By Ted Woolvett
Date Posted: Monday, 14 June 2010
Ted Woolvett is 80 years old. A Londoner by birth, Ted has lived in Torbay for many years where he worked in a bank. He has also enjoyed a parallel voluntary career with the St. John Ambulance Brigade where after taking on most of the roles within that organisation he was asked to provide training to young people in schools and in work settings. He is married to Margaret and has two children and grandchildren.
Who am I? An account of my childhood and teenage years in the 1930s and 1940s and my discovery at the age of 63 that I was an adopted child
A collection of pictures
When I think about my life what comes to my mind is a collection of pictures of different events over many, many years. So it’s no sort of story as such, just these pictures in my mind that keep moving on like a slide show. One of the biggest things to have influenced me, and I’m jumping on quite bit here, was that when I was 63 years old I found out quite by accident that I’d been adopted and the people who I will call my Mum and Dad were actually my adoptive parents. On learning this I began to see why now lots of things that happened to me as I grew up were all related to the fact that I wasn’t their true son.
I can also see why the track I decided to take in my life was the different from the one my Mum and Dad tried to influence me to go on. Margaret, my wife says that I took another path because my genes were different from theirs. If I hadn’t met Margaret and I hadn’t made the kind of choices I did I am sure that where I would have ended up would have been bad news. Now let me try to go back to as near the beginning as I can.
I know nothing of my birth other than that I was born on February 14th in 1930. I was born in Hackney Hospital. I’m illegitimate and on my birth certificate is basically ‘father unknown’ and my mother’s – my birth mother’s – name, but bear in mind that I didn’t find any of this out until I was 63! That’s quite something really. It is only when I was 63 that I found out I was given away by my birth mother to another woman who I came to know as my Mum. Obviously I was given away obviously because then it was considered wrong for young single women to have babies but I was given to a woman who was 30 years old and single. I’ve never been able to make that out because a 30 years old woman doesn’t just turn up one day with a baby.
It turned out too that this 30 years old woman who I called my Mum was – I have to be careful with my terms here – shall we say very friendly towards sailors. I know this happened for many times as I was growing up she would say, for want of better words, “Take me out shopping”. Later on in the evening, back in the house, Dad would ask me where I’d been during the day. I would say to my Dad that we had been out shopping when in fact soon after my Mum and I had been “shopping”, we’d return home and I would play in the garden while she was in bed with a strange man. On the other side of the coin my adoptive Dad would take me to the pictures, leave me there and go off with another woman and when he’d had enough he’d pick me up and take me home. When my Mum asked what we’d been up to I’d tell her that we’d been to the pictures all afternoon and when she asked my Dad what the film had been like he’d say “Oh! I fell asleep half way through”, and nodding in my direction he’d say “Ask him, he’ll tell you”. So I was cover for both of them. I am looking back over many years. I don’t think I was fully aware that I was covering for them but I didn’t think of it as right or wrong, it was just something I did because that’s what they told me to do. I also knew that if I didn’t do it there would be arguments and rows. My Dad liked his booze and after he’d had a drink he’d sometimes give my Mum a real walloping and he knocked her out a number of times, and so I knew to avoid an argument and to avoid any violence it was better for me just to tell lies and cover things up.
A picture which sticks in my mind is of one Christmas time. My Mum and Dad would go out drinking a lot at Christmas and on this occasion just before the war when I was about 7 or 8 years old and we lived in a house on the Balls Pond Road my Dad came home on Christmas Eve drunk and they had a big fight. They were rowing again on Christmas morning and it got so heated that all my presents – we lived in a flat on the third storey of the house – were thrown out of the unopened window into the Balls Pond Road. So shattered glass of the window and my presents fell into the street and into our front yard and I spent all of Christmas morning in the front yard picking up my toys and clearing the glass. Upstairs my Mum was laid out on the floor, put there by a blow from my Dad. So that was one Christmas.
When the war came we’d moved out to Edmonton where my Mum and Dad had bought a house. In the evenings we regularly went out to a pub. You’ll be gathering that pubs and drink had a big part to play in my boyhood days. I would sit out in the pub off license while they went inside the pub to drink. One night when we returned after being out at the pub we found that our road had been roped off and a policeman told us we wouldn’t be let through. When my Dad asked why the policeman said that a bomb had exploded. My Dad asked where it had exploded and the policeman replied “At number 102.” “We’re at 102”, my Dad said. The copper replied, “We’ve been looking for you”. Dad said, “Well, here we are”. We went up our road and found there was no back to our house. A bomb had landed in the garden and blown it out. We were lucky and on this occasion it was a good job that we had been to the pub!
