The sub-title of Relative Strangers by Hunter Davies is ‘A history of adoption and a tale of triplets’ and it is a fascinating read if you are at all interested in family history and adoption. Yes, there is some history, but Davies keeps you turning the pages by telling in parallel the story of three babies, triplets, separated at their birth in 1932.
May 18, 1932. Kate Hodder gives birth to triplets – rare in those pre-IVF days – and dies the next day. Her husband, jobbing gardener Wills, is left with the three babies plus six older children. He cannot cope. Two go to live with grandparents, and four go to Barnardo’s. The triplets are adopted separately, with seemingly no effort made to keep them together. They live their lives, until finally reunited in 2001. The process of their lives, the changes to adoption law, and the roles of real people such as Thomas Barnardo and Pam Hodgkins, founder of adoption counselling service NORCAP, is told seamlessly by Davies.
Florence was the first to be adopted. Aged eight months, she went to live in Devon. Adopted by Emily Davy, a single mother who ran a guest house, Florence’s name was changed to Gill. She had a happy, secure childhood. She found out she was adopted aged 13, told in the playground at school.
May was adopted aged two, and her name changed to Helena Mary. Adopted by a clergyman and his wife, along with another adopted girl Pam. From the beginning, Helena knew she was adopted, knew she was one of triplets. But information was minimal.
John William was adopted last of the three, at the age of three and a half, by a grocer in Beverley, Yorkshire. His name was changed to David, he was not told by his parents that he was adopted.
This is an easy read about a fascinating subject, Hunter Davies handles the complicated storyline with ease. BUY
Emmeline Pankhurst was a key figure in the UK women’s suffrage movement in the early twentieth century. Founder of the WSPU [the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union], dedicated to ‘deeds not words’, it used action to gain the attention of political decision-makers. Windows were smashed, police officers assaulted. Pankhurst was a controversial figure, imprisoned repeatedly where they staged hunger strikes and were force fed.
What is not so widely known is Pankhurst’s support for women during the Great War, and the plight of war babies born to single women and fathers who were away fighting. Pankhurst established an adoption home at Campden Hill in West London. She was criticised at the time for supporting the parents of children born out of wedlock, but Pankhurst declared the welfare of the children was her only concern. Pankhurst saw the poverty of single mothers in her work as a Poor Law Guardian, part of the work of the board of guardians, the authorities which administered the Poor Law in the UK from 1835 to 1930.
Pankhurst herself went on to adopt four children, who she renamed Kathleen King, Flora Mary Gordon, Joan Pembridge and Elizabeth Tudor. They lived in Holland Park, London. She famously commented when asked how, at the age of 57 and with no steady income, she could take on the burden of bringing up four more children, Pankhurst said: ‘My dear, I wonder I didn’t take forty.’
The agony of birth parents and children separated for decades is explored by the UK television programme Long Lost Family which aims to reunite adult adopted children with their birth families. Anchored by popular presenters Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell [below] it is particularly poignant for Campbell who was himself adopted as a young child.
The series is incredibly popular in the UK. It concentrates on the emotional stories of children and parents, rather than the nuts and bolts of the search. Some of the interviews are heartrending. The programme is sensitive to the emotional difficulties on all sides of the adoption triangle, no judgements are made about the past, the emphasis is on reunion where possible and emotional healing.
Here is Helen Harrison’s story. Helen tried to find her child for years. In 1977, at the age of 16, she fell pregnant. She hid the condition for five months. When her father found out, he turned her out of the house. “I can remember him just looking at me and saying, ‘Just get out, just get out…’” In the UK in the 1970s, local councils were obliged to provide housing for women in Helen’s situation, but Helen describes the flat she was given was ‘undesirable’ for raising a family.
Helen didn’t know what to do but her father offered a solution, asking her: “What sort of life are you going to offer to a child on your own? There are people out there who desperately want to love a baby.” So she agreed that when the child was born, it would be given up for adoption. “I’m having this baby for someone else,” she thought. “It’s going to be so much better for him.” When the baby boy was born, she called him Antony. “It was the most heart-breaking thing to have to do.” She wrote a letter to him then, at his birth, explaining that she gave him away in order for him to have a better life, and that she would always love him.
She didn’t receive a reply from Antony and had no idea if he had read her words. “I don’t think he’s read the letter,” she told the television programme. Why did Anthony not answer the letter – did he not receive it, did he not know he was adopted, or was the time not right? She writes a second letter for the Long Lost Family team to give to Anthony, should they find him.
