She holds no animosity.
Crying cut through the silence of the partly built house. It was a dark, windy night. The rain was heavy. A baby girl was alone on the front porch. Her mother, a teenaged Sussex waitress, was fighting her own battles, in a Britain preparing for World War Two. On the 1st of May 1939, Ethel Patricia Gumbrell, 17, would be trumpeted across the newspaper headlines and charged with abandoning her two-week old daughter.
Hours after abandoning her child, Ethel turned up to Paddington police station. Her conscience had gotten the better of her. She made a statement.
“I’ve abandoned my baby,” she told them.
I: The Discovery
Two school boys, were cutting through a nearby field heading home. They heard crying through the rain. They discovered the baby girl with only a knitted blanket for protection, with three pink stripes at each end. The baby was left unaccompanied in the half built, Hangleton home.
They sought help from a traveller and his wife, who acquired medical attention for the baby. She had been exposed to harsh elements. Wet woollen clothes and cold skin, though nothing was more sinking then what would come next for this baby, and her mother.
There was dire consequence for leaving her daughter behind. In between the pages of May newspapers, the unhinged journalism and headlines told her story, until it fizzled out behind Hitler driven tension and preparation for war which would commence in September.
“I left the baby because I could not provide it with a home,” she said in her statement.
On the 17th of April, 1939 she was admitted to Brighton Municipal hospital, to give birth. She had the baby the following morning. They both stayed together at the hospital, until she was discharged on Monday the 1st of May. The baby left the hospital, with a small tag around her arm with her name on it – Patricia.
Later that evening, she left a Mrs. Thomas’ house. She left claiming that she would be taking the baby to a home. She returned without her daughter. She said that she had left the baby at a Hangleton home she had been given the address for. She then left Mrs Thomas again to travel to the Paddington police station, confessing that her conscious had gotten the better of her.
The 17-year-old, was sentenced to two years bound over following her trial, and ordered to be with her child until a suitable arrangement was made.
Patricia would experience a childhood in foster care. She would be cradled by her foster mother, under a table inside a baby gas mask, while sirens squealed from the streets.
II: The Blue Ration Book
“I can’t be too sure how old I was when I realised that I wasn’t blood relatives with my family.” – Patricia
For every family in Britain, ration books were key to surviving the second world war. Food and other commodities were limited. German submarines often attacked ships that were bringing supplies to Britain. The coupons inside the books were marked by shop keepers granting everyone with their fair share of necessities.
It wasn’t until one day, Patricia noticed a difference in her own blue ration book. Her name.
‘Patricia Francis (Gumbrell)’
She attended school with the same last name as her family – Francis. It wasn’t until noticing the brackets one day on her book that she began questioning her roots.
“I was known to everyone as Francis, so Gumbrell was never mentioned in anything other than the ration books and the coupons,” Patricia said.
Patricia lived with her foster mother and her two foster siblings; Marjorie and Bob, in Hove. Her foster mother also cared for a second child, five years younger than Patricia. However, her ration book wasn’t her only clue that her family weren’t blood related.
Every six to twelve months, Patricia would chat with a stranger. They would ask her if she was doing okay.
Long phonebook searches and library trips exposed little. Patricia, with the help of a friend, would search for information that might point in the right direction. Hove library staff told Patricia that her last name was unusual.
Patricia and Marjorie held a unique bond. Referring to her as ‘My Margie’, Patricia says that it was her who confirmed her suspicions. She explained how a young woman came to the bottom of the steps outside the home, sobbing. Patricia was in her pram, wrapped in a blanket and dirty. She had come to see if this family would provide her with everything that she couldn’t
Although her foster mother would provide a home for Patricia, their relationship was shaky. They often rowed, struggling to see eye to eye.
“I honestly don’t remember my foster mother giving me hugs or anything,” Patricia said.
Patricia experienced tiresome chores and haunting air raids under her foster mother’s roof. However, her experiences with Marjorie and Bob made her childhood enjoyable.
“They couldn’t have been better to me, if they were my blood brother and sister. They treated me terrific,” Patricia said.
Patricia’s foster grandmother was a live in cook, at the Milldean house, in Hove. She often got invited to spend time there, where her fondest memories were built. Its residents were upper class. It was hidden by trees, 100 yards back from the Avenue.
Until she was eight, Patricia took two bus trips and a short walk to get to the house. She learned how to talk properly, how to pluck chickens, prepare vegetables and tend to the garden. She even helped the butler sharpen the knives. Despite her hard work polishing the silver and brass, Patricia made left amazed after each visit, uncovering numerous secrets.
