Heartbroken mother Ethel Fell went to her grave not knowing exactly where her only son was killed during the Second World War.
His photograph adorned her mantelpiece for more than 40 years after his tragic death in a plane crash and she finally embraced her own demise in the belief she would be reunited with him.
But now, decades after Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve Midshipman Gordon Fell died, a picture of his life is beginning to emerge thanks to the endeavours of a team of scuba divers.
The 19-year-old navigator, who was engaged to be married, died alongside his two fellow crewmen when their Royal Navy Grumman Avenger crashed in the Lake District during a night-time exercise from RNAS Inskip in Lancashire on January 16, 1945.
More about the crew has been unearthed since a team from the Keighley branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) found the engine in Wastwater earlier this year.
Publicity about the find and an appeal by club member Graham Clay for information have revealed Mr Fell’s mother, Ethel, was close to three sisters, Christine Purves, Sue Ripley and Judith Hodgson, who grew up next door-but-one to her home in Accrington.
Christine, who now lives in Leeds, was contacted by someone who spotted Gordon’s name in the publicity and had seen a reference to it on Christine’s ancestry website.
“I think for Ethel my dad was the son she had lost,” said Christine, who knew her neighbour as ‘Auntie’ Ethel. “I was conceived two weeks after my parents married and Ethel took a growing interest when she knew my mum was pregnant. She had a hard life. Her own mother died when she was two and she had a stepmother she hated. She started work in the mill at the age of 12.
“Although she was not a blood relative we were incredibly close to her and loved her very much. She was always at our house, babysitting and spent every Christmas with us.”
Ethel, who lost her husband Richard in 1955 to cancer, never got over the death of her son.
Christine, 60, said: “She missed Gordon very much but I don’t think any of us quite appreciated just how much. She lived very frugally and I think her house must have looked much the same as it did when Gordon was alive; she always kept his picture on the mantelpiece. Gordon died on January 16 but Ethel was notified of his death the day after, which was her birthday. His death is registered in Millom and Ethel always said that was where he died which was why the article about the find in Wastwater was such a surprise.
“Ethel would have been thrilled to find out so much more about the accident. It seems awful to say but the tragedy brought her into our family whereas if Gordon had lived, and probably had a family of his own, I suspect she would not have been as close to us.”
Ethel died in 1989, aged 89. During the last year of her life she had a problem with her leg which developed into gangrene.
Christine said: “She was advised to have it amputated but refused because she wanted to die so that she would be reunited with Gordon. Apparently when my sister Sue went to visit her in hospital she became upset because Ethel looked so poorly. My auntie said, ‘Now don’t look so sad, I’m ready to go now’.
“She often spoke about Gordon and it was her dying wish to be reunited with him in the afterlife.”
Ethel is now buried with her son and husband.
Christine and her sisters hope to be able to make the trip to the site of the wreckage when club members dive there again in spring.