I’m not sure how it worked out but we moved immediately to another house in Enfield but a bit further out of London. My Dad must have put a deposit down on it. I have to be careful here. We couldn’t be called rich but if money was ever needed my Dad seemed to be able to lay his hands on it. I’ll tell you a story about that later on.
At school I was always a bit of a loner. My first school was in the Balls Pond Road. Then because the war came and we moved out to Edmonton I went to school there. I was always fighting. I was often picked on but I always fought back. From there I went to school in Enfield. I don’t remember much about that. From Enfield I went down to Cornwall. Cornwall was not a very good experience at all.
It was after we were bombed in 1940 that Mum and Dad evacuated me down there to stay with some distant relatives of my Dad in the village of Portreath. I stayed for about 18 months. The people I stayed were an aunt and uncle of my Dad. They lived in a small bungalow which had two rooms, a living room and a bedroom. My “aunt” and “uncle” and their two daughters, one was two years older than me and the other was two years younger than me, and me, all slept in the one bedroom. There was no electricity, no gas and the toilet which was a kind of bucket was outside in a wooden shed. It was my job to empty the bucket down a pit and when the pit became full, I had to dig another one. Another of my jobs was to collect a bundle of wood each day as I walked home from school and that fuelled the open stove we had which was used for cooking and for heating the house. For lighting we had two hurricane lamps, which were placed in front of two mirrors to increase the light during the dark nights. We had no running water in the house and water was fetched from an outside tap. When I think back it was quite a primitive life there even by that standards of 1940.
It was during my time there, and I don’t know if this is anything to do with how I feel about my life now, a soldier sexually assaulted me. It happened once. It was on the way from school to where I was living. My school was in Illogen and I had to walk through the woods to Portreath where I lived. I don’t know whether it affected me but I think it did because he said if I ever said anything he would be waiting for me in the woods and so I never told anybody. In fact I only mentioned it to someone else for the first time when I told my wife Margaret last year. I am uncertain whether this did influence me. When I think about it I put it down as one of those things that just happens. I do know that before I was sent to Cornwall and at the time of the bombing I lisped and stuttered badly and whether this had something to do with my upbringing in a home where there was a lot of shouting, I don’t know.
I was brought back from Cornwall in 1942. My school in Cornwall was the last school I attended and so I left school at the age of twelve. At the time my Mum and Dad both worked in munitions factories so I was left at home to do the cleaning and cooking. In 1944 the V1 and V2 rockets were being slung around and so for a short time they sent me to Bishops Stortford in Hertfordshire. They brought me back home where I continued to be the housekeeper until when I reached the age of 15 in February 1945 with the war was still going on, I got my first proper job. The V2s were still popping around while I was cycling to work each day.
I still stuttered and lisped and don’t know why I did. My Dad did shout at me and was often emotionally and verbally abusive to me but he was never actually violent towards me. I think he never actually physically attacked me because he had been in prison twice. Once he’d been in prison for black market dealings and he’d also been in prison for committing Grievous Bodily Harm. He’d been in razor fights. He had razor scars on his face and on his neck. He was a “heavy” and the dealings he was tied up in warranted him being called “ a heavy.” He was a hard man and that was probably why he thought with his fists more often than he thought with his head. I’d worked with him on two occasions and on both occasions he got the sack because of his violence. I worked with him in the foundry for about two years and I also worked with him with a floor laying firm and on both occasions he got the sack after belting a bloke. He was that kind of man and though he was not directly violent to me I found him very intimidating and though I can’t say for certain that might have had something to do with why I used to lisp and stutter badly, it was because I lisped and stuttered that I was a target for bullies. If you’re different in anyway, kids will always have you, there’s no doubt about that. I used to and still have a temper, though it was a different kind of temper then than it is now. In those days I was always involved in punch ups. I was hit in the head with the butt of a gun and knocked out unconscious. I was hit on the head with a bottle and knocked out. I was knocked out with a lump of wood. I was punched and knocked out, and I was hit with a mallet and knocked out. The way I stuttered and lisped always got me into trouble, always, always. If I was at home and talking and I started stuttering I was shouted at by my Dad. He’d shout and I won’t use the language he used because every other word was the ‘f’ word. “If you can’t f…ing well speak properly shut up and be quiet!” This made my stuttering worse and I couldn’t help it and I used to go “de..de..de..de..de” and nothing would come out. So the impression was always given that I would not amount to much and that I was never going to be any use to anybody. I would never be very intelligent and I was an absolute waste of time. Actually this still rubs on now. I’m very insecure. You can ask Margaret, my wife, she’ll tell you how insecure I feel. I think I feel like this because back then all security was knocked out of me. I still feel insecure although I know I’ve done well to get to where I am and I’m proud of what I’ve done and what I’ve got and I’m proud of being here. Imagine I have a lovely house of my own and I have the seaside. Sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I have been and I once said to a friend of mine at the church “How lucky Margaret and I have been” and she replied “No, you’ve not been lucky you’ve been blessed”. I think that’s a different way of understanding what has happened to me but let me get back to my main subject. I was always being shouted at, told to be quiet, to shut up and not talk when I was spoken to. No, that’s not right. I was told to talk when I could talk properly.
