Adoption is often a very emotive issue, and there are arguments both for and against those wishing to seek out their birth parents or children given up for adoption. Whilst I have no direct experience with adoption – you have to go back a few generations on my father’s side before you get to any – I do have some with researching the adoptions of others.
Back in 2008 my partner’s aunt, Annie, asked me to help her track down information about her birth family. It was late in her own life that Annie discovered she’d been adopted, when applying for a passport. Sadly, her adoptive mother – Winifred Elizabeth Alice Joyce nee Cartlidge (the daughter of Ernest) – had passed away by this point and her adoptive father – James Joyce – was reticent to discuss the details of the adoption with Annie, although stated that the reason behind the decision to adopt was an inability for the couple to conceive (a situation that altered after the arrival of Annie in the family!).
Despite this, he gave her a copy of her adoption file – which she kept safe but unlooked at for many years. In this file was listed her birth name, details of her birth mother and a brief description of the events surrounding the adoption. Although it was an official adoption under the Adoption of Children Act 1926, it had been arranged by a friend and colleague of the birth mother who also knew Winifred’s brother, Frank.
I agreed to assist Annie any way that I could – on the proviso that she understood that it was to be above board with her sister (my mother in law) and that she would accept that a) her birth mother could well be deceased, and b) had never informed any subsequent children that she had had a child adopted out of the family, and c) any existing children may very well not wish to make contact or wish to know her. Under that agreement, I started on the paper trail …
As I mentioned, Annie already had the original adoption file so would not need to attend the mandatory birth records counselling interview that takes place with those adopted before 12 November 1975 (if you were adopted after that date it isn’t mandatory, but it is advised). I was able to purchase not only Annie’s original birth certificate, but also that of her birth mother via the General Register Office process. I also found the marriage of the birth mother – some years before Annie’s own birth – and the birth of several children to the couple. Annie’s birth seemed to come almost in the middle of these children. What had happened? Given the dates in question – in the middle of WWII – there were various potential answers to this question, some more pleasant than others.
I was unable to locate a death entry for the birth mother, but as available indexes only went up to 2005 at the time this wasn’t too much of a concern. However, with Annie’s permission I turned to locating details of the other children. Whilst searching online trees available via the GenesReunited website, I found mentions of several of the children. Upon making contact I discovered that the owner of the tree was the granddaughter of Annie’s birth mother. One of the first things she put in her reply to my (rather vague!) initial enquiry was to ask if it had anything to do with the “other baby” – and then she stated that her grandmother was still alive, and still living in the Cheltenham area! A letter was dispatched to the family detailing who I was and who Annie was.
Skipping on a bit, a tearful telephone call took place between Annie and one of her sisters. During this it was (re)confirmed that the older children vaguely remembered a baby who later disappeared, and that their mother had mentioned the same at a few points in her life.
After a short time, Annie and her husband travelled from their home on the south coast to a reunion in Cheltenham. Despite suffering from a type of dementia, Annie’s mother recognised her and sat with Annie’s hand clasped to her lap for the majority of the event whilst muttering “my baby, my baby” under her breath. This was obviously a very emotional experience for the entire family.
During the course of the afternoon, and subsequent conversations, the story of how Annie came to be adopted was slowly revealed. Annie’s natural father had been a Canadian airman who was stationed nearby. Annie’s mother’s husband was an ambulanceman on the front line during WWII and was home infrequently. However, upon one visit he noticed that there was an addition to the family – some rapid mental arithmetic showed that the little one probably wasn’t his. Apparently Annie’s mother couldn’t live with the guilt and gave up her daughter to be adopted after he had returned to the front line. Sadly, it was something her husband didn’t want to happen and wouldn’t have agreed to had he known.
Members of the local press had been invited to the initial reunion and the story eventually found its way to the national press. Subsequently, I was asked to take part in a documentary entitled “Love and War III: Father Unknown”. This was broadcast on ITV Meridian on 5th June 2008.
Whilst this story ended up in a happy place, it wasn’t without its highly-charged emotions for everyone involved. It remains one of my proudest moments as a researcher!
If anybody reading this is thinking about tracing their birth family in England or Wales, or is a birth family member wishing to trace a relative, contact British Association for Adoption and Fostering or Adoption, Search and Reunion in the first instance.
In Scotland, Birthlink offers a range of services for people separated by adoption.
Ireland has the Adoption Authority of Ireland.
If you’re in the US, try the Child Welfare Information Gateway.
In Canada, there is the Adoption Council of Canada.