“I use to walk around inside the walls. You could open a door thinking it was a cupboard,” Patricia said.
The lady of the house, Kathleen, was a character out of a fairy tale. A wild robin flew into her room, through large French doors, and she would feed it. Kathleen allowed Patricia to help run the house, having her even help with her own tasks such as tending to her garden. Whenever Patricia was unwell, Kathleen asked for her to be brought to the house to get better.
“I had a pet hedgehog… he just roamed around and I’d take out a little saucer, with some bread and milk on it for him,” she said.
Despite the luxury Patricia had at Milldean house, her foster mother faced struggles when it came to providing enough. Her foster mother had no husband. The family were extremely poor. The café a few doors down, tried to provide leftovers for the Francis family however, they often went without some nights. When Patricia was 8 her visits to Milldean stopped, following the death of her foster grandmother.
Patricia’s foster mother offered her home up to young children, who needed a break from the squealing bombs and the darkened London. The reality of the war was all around them.
They also opened their home up to Polish refugees. Patricia recalls a refugee who was unpacking a small brown suitcase. It was all they had.
The woman opened up the small, brown case. She had a cloth on top of her things. She removed it, and began to take her only possessions out. A cross, and two candle sticks. If it held anything else, Patricia didn’t see. The bag was only small.
“That was their worldly goods, apart from what they stood up in and I have never ever forgotten them. Now if I hadn’t been fostered, I wouldn’t have had that,” Patricia said.
There’d be times she’d get into trouble or have to do chores. She considered what life could be if her mother were there.“I got this idea in my head, that I’m gonna save all my six pence, and I’m going to America. I started saving six pence. I never got to America,” Patricia laughed.Patricia worked at The Ballerina, in George Street, Hove. It was a milk bar. She met Henry there. He had just finished his compulsory national service, and he often visited the milk bar with his football team. They battled on the foosball table, with a milkshake close by. However, the Teddy Boys were close by too.“They use to go around in gangs, and yeah you just kept away from them,” Patricia said.The Teddy Boys were known for slick hairstyles, long jackets and high waisted pants. They also had a reputation for causing trouble. The Teddy Boys were the beginning to a long relationship for the Henry and Patricia. However, they were still intimidating to face.“They use to get together in the middle of the pavement…They’d see me coming, I’d see them coming… it was obvious, first they’d rub your shoulders. Make you get in the road. You’ve got another thing coming, mate,” Henry said.
After a shift at work one night, Patricia feared that they would be waiting for her at the end of the road. Henry walked her home.
By 18, the pair were engaged. By then, her siblings had moved to Australia. Her foster mother decided to head to do the same, planning to take Patricia’s foster sister too. The wait on their sailing date was the time frame Patricia had to make arrangements.
Patricia lived out of suitcases for a while. She knew she would have to leave quickly.
Henry waited by the car. He looked up at the white house. The stairs led up to a green door. It opened and Patricia emerged. She flew down the stairs.
He took her luggage and put it into the car. Patricia got in. She fastened her seatbelt, ready to leave the house behind.
Henry got into the driver’s seat.
“What did she say?” Henry asked.
“Nothing. I didn’t talk to her,” Patricia answered.
Patricia had paid her rent for that week. Henry had given her the money for the week after as well.
“Go back in and say goodbye to her,” Henry said.
Patricia unfastened her seatbelt and got out of the car. She walked up the steps, and through the green door. At the end of hallway, her mother sat reading the newspaper.
“Well. I’m going now,” Patricia said.
The newspaper crinkled. It was the only noise. Patricia turned back towards the hallway and left.
“I just turned around and I went. She didn’t say a word… I was 18,” Patricia said.
That was the last time she saw the foster mother who had bravely raised four children on her own. She offered shelter for refugees and children dazed by war. The family didn’t have a lot, however she achieved providing them all with a home.
Due to being underage, Patricia struggled to marry Henry at first. The legal age to get married was 21. She needed parental permission prior to turning 21.
Patricia was advised to see a probation officer. The title made her fearful. The probation officer advised going to go to court or to wait. If she chose to go to court, the press would hound her. Because of this, they asked the salvation army for help. The organisation searched for a year but, nothing came up. She decided to wait. Counting down the days until she could marry Harry.
In 1960 they said ‘I do.’ They originally called a caravan home, until they had two children – Cliff and Debbie. They then moved into a flat. However, Henry had his sights set on Australia. They went for a holiday and decided that if it was wet, they would move to Australia.
“It was wet. So we came back, filled in the papers and came to Australia,” Patricia said.