I knew I had to beat this problem with my speech and so in my early teens I joined a youth club and I joined the debating society. Can you imagine that! I can always remember the first debate I ever had. It was at the time when petrol was rationed and I had to argue against, I repeat against, doctors and nurses having more petrol than ordinary people. Now what a stupid thing to have to oppose but it didn’t matter. The whole point of it was to learn how to put an argument forward. Although I occasionally still have difficulty with the odd word, I beat my speech problem. I had been a mess and I’d sorted it out. In a way I suppose this was about showing my Dad what I could do if I wanted despite his taunts but I have never actually thought that I have beaten him. I think truly he has won because I dream a lot about him. I have nightmares about him. In fact I had one last night. In my dreams I’m always fighting him. I’m always against him. I’m aggressive towards him. He’s always there. We have punch ups but in reality I never actually laid a hand on him. He still has a big influence on my life. He’s always there. If I make a small mistake or get a little thing wrong, like dropping something, or forgetting something I will angrily say to myself, “You stupid idiot, you bloody fool!” And I then have to persuade myself I’m not an idiot and I’m not a fool. Accidents like these happen to everyone but I now think he indoctrinated me to the extent that whenever something like this happens my immediate response is to think I’m stupid and that I couldn’t be of any use to anyone.
He was even trying to dominate me when I was 25 years old and married. My Dad and I used to sell newspapers up in London. My uncle had about 200 pitches all over London and my Dad and I used to work for him. I remember it was just before Christmas. It was the first Christmas Margaret and I were to spend together after our wedding in 1955. On Christmas Eve my Dad and I were selling papers up the West End. In fact I was selling papers and my Dad was the driver. He brought the papers to the pitch. When we’d finished he asked, “Come and have beer with me boy”. He always called me “Boy” never “Ted” or “son”. Anyway I told him I that I didn’t want to go for a drink because I wanted to be home with Margaret. “Ah come and have a pint,” he said again. I said again “No. I’ve been working hard and now I want to get home to Margaret. It’s our first Christmas together.”
“What’s the matter boy, he said, “ has she got you under the thumb?”
“No, it doesn’t come into it”
“What’s wrong – if you don’t do what you’re told won’t she open her legs for you?”
“Listen boy if ever you want it anyway you like, I can get it for you anytime any place. Never let a woman rule you by her legs.”
“That doesn’t come into it. I just want to go home”.
“Boy, you are finished, you’re rubbish, you’ll never be anything because you’ve let them beat you” And that was his teaching but I went home to Margaret.
My Dad, the wide boy
For all his crudeness my Dad could be quite a shrewd operator. Just after the war we had two houses. The one that had been bombed out and the one where we were living in Enfield. The council was rebuilding our bombed house and intended to put people who needed to be housed into it. At this time my Dad had the bright idea that if we sold our Enfield house the council would have to give us our Edmonton house back because we would be homeless. So he sold the house at Enfield. We moved into a flat in Highbury, nearer to the centre of London. He then applied to get his house back but the council refused to return it saying that they knew exactly why he had sold the house in Enfield. They informed my Dad that he would have to sell it to them and so he had sold two houses and he received between £1000 and £2000 for the two of them. In 1947 this was a considerable sum.
We had moved to a rented flat in Highbury before he received the money. The flat had two rooms. It had a living room, a bedroom and a cupboard which acted as the kitchen. My Dad thought that by living in these conditions the council would pay up on the sale of our house. Once the council did pay up he now had in his possession the money from the sale of the two houses. On that day he walked out of the house and disappeared. Six weeks afterwards there was a knock at the door of the flat. My Mum opened the door and my Dad fell in. I do mean fell in and he was wearing the same clothes he’d left in. My Mum asked him where he’d been or at least words to that effect. He replied, “I haven’t asked you where you’ve been, so don’t you ask me where I’ve been”. He didn’t have a penny of the money left. He’d spent the lot on booze. My Mum made a ‘right to do’ about it and for some reason from that day until the day I got married – from the age of 17 until I was 25 – I slept in the same room as my Mum and Dad. They slept on one side of the room and I slept on the other side.
