “Downton Abbey.”

Most of all, we enjoy simply being together.

“Canandaigua looks so appealing along Main Street – stately old buildings and interesting shops,” Mum remarks on our last day. “But the purpose of the trip is to be with my family, and that is the highlight of this whole visit. It is great to see my three sons together again. I am very proud of my family; my grandchildren are growing up too fast for me! I hope we can do this again before too long. I wish we could all be together much more often, as time is fleeting.”

Indeed it is. All too soon, I pack up our rental and point it west on Eastern. Four lads from Liverpool serenade us over the Malibu’s stereo with a simple message for a family separated by too many miles and not enough time.

All you need is love.

The Queen rides in a black car, heading back to Detroit after yet another round of poignant goodbyes. Our Queen. She’s already dreaming about her next visit as she gives Canandaigua one last royal wave.

Detroit-based freelance writer Ron Campbell can be reached at roncamp22g@gmail.com.