Theirs were some of the most heart-rending tales of the 20th century.
Families pulled apart by war and fear, children taken from their parents in bomb-torn cities like Sheffield and evacuated to the countryside to be spared the Nazi blitz.
Some evacuees – school-age children sent away from the air-raid threatened cities of WWII to live with families in rural areas – had hard and work-dominated lives away from their families.
But for Derrick and Mavis Godley September 1939 and ‘Operation Pied Piper’ was the beginning of a lifelong love and a friendship that only ended this month with the death of their ‘War Mum’ Olive at the age of 96. Now aged 79 Mavis tells the Star her emotional story and asks: “Am I the last surviving Sheffield evacuee?”
Mavis and her brother Derrick’s story begins in two very different classrooms.
The first was at Morley Street School, Hillsborough, where five-year old Mavis and Derek, then aged seven, were first told they could be sent away.
The second was in the village of Oxton in rural Nottinghamshire, where they stood along with other children and waited to be chosen by a family willing to take them in.
They were only 40 miles from home but a world away from everything they knew.
They stood, clinging to each other, refusing to be separated, as child after child was chosen and marched off to a new home.
In the end they were the only two left and through his tears big brother Derrick told everyone he would not be separated from his sister.
Then, in walked Olive Rowlston. “I can still remember the feeling as Derrick and I stood there in tears holding on to each other, we were not going be split up,” said Mavis in her Hillsborough home.
“But I can see Olive now as she walked into the room.
“She just came over and put her arms round us both and said: ‘Don’t cry, I’ll take you home and look after you both, you’ll be alright with me and Cyril.’ And we were.
“We loved Olive straight away and loved being in the country.
“We soon settled in and school was fine. Our mum and dad used to come and see us every couple of months and they came and stayed at Christmas, Olive and Cyril slept downstairs so they could have their bed.
“I remember us running down the street to meet our mum and dad when they got off the charabanc. I can’t really describe how we felt, having two families was strange and we loved them both.”
Life in Oxton was a relief from air-raid threatened Sheffield.
“We could play out until it was dark and there was no fear of air raids,“ said Mavis, who worked at Middlewood Hospital until she retired.
“Derrick would be climbing trees and playing conkers, we could go for long walks. It was idyllic in many ways.
“Cyril was a master builder and he used to grow vegetables in the garden and Olive cooked and looked after us. Cyril was in the cricket team and we would watch them play on the village green and we would play ball on the sidelines.
“We would take a picnic tea, you wouldn’t have know there was a war on.”
After two years the Godley children returned home and, like life for many evacuees, things were never quite the same again.
“I was heartbroken to leave Olive and Cyril and our mum and dad were so thrilled to see us. I remember us hugging when we got back but there were still bombs dropping and sirens going all the time in Sheffield and we couldn’t get out of the house much.
“I can’t really describe how it felt to be back, happy on the one hand but really sad on the other.”
Derrick and Mavis and their family stayed in touch with Olive and Cyril over the decades, visiting a couple of times a year and writing letters. “Later, when I had my own kids I would take them and my mum to visit around four times a year,” said mum of five Mavis whose husband Peter died in 1992.
“They all loved her and remember her with affection, you couldn’t not love Olive. I went to see her and kept in touch with Olive right up until the end. Cyril died just over ten years ago and Olive was in a home for ten years and dementia took her last few years.
“I couldn’t get to see her much then because I was taking care of my partner Graham who was suffering from cancer. He died in October last year. Derrick died in 2011 but that experience made us really close, neither of us ever forgot that day when we clung to each other in a strange place.”
Before time and age took its full toll on her ‘War Parents’, Mavis wrote a poem in 1989 to commemorate 50 years since the day she and Derrick were evacuated.
“They were so thrilled with it, I sent it in a card. When Cyril read it he cried and went round the village showing people who remembered us.
“I think he showed it to everyone in the village.
“It was read out at their anniversary and again last week at Olive’s funeral in Mansfield,“ added Mavis.
“Olive didn’t have any children of her own but she had nieces and nephews who were pleased to see us.
“I would have hitch-hiked to get to the funeral if I’d had to but my daughter took me.”
“I’m so proud I stayed in touch and I’m so grateful. I will never forget the happiness and love they gave to the two frightened and crying children they took in all those years ago.”
Were you an evacuee from wartime Sheffield? If you or your family were affected by the evacuation tell us your story. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org or The Star, York Street, Sheffield S1 1PU.
1939-1989 – 50 years
It is with pride
we both remember
the year thirtynine
the month September.
Although its fifty years ago
and we were very small
we loved you then
we love you now
as we have grown so tall.
The day you took us home with you,
your “home” you let us share
Thank you dears for all your love
and thank you for your care.
To us you’re both so special,
this year we can’t let pass,
without some recognition
from the Sheffield “lad and lass”
So from Derrick and me your war
evacuees we’re proud to say....
you’re our special “war parents”
from that September day!