Another example of my Dad’s wide boy wheeling and dealing was the way he dealt with the business of us leaving the Highbury flat. That part of Highbury, Canonbury, was and still is quite a posh area. The flat was in a big house which including the basement was four storeys high. The owner of the house – I always called him my uncle but he wasn’t really my uncle though he was related to my Dad in a roundabout way – wanted to sell the house. The man who was trying to buy it from my uncle wanted vacant possession so my uncle said to my Dad, “I will want you out”. My Dad said “I haven’t got any money I won’t be able to move anywhere else, so make me an offer and I’ll see if I can find somewhere else to live.” My uncle offered my Dad £1800 which was a lot of money in those days. My Dad accepted it. A few days later the man who wanted to buy the house came around to look at the property and my Dad asked, “Who are you?” The man said “I’m thinking about buying the place but I’m wanting it vacant possession. So I would want you out.” Dad said “Well I haven’t got any money. How can I go anywhere? Make me an offer” So my Dad got him up to offering somewhere between £1500 and £1800. So he got money from the seller and the owner, put the two together and bought us a house out of that. So that was the sort of thing he did. He was always open for a deal.
When I was a teenager he tried to encourage me to go up certain lanes. I could tell you umpteen stories about him. He taught me how to pick the locks on doors and other dishonest things, I’ve always supposed that he did this because that was his background; his upbringing and he didn’t know anything else. He tried to encourage me to drink, and smoke. I don’t know why I didn’t fall in with it though I’ve often thought if someone offers you cigarettes, or beer, or drugs or whatever it is, it’s up to you to decide whether to say yes or no. Someone may say to you “Go on, it will do you the world of good,” or “You’ll feel better after it,” but the final word is yours. Which lane you go up depends on how you’ve been influenced. Now my Dad did offer cigarettes and alcohol to me and I had to make up my mind which lane I went up. I guess it was just not in my genes to follow the road my Mum and Dad did.
My parents’ wedding day
Retracing my steps a little, when I came back from Cornwall, I must have been about 13 years old at the time, my Mum and Dad decided to get legally married. I can remember the day but it was not clear to me what was happening and I only found this out many years after when I discovered that I had been adopted. I remember that we went to what must have been Enfield Town Hall and my Mum saying to me “You will tell them you are happy at home won’t you?” That’s what I remember of the day and I suppose they didn’t want to tell me because I might begin to ask what might have been awkward questions. On the other hand they wouldn’t have given me an honest answer if I had asked. I suppose they didn’t tell me because they didn’t want anyone to think that they were not already married. I’ve since found out that after they got married they legally adopted me.
As an aside to that a few years later, in my late teens, I decided I would emigrate but in order to apply I needed all my papers including some of theirs. When I asked for them my Mum and Dad said they’d been destroyed in the bombing. Of course they couldn’t show me them because I would have found out that I was adopted.
I run away from home
When I was 18 years old I worked in the foundry at Waltham Abbey. From Highbury to Waltham Abbey was a good 15 miles. So each day I got up, got on my bike and pedalled all the way to Waltham Abbey to be at work on the dot at 7am. I worked all day long at the foundry and cycled home. When I got in the flat my Mum and Dad would be arguing and they’d try to involve me in it so I would go to bed and they would continue to argue. In the morning they’d start arguing again. This happened day after day after day and I got fed up with it. One morning something inside me flipped. I got up and pushed my bike across Highbury Fields and then I got on it. I remember thinking, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t put up with this arguing any more.” So from a distance I watched our front door and saw them both go off to work. I went back to the flat. I packed a bag and left a note saying, “I can’t put up with this any more. I’m leaving. Don’t try to find me”. Leaving my bike behind I walked out the door and I walked out of the flat.