V: Foundling in Rain
It was two years ago that Patricia became inquisitive. She previously didn’t hold any interest in finding her mother.
Conversations with her Marjorie, over the phone reminded her of childhood. She wanted to dig deeper. While piecing together Harry’s family tree, she decided to research herself. She had her credit card at the ready, and signed up for Genes Reunited. Little did she know, accepting the terms and conditions, wasn’t the only thing she would need to accept.
Her birth certificate was all she needed. The day after her 75th birthday, she searched her mothers name. The search result found a headline from a 1939 newspaper.
“That’s when it hit me,” Patricia said.She walked out of the room, down the hall and into the kitchen. She explained to Cliff and Henry that she was the baby the newspaper was reporting about. Patricia was unaware of her mother abandoning her, prior to this article.
She pressed the numbers with ferocity, then listened to the dial tone. Despite England being asleep, her call was answered. The newspaper answered, and emailed her the full copy. She then called the Hove library. They emailed her back copies of the newspaper. As she continued to dig, she found several other newspapers that told either a reprinted or similar story.
Despite the discovery, and the blunt writing style of the newspapers, Patricia had the corners to her puzzle.
“I’ve done a lot of research and chasing to try and get to the bottom of everything,” Patricia said.
She was able to use various ancestry websites to track down the two boys who found her. She rang their families, in hope they had information, but they didn’t. The boys that had found her had both passed away.
The internet opened doors that she hadn’t planned on knocking at. She discovered that her four times great grandfather had shot himself accidentally. However, after posting a question on Genes Reunited, she found the needle hidden under all of the hay.
That needle was her niece, Emma. Emma responded, claiming that the person Patricia was seeking was her grandmother. Patricia sent her an email, asking to call her. After light conversation over the phone, Patricia asked Emma if she were seated. If she was alone. Emma took a guess. She asked if Patricia was a distant relative.
“Are you my Aunt Kate’s daughter?” Emma asked.
“No. Closer than that,” Patricia said.
She inhaled. She exhaled.
“I’m your father’s sister,” Patricia said.
VI: Meeting Graham
What would he be like? What would he say to her?
Patricia listened to each click of the train against the metal tracks beneath her. Her brother, Graham decided to visit Australia for a holiday, with his wife Beverly. She was going to meet him for the first time.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge came into view as the train exited the dim tunnel. Patricia stepped onto the platform at circular quay. Her husband, children and great grandchild followed her lead supportively.
They noticed each other instantly. He held a bunch of flowers, and a smile on his face. They instantly bonded.
“He hugged me and held me real tight and he said… ‘now that I’ve got you, I’m not going to let you go’” Patricia said.
Debbie hung back with the rest of her family, watching her mother meet her brother for the first time. They let the two have their moment.
“It was as though they’d known each other all their life,” Debbie said.
They went to a café for lunch. Debbie remembers them discussing topics generally, but they mainly spoke about the past. Graham reflected on what it was like growing up with Ethel as a mother.
“They talked nonstop,” Debbie said.
Amongst the conversation, Graham pulled out a gift for her. A photo album of images that Patricia couldn’t have had access to previously. The book held pictures of her mother, but it was what was on the cover that cemented the bond between her and Graham.
“When I go out, I wear my chain. I’ve got a ring on it that was hers that my brother brought me… that was a shock. That they’d bring the ring to give to me,” Patricia said.
The ring belonged to her mother. Graham thought his mother would have wanted her to have it.
“It was their bond together, with their mother’s keepsake,” Debbie said.
Graham and Beverly were unaware of Patricia’s abandonment. After their initial meeting, they had dinner. Patricia provided them with the newspaper clipping she had found. She wanted to be the one to tell them, worried they’d find it themselves online.
“I held it up and showed it so that Beverly could see it… she just burst into tears. I got up and stood beside her and I said don’t. It doesn’t bother me,” Patricia said.
Patricia gave them a folder with more newspaper clipping. She told them, it was up to them if they read it or not. However, when seeing them off at the airport for their flight back to England, they told her that they had read it. That they were okay.
Patricia never reunited with her birth mother. The family were protective. They didn’t want the past to chase her. Ethel Patricia Gumbrell died, 93, last year.
“I’ve never felt any animosity towards her. I always had that feeling that she couldn’t help it,” Patricia said.
Patricia is still looking. She hopes to discover more about her birth grandmother. She wants to use 1939 census to locate her, and understand why she wasn’t in her daughter’s life. She wants to dig deeper with each internet search, each phone call with Marjorie, and each email with her niece and brother.
She wants to put the pieces together to complete the puzzle. She has found the corners and the edges, she just has to seek out the image.