In fact Antony, re-named David, had not received the letter. He had been told of his adoption, when he was nine, by his adopted parents. At the news he remembers being terrified a stranger would arrive on the doorstep and take him away. He had a happy childhood. He is traced by Long Lost Family who give him Helen’s new letter. He agrees to meet her and writes a letter in reply. The first thing Helen asks when she hears the team have found Antony is “Is he happy?” She reads aloud David’s letter which starts: “The first and most important thing I want you to know is that whatever the circumstances surrounding the adoption were, I will never be angry, bitter or resentful.”
Helen, who for decades when asked the question ‘how many sons do you have?’ had thought ‘three’ in her head but spoken ‘two’, finally gets to meet her lost son. “I couldn’t imagine the day that I would meet my baby.”
After broadcast, Helen realised the television programme had showed a slightly different version of the events to the one she and her family experienced and, in 2020, she reflects on the passage of time. “My dad was the most loving caring dad anyone could have. He was deeply upset when his 16-year old daughter found herself pregnant by a boy she would never consider being married to. Yes, he did tell me to get out but he never told me I couldn’t come back home. It’s true the social worker I had told me that I would end up living in a high rise flat, but I never went or considered living there with Dave. It was solely my decision to look on my pregnancy as a surrogacy, and I truly believe Dave (Antony) had the right to two loving parents.” After the reunion, Helen now sees Dave, his wife and children once a month. “We are so alike in many things I truly believe it nature over nurture. We didn’t do the Long Lost Family follow-up programmes as we had achieved a normal mother-son relationship. Also Dave has an adopted sister who didn’t want to think of anyone else as her ‘mother’ other than the Mum who brought her up. Plus, we didn’t want any misinterpretation to happen to rock the smooth ride we are on now. “I definitely made the right choice back in 1977. Dave had two loving parents, a good life and was loved unconditionally. I went on to meet my husband after going back to work one month after Antony was born. We married and went on to have two sons. As a 17-year old girl, the hardest thing I have ever done in my life was to walk away from a hospital without my baby and then live in absolute hope that I had made the right decision for him. It was done without counselling of any kind. I’m sure it must have had some effect on me – though I’m not aware it stopped me being me – but I can tell you the absolute fulfilment I feel knowing I can be with all three of my children knowing they are all happy safe and living good lives.”
To read a fictional story involving adoption, try Ignoring Gravity first in the ‘Identity Detective’ series. Rose Haldane is confident about her identity. She pulls the same face as her grandfather when she has to do something she doesn’t want to do, she knows her DNA is the same as his. Except it isn’t: because Rose is adopted and doesn’t know it. BUY THE BOOK
The arrangement to adopt a baby came about by a chance meeting at a bus stop. One day Terri Heron, married and childless, met a priest while waiting for the bus. They started chatting and when he heard that Terri had no children, the priest asked if she had ever considered adopting. What followed was an illegal adoption leaving that baby, Eileen Heron, now in her fifties, without the true facts of her birth.
In May 1965, baby Eileen was delivered to the Heron’s home in Churchtown, a suburb of Dublin, Eire, with birth and baptism certificates. Years later when Eileen started to research her birth family, she found both certificates were false. Although she celebrates her birthday, she admits she has no idea if this is correct. ‘I actually don’t have a single piece of reliable information about who I am,’ she told the Irish Times. When she met the priest, he refused to help. Though against the law, illegal adoption was common at this time, perpetuated by the shame of the mothers who were reluctant to seek help.
Eileen, now a mother herself, realised the mystery of her identity no longer affected only her. So she enrolled on a course for adult adoptees run by Barnardos Ireland.
The group covered topics like what it was like to grow up adopted and how to search for a birth family. A birth mother and an adoptive mother also give their perspectives; the course ends with a final discussion of what can happen after a reunion. The course has been running for 20 years and its content has evolved in that time to include the use of searching via social media. ‘We would advise people against using social media as a way to approach either birth relatives or adopted adults,’ said Christine Hennessey, Barnardos post-adoption services project leader. ‘It’s a very abrupt tool and it can be quite frightening for people.’ Instead, Barnardos encourages mediated contact.
Listening to the stories of other people attending the course, Eileen realised how her situation differed from those who had been legally adopted, ‘the chances of me ever finding my birth family are terribly small. That was like a bereavement.’
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