I had no idea where I was going and I wondered what I was going to do. In the end I decided I would go down to Cornwall where I had been evacuated and try to see if I could get any work there. I knew it was a long way away and I thought that they would never think to look for me there. So I went down to Victoria Station to get a train to Cornwall. I looked up and down the departure notice and couldn’t see any trains to Cornwall. After a while I worked out my mistake. I couldn’t get trains to Cornwall from Victoria Station. I was feeling a bit confused until I heard an announcement about the train for the Jersey Ferry. One of the jobs I had done with my Dad before he got sacked was laying floors and we had gone to Jersey to lay the floors in a new holiday camp. I remembered that I’d thought Jersey was a nice place and so there and then I thought, “That’ll do.” I jumped on the train and went to Jersey. I stopped over in Jersey for a year. I might have stayed longer but in a very round about way my Dad managed to get in touch with me through someone he knew in Jersey who had seen me there. This man approached me to say that my Mum and Dad wanted me to get in touch because my Mum was seriously ill. When I ‘phoned them they said that they wanted me to come back home and I said that I would as long they would agree not to argue all the time. They said they would stop. When I got back home I found that they had been lying about my Mum having a serious illness and it wasn’t long before they started to argue as much as they had ever done. I guess I just accepted it as my fate.
Home was for fighting not for loving
I don’t know why I accepted the arguing and fighting as normal. I suppose it was because I knew nothing else. It was never a loving home to be in. I can’t remember my Mum ever cuddling me. I could never say I felt loved by my Mum and Dad, not in the way I’ve come to know it with Margaret and my own children. My biggest memory is they were always fighting. On more than one occasion if Dad came home drunk and they had a fight she would wake me up and I would go with her and walk the streets until the early hours of the morning. I suppose she needed to feel there was someone taking her part and I think I did take her side in most of her rows with Dad mainly because he would very often hit her. Mind you she used to throw dishes, knives and all sorts of other things at him. I remember on one occasion after I’d cooked the Christmas dinner – from about the age of twelve I was the one who cooked most of our meals – a row started and in a tit for tat scrap they began to throw things about. The whole contents of the dinner ended up on the wall.
My Mum had some power over Dad in another way and when I think on it I believe it was what stopped me learning the truth about myself then. I remember one occasion when they were as usual rowing and I had taken my Mum’s part. He turned to look at me and said, “ You think she’s so wonderful. I can tell you something about her…..” At this she picked up a big carving knife and she went for him shouting out “If you open your f…. ing mouth and say anything this will go through you. If not now then when you’re asleep.” And he just shut down. He just shut down. I think now he was going to tell me about my background, my past, where I really came from but she frightened the living daylights out of him.
A wager with my Dad
In my mind it was difficult to get away from my Dad’s taunts that I would never amount to anything. They made me feel as if I had nothing to look forward to but there must still have been something inside me that wanted to prove something to him because when I was 18 years old and we were living in the flat at Highbury, one day I said to my Dad, “I’d like to cycle down to Cornwall, to Lands End.”
His response was “Boy you haven’t got it in you. You can’t do that. You’re just not good enough for that.”
I said, “I’ll have a bet with you that I can do it.”
“Right you’re on,” he said. So, we had a bet for five shillings. Mind you in those days five bob was something.
Then he said, “I know what you’ll do. You’ll get on your bike and you’ll take it to the station and you’ll get on the train and you’ll go down to Cornwall and send us a card from there saying you’d done it.”
My response was,“ No I’ll tell you what I will do. Every night I stop, wherever I am I will send you a card. Wherever I am.”
Once again he said, “Right your on.”
So during the next two weeks I cycled from London to Lands End and back. I returned via the Isle of Wight. At nights I would stay at the YMCA or a youth hostel and I send him a card every night from the town where I was stopping over. I thoroughly enjoyed my adventure. I was away for two weeks and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was entirely on my own, in my own mind and not having to listen to constant rows. When I got back home my Dad was outside with his head in the bonnet of a car looking at its engine. I went up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder and said “You owe me five bob.”
He didn’t even straighten up. He looked over his shoulder at me and said, “If you’re f…ing stupid enough to cycle all that way for five bob you wouldn’t know what to do with it if I give it to you”. End of story ; that’s the kind of encouragement I got.
