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 email@example.com.