Sister completes lifelong mission to reunite family torn apart 70 years ago in Sheffield

Finally together again: Doreen and Michael
Finally together again: Doreen and Michael
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A doting sister has finally completed her lifelong mission to reunite the family which was torn apart more than 70 years ago in Sheffield.

For years, all Doreen Coopland had to remind her of her little brother Michael was a fading black-and-white photo of him taken during a trip to the seaside in the summer of 1946, when he was aged just two.

Doreen, Sandra and Michael

Doreen, Sandra and Michael

The chubby toddler at the heart of that holiday snapshot looks like he doesn't have a care in the world, but his beaming smile belies the trauma he and his siblings had endured.

Just months earlier, welfare workers had turned up at his family's filthy, flea-ridden home after receiving a tip-off from concerned neighbours.

They took Michael and his six older brothers and sisters from their tearful mother Rosie Gower, who was heavily pregnant with her eighth child.

The older children were taken to Fulwood Cottage Care Homes, while the youngest, Michael and Sandra, ended up in Thornsett Lodge at Bradfield.

Doreen shortly after being taken into care, aged 10

Doreen shortly after being taken into care, aged 10

Doreen, the eldest child, would see Michael again but only occasionally before losing touch when he was placed into foster care and later adopted.

She was determined to reunite her brothers and sisters, all of whom she managed to track down with the exception of Michael, who remained elusive.

An emotional appeal in The Star eight years ago failed to pay dividends and, with her health failing, she had given up hope of ever finding the brother who was like a son to her.

That was until a few weeks ago when Michael's son Simon spotted the article online while researching his family history and made contact with Doreen's niece Linda.

Rosie and Harry Gower on their wedding day

Rosie and Harry Gower on their wedding day

She broke the news her aunt had waited so long to hear - Michael was alive and well and living only a few miles away in Wath-upon Dearne, near Rotherham.

"When Linda came to tell me and my daughter about Michael, big tears came out. I got in touch and told him to come as quickly as he could," said Doreen.

"I thought he must have been dead, otherwise he would have seen the article all those years ago and known we were trying to find him."

Sandra, who is now aged 74 and lives in Nottinghamshire, is the only other surviving sibling.

Doreen and Sandra during a trip to the seaside

Doreen and Sandra during a trip to the seaside

But Doreen believes the others - Iris, Rita, Irene, Gordon and the youngest Valerie - who died aged just six months - would be overjoyed to know the reunion had finally taken place, as would her late mother.

"We've got a complete family again. Michael was the one piece missing," says the retired nurse, who will turn 83 this month, and having had four children is now a grandmother and great-grandmother 25 times over.

"The others would be over the moon to know we've found Michael, as would my mum, who was a good woman but was absolutely worn out from childbirth."

Doreen and her younger siblings have nothing but compassion for their mother Rosie, who was convinced she would be able to get her children back once circumstances changed for the better.

Exhausted from the strains of childbirth and the frequent beatings her alcoholic husband Harry would dish out, she was unable to look after her children properly. While he frittered away his meager earnings on beer, his family scraped by on a diet consisting largely of bread and lard.

Rosie regularly visited her children after they were removed from her care but would die, aged 34, within a couple of years of losing them.

Doreen says she is determined never to lose touch with Michael, having finally found him

Doreen says she is determined never to lose touch with Michael, having finally found him

Doreen left care aged 18 to work as a home help for a family in Hackenthorpe. She was married within a year and went on to work as a nurse, first at Northern General Hospital and then in the community.

Michael was bought up by foster carers in Southey, and later took the surname Holmes when they adopted him.

He signed up to the Navy shortly before turning 16 and sailed the seas for 11 years before joining what is now South Yorkshire Police, with whom he spent the remainder of his working life, retiring as a sergeant.

He married his late wife Yvonne after being set up on a blind date by a former Navy crew mate. They had two children together and Michael is now a grandfather-of-three.

Michael, now aged 73, had no memory of his elder siblings or the harrowing childhood they had endured together.

"I never knew the full story about what happened to me. I knew my real name and that I had sisters and a brother, but that's all," he said.

"I'd always thought I was the only one taken into care, so I assumed the others didn't want me.

"It was amazing to meet them after all these years. I'm still coming to terms with it all really.

"We get on well but it's strange because they're my sisters yet they're like strangers. I have no memory of them at all."

Michael is still getting to know the names of his many nieces and nephews, most of whom he has yet to meet.

But although they are still getting to know one another, listening to him and Doreen chatting away at her home in Darnall it's hard to believe they were ever parted.

They might have been reunited much sooner, but fate seemed determined to keep them apart.

Doreen recalls how many years ago Michael's adoptive mother Olive had been a patient at Northern General Hospital when, recognising the family resemblance, she told her 'I think I have one of your mother's children, Michael'.

Doreen was delighted and asked Olive to give Michael her details so he could get in touch, but the message was never passed on.

Michael also remembers playing in Parson Cross as a boy when a stranger came up to him and said 'I'm your auntie'. He would later learn this was his mother's sister Eva, but having been only seven or eight at the time he gave the encounter little thought back then.

Michael's mum was incapable of looking after him and Sandra, so the duty fell to Doreen, who would fetch water and coal for the house and nurture her younger siblings.

She felt like a mother to the pair, making the pain of losing Michael for so long even more unbearable, and the joy of finding him extra special.

"I took the place of our mother when I was nine. Michael was my baby. I fed him and washed him, as I did for Sandra," she said.

"Having taken so long to find him, I keep telling him there's no way we're ever losing touch again."

Michael (centre) with other children in care, during a trip to the seaside in the summer of 1946

Michael (centre) with other children in care, during a trip to the seaside in the summer of 1946

Doreen (back row, fourth from left) and the other youngsters at Fulwood's Cottage 15

Doreen (back row, fourth from left) and the other youngsters at Fulwood's Cottage 15

Doreen in 2009 with the book she wrote about her traumatic childhood

Doreen in 2009 with the book she wrote about her traumatic childhood

Doreen aged 18, preparing to leave Fulwood Cottage Homes

Doreen aged 18, preparing to leave Fulwood Cottage Homes