Being a loner
I think cycling was a saviour for me. I really loved cycling and riding around all over the place. It helped me to get to know a lot about the country I lived in. At the weekends I would get on my bike and ride. I suppose it was an escape from being told how useless I was. Most Saturdays I would cycle down from London to Southend for something to do. If I was home on a Sunday I would cycle from London to Brighton for something to do. The best thing about it was that I wasn’t at home. I suppose I was a bit of a loner. I never really had close friends at school. I was never at one long enough to make friends. I remember having a birthday party once but I can’t remember where or for what birthday. Of course the other thing that kept me apart from others was that I was a scrapper, a fighter, and this part of me often came to the fore when people tried to bully me because of my stuttering. Even now I haven’t got rid of this aggressive side. I have terrible, terrible dreams in which I’m fighting people and my fists are going. Even when I am awake I have what my Margaret and I call my “downers”. I may be out shopping in Victoria Street in Paignton and all of a sudden this thing comes down and I become aggressive in my mind and – I’m not exaggerating – I want someone to bump into me so that I can hit them. Fortunately Margaret knows when they are coming and helps me be aware of it but I am still edgy even if I do know about it. For instance on one occasion I was out shopping and I was tapped on the shoulder and I swung around and I clenched a raised my fist and was almost three-quarters of the way to hitting the person when I saw that it was my daughter in law who was saying “Hello” to me. I know it wasn’t her fault but I was so angry that I still said to her, “Don’t ever, ever do that again.” Incidents like this have occurred several times. These “downers” will last sometimes a couple of hours and sometimes might last all day and then suddenly they lift. I’ve never been sure if this is related to being assaulted by the soldier in Cornwall but I’ve always been more inclined to think it is related to how much I have pent up my feelings about my Dad taunting me.
A domineering Dad
My Dad was never actually physically aggressive towards me but I always had this fear that he was capable of killing me. He was a very hard man. On the two occasions I worked with him he was sacked because he got himself into an argument with someone and then without warning, “Bang”. He hit them. One time I did get aggressive in a serious way it was because of him. It happened after he got the sack from the foundry where we worked. I was about sixteen at the time and I was in the boy scouts. A whole load of blokes worked at the foundry and you can imagine what they were like together. They were a bunch of hard nuts. They were not sissies. When he was there my Dad was one of the boys. He was telling a blue joke and I happened to come along and he said for me to hear, “I can’t finish the joke off now because my Teddy’s coming along.” When he wanted to upset me he would refer to me as “My Teddy”. Then he said “My Teddy used to be a boy scout and he used to let the vicar chase him in his knickerbockers. So no swearing now because my Teddy’s here.” Soon after that as I’ve said he got the sack for belting a bloke and someone else took up with trying to have a go at me. This chap began suggesting that I was not quite all there. Something snapped inside of me and I really went for him. I grabbed his head and held it over an open barrel of oil that we used for cooling down the metal. I was shouting and swearing. “If you say that again your f…ing head goes in there, all right ?” He never touched me after that. Nobody, nobody got in my way there after that. I suppose this aggression came out to protect myself from the bullying but it is frightening to look back and realise how quickly I lost my temper. I think I really would have put his head in the oil if he’d said any more after I threatened him. I came very close to seriously assaulting him.
I think there has always been something inside of me that has wanted to prove that no matter what my Dad said about me, no matter how frightened I was I could in my own way stand up to him. For instance I’ve been a stamp collector since I was about eleven. I’m proud of that. My Dad thought that stamp collecting was a sissy’s thing. He would frequently say, “You’re nothing but a poofter.” When I took out my stamps and put them on the table to look at them he thought that it was great fun to open the window or the door so that my stamps would blow all over the place just when I’d got them sorted out. He thought it was a very good joke but the important thing is that I still collect stamps.
During my late teenage years I became interested in classical music and over the next few years I built a good collection of 12 inch long playing records. He used to mock me about my interest in classical music. Listening to serious music was not his scene at all. When Margaret and I got married and we went to live in our own home I took my stamp collection with me and only a matter of a few weeks later I went back to pick up my record collection. When I arrived my Dad said. “They’ve gone. I sold them. You left them here, so they’re mine.” I now have another collection of classical recordings and I still love classical music.
It’s funny that though he made fun of the things I did he always seem to want to meddle in them or have some control over them. I had a pen pal in South Africa and when letters arrived from him, my Dad would open them first. In fact he opened all my letters.
I’m not writing this down because I want anyone to feel sorry for me as if I am saying “ What a victim I’ve been.” I can’t say I enjoyed my childhood and some of things that happened to me still have the power to upset me but in the end that was my life. I can’t change it. In a way I learnt more of what my childhood was about when at the age of 63 years old, I discovered I was adopted.
How I found out I was adopted
When I try to understand why my Dad treated me the way he did I can only imagine it was because I wasn’t his real son and when I learnt this I immediately wondered whose son I was and I wrote this poem.
Who am I? I ask myself every single day
Why was it before I could speak I was given away.
Given away to a stranger, someone I did not know.
Was she told, “Here take this baby, don’t look back walk away, just go”.
I ask myself this question every day of the week
What country should I be proud of, am I Jewish, Scottish, Greek ?
It’s too late now to find the answers while living down here on earth
And when I die and go to wherever I might find the truth of my birth.
So til that time comes in the future as we all know it will, by and by.
I will still wake up every morning asking “Who am I ? Where from and why ?”
Everyday I ask that question. Finding this out at the age of 63 I guessed that my birth mother would have been about 20 years old when I was born. She would have been 83, assuming she was still alive. Since my birth there had been a war and she could have been killed during it. I just didn’t and still don’t know. I’d heard of a society that you can get in touch with and if you sign on to it with all your details and if the person you’re looking for has signed on to it too you can get in touch with each other. I paid a subscription and joined this society but the people there informed me that no one had been looking for me. I reasoned that any person looking might not have known what name to look for because my adoptive mother had used so many names because she lived with so many different men and of course she was not married at the time she took me so my real mother wouldn’t have known my surname. So I went up another channel and sought out local records in London only to find that they had all been destroyed in the war.
My Mum died in 1994 and around this time Margaret’s brother was looking up the family tree on Margaret’s side of the family. It was a hobby of his. He lives in London and I asked him to have a look up on my side of things because he was going to visit Somerset House to do his research. He agreed to do it. One day he ‘phoned me up and said, “I’ve got a surprise for you. I don’t know whether you want to know it or not but you were adopted.”
“What do you mean adopted?” I said
“I’ve got your adoption papers here. You were adopted in 1943. Do you want me to go any further ?
“ If you don’t mind,” I said because he was calling from London.
He put down the ‘phone and went off for a minute or two. He came back and began to read details from a copy of my birth certificate. What’s strange is that at first this news did not seem to worry me at all. A little while after this someone from our local social services got in touch. She said my story was very complicated and said “We’d like to have a talk with you about this.” This didn’t seem to be a problem so I agreed to meet in what was Chapel House in the Preston area of Paignton. When I suggested I could meet her in my dinner hour at work she said, “You’ll need a lot longer that than that and you’ll probably want some counselling.”
I replied, “Oh come on ! I’m 63 what do I need with counselling ? I’ve just been told I’m adopted so what more is there to talk about?” She persisted so I went along to meet her anyway.
In my first session the social worker mentioned names and details that didn’t seem to mean much to me. I told her all that I knew about my life. I remember her saying how complicated my early life had been. It was not until later that I was going to find out what she meant. At that time my adoptive Mum was still alive but my Dad had died of lung cancer at the age of 72. As she grew older my Mum’s mind was not what it was and she was becoming more and more confused and forgetful. She would still say tantalising things to me like “I could tell you some stories that you wouldn’t think possible but you just won’t pay attention to me. You just don’t listen to me.” This wasn’t true and she never would tell me any of these stories that I hoped would unlock some the secrets about my life. In hindsight I wish I had asked her “Why did my birth mother give me to you ? What were the circumstances?” Why didn’t I ask her ? Maybe because I was too scared but the other thing was I knew she wouldn’t tell me the truth. It seemed to me she’d spent my lifetime lying through her back teeth to paint a flattering picture of herself. Both my Mum and Dad had been living a lie and I think they would have treated me in a different way if I had really been theirs. So after seeing this woman I was left wondering about my real mother and wondering if I had any sisters or brothers.
A family of my own
A part of me tells me I don’t have but that I would love to have had a brother or a sister. Every year for the last 20 years or more Margaret and I go up to Cheltenham. We have a family gathering. It’s Margaret’s family but it’s brilliant. There are brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, mums, dads, grandmas and grandpas. I love it because I’m part of that group, part of the family. I’m happy to be amongst them because I’m accepted by them and what’s more because my own children are there I’m even more part of the family.
I am one of them in a way that I never felt with Mum and Dad. From my Dad’s point of view I suppose I was a disappointment to him. He was a tough nut and I think he would have liked me to be as tough as him, as hard as him, as strong as him and to be just like him. If I had been perhaps he would have liked me to be his son. Although he never said “You’re no son of mine”, looking back I think he might have wanted to. He never did say that because it would have given the game away and for all his toughness I think he was frightened about what my Mum’s reaction would be.
I’ve spoken to relations and acquaintances of my Mum and Dad since who didn’t know what I now know and the general theory was that my Mum turned up with this baby in her arms. People had assumed that she had had this baby illegitimately. She’d met up with my Dad and he had taken her on and the baby on. They’d lived together as husband and wife until in the end they actually married in order to make things legal. They didn’t know that my Mum and Dad hadn’t got married until I was 13. Everyone I’ve spoken to did not know that I wasn’t my Mum’s baby. They all thought I was her baby.
I sometimes wonder whether it would have been better if Margaret’s brother had not found my adoption papers but immediately I know I want to feel that I am my birth mother’s son even if I know that if I hadn’t known life since I was 63 might have been different. Since then I’ve often thought how wonderful it would be if a woman rang our front door bell and asked me, “Are you the son of Gladys Mahala James ?” That is my birth mother’s name. I also think about my real mother somewhere asking herself “I wonder how he’s getting on.” I always think of this on my birthday, February 14th, St. Valentines Day, the day of love. Of course it’s too late for that. I am so old now, it is unlikely that she will be alive.
This is not a sob story : the inspiration of Margaret
Although I do become emotional about my past, it is not my intention to gain people’s sympathy. Since I met Margaret all those years ago I have been blessed with a good life. When we first met I was a builder’s labourer. I had left school at 12, and not including such things as joining the debating society, I had not really had an education. When I asked Margaret to marry me I couldn’t think of anything I had to offer her. I began to educate myself and with Margaret beside me to support me I’ve achieved things I could never have dreamed of when I was 12 years old. When I was in my teens I drew up a list of things I wanted to do. They were simple things that might make other people think “Anyone could do that.” For instance I wanted to go to an opera, to learn to play chess, to drive a car, to drive a Rolls Royce, to drive an ambulance, to drive a fire engine, to go up in a plane, to go to a play at the theatre. These may appear simple things but as a young teenager in wartime I could never even have dreamed of achieving them. Now I can say I’ve done nearly all of them. I haven’t driven a fire engine but I’ve driven an ambulance at high speed. I’ve driven all kinds of cars. I haven’t driven a Rolls Royce but I’ve driven a Mercedes Benz and a BMW. I’ve flown in a helicopter and I’ve flown in a plane to Canada. I’ve even been on the Concord. I can play backgammon as well as chess. I’ve been to the theatre to see a play and I’ve been to the opera. Not only did I get myself a good job with a bank down in Devon and I have developed another successful, satisfying if unpaid career with the St. John Ambulance Brigade.
I could not have achieved these what seemed impossible things without Margaret’s help and I am so proud of our children. I get on well with my daughter. I get on well with my own son. We both share the same sense of humour. We are very close.
Sitting around the table
Full of chatter, laughter and smiles
My family are together,
Some have travelled many miles.
Respect from them to their elders,
Understanding from us to the young
And though we’re all individuals,
Together we’re family, we’re one.
There’s a warmth that seems to surround us,
It’s in the faces, the voices, the eye.
I feel this warmth so strongly
I sometimes want to cry.
So please God, join our family,
Take part in all we do,
For I know that all my happiness
Is with a lot of help from you.
It is still difficult at times. When they retired my Mum and Dad followed us down to Devon and bought a house not far away. They both died here. I am Christian but I have found that my feelings about my Mum and Dad still make it very difficult for me to think about them in a good light. I can, as they say, only tell it as it is. I do not go to my Mum and Dad’s grave. We did what we had to do. We put up a stone where they are buried together but I now I feel I have cut them off. I am who I am because of them but a lot of what I am is not good because I think in a way they’ve mucked my life up a lot. I still get upset thinking – not about my past – but about my parents.
|6 Sep 2012, John Phillips writes|
|Ted and Margaret came to visit my wife and I myself today. We’ve not met for several years but he is still one of nicest guys you would wish to meet. We first met by accident in the street at Highbury where he was working on a building. He is still the same man I met then. I knew he had a bad start in life but not this bad. I admire what he has achieved and am proud to be one of his many friends.
|26 Jan 2011, Wendy Forman writes|
|I am a friend of Ted’s and knew some of his story. He is truly blessed and we are blessed with his friendship.
|19 Dec 2010, John Stuart Sedgwick|
|I am Ted’s half brother. We have just made contact with each other for the first time, and in January 2011 we are going to meet. Like Ted, I had a strange youth, not as tough as Ted’s, but it was a hard one. I really cannot say more yet but this year ending is a good one.
|01 Jul 2010, Jackie Sharpe writes|
|This is a very touching story to hear. It is particularly evocative of its time; a reminder of how different life was for some children years ago, and also how difficult. What comes through all the time is Ted’s determination to move forward and maintain hope for the future and this is born out by his outcomes: the loving and stable marriage and family he has built around him, some would say against the odds.
|30 Jun 2010, Alison J. Watt|
|This is a moving and so well written memoir, recounted without the self-pity that is usual in this kind of writing.