By Bernie Marchand ( Cruickshank)
It was November 18th, 1936, in the Sherwood Forest area of Nottingham, when two baby girls were born in a small, private Nursing Home. Margaret Wheeler’s baby was full term and weighted seven and a half pounds, and Blanche Rylatt’s baby was six weeks premature and weighted little one six pounds. (Blanche’s husband, Fred, had not wanted her to have the baby in a nursing home because he feared a mix up might happen!) The babies were not given to the mothers for twenty-four hours. The nurse asked Blanche “is this your baby?”. She replied, “don’t think so”’ so the baby was handed to Margaret. It didn’t seem the same as the one she had given birth to, Margaret became convinced that she had the wrong baby. There was a feeling of panic, not unknown in a maternity ward. On this occasion, it was a feeling that grew to certainty. Flowers and messages were delivered to the wrong mothers, but the husbands couldn’t believe anything was wrong. Charles Wheeler said that it was the stuff of fairy tales. Blanche found the subject so awful she eventually closed her mind to it. Margaret was determined to keep in touch with the Rylatts so she asked Fred to act as godfather to her daughter. (Really his own!) Peggy ‘Rylatt’ and Valerie ‘Wheeler’ grew up over two hundred miles apart because in 1938 the Wheelers moved to Cumberland. But Margaret took every opportunity to visit the Rylatts in Nottingham so that she could see Peggy.
Before this, when the girls reached their first birthday, Margaret went to see the then brown-eyed Peggy. She said that Peggy was ‘unmistakably’ he child. (Margaret was the only brown-eyed parent amongst the four and it was highly unlikely that the two blue-eyed Rylatts would give birth to a brown-eyed child.) Again, Blanched closed her mind to it.
After seven years, when no legal action could be taken, the two families were allowed to inspect the nursing home records, and found that the full term baby had been entered as Rylatt and the premature baby as Wheeler. The whole drama had happened because the two mothers had been mixed up!
It was at this time that Margaret started corresponding with George Bernard Shaw, a renowned ‘Thinker’ . He advised Margaret that the two girls should remain where they were (they were not packets of sweets to be handed around) the two families should meet regularly and adopt an aunt/uncle relationship. Margaret and Charles saw Peggy almost annually, but Valerie only recalls one visit to the Rylatts. Margaret had a book published of the correspondence with GBS. Val also has a copy.
Life carried on, the two girls not knowing they were with the wrong mothers. As a child, Val felt emotionally insecure and unwanted, and does not remember any kisses and cuddles. She was nothing like her ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ – they were emotionally and physically different. They were all extraverts whereas Val was shy and timid and more introverted. She always felt like an outsider. In her teens, she would look at her birth certificate to reassure herself that she belonged.
Sometimes when a nice person visited, Val would wonder if the visitor would like to adopt her. Margaret admitted later that at times she regarded Val as a usurper and that she was not able to treat Val as she did her other children. She could not give Val the love she needed although Charles always tried not to differentiate between the children.
When Val was about eight, she was sent to stay with Blanche, to try to convince Blanche of the mistake. She met her true little brother and immediately bonded with him, playing on the swing, helping him and protecting him, but of course not knowing the real relationship. Blanche seemed a kind, gentle person, and considered Val a ‘charming little visitor’. Fred, the father, was in the background’ and Val didn’t see much of him.
When Peggy was eighteen, she got engaged to be married. The Wheelers, wanted her to know the truth and perhaps be married under her proper name, went to Nottingham to tell her. She accepted the truth, mistaken a photo of Denise, Margaret’s second daughter as one of herself! Nevertheless she still wanted Fred, who had been a father all those years, to give her away.
Val was not told for a further two years. She was at Teacher Training Collage at the time and had to face her finals. The Wheelers had not wanted to upset her. Finally she was told just before her finals. She said she ha known something was wrong, confirmed when she was about fifteen and had come across a bundle of letters marked ‘ The Peggy/Valerie affair’. She was afraid to delve into them then and felt that if there HAD been a mistake, she would have been told. She had not fitted into the Wheeler family, felt discriminated against yet had struggled many years to be a ‘Wheeler’. The stress, when the truth came out, made Val very ill. She later went to live with the Rylatts which was strange and difficult. She struggled to be a Rylatt and to catch up on a lifetime of daily relationships and memories. Thankfully she eventually felt loved and was happy. Blanche said that it was very hard, having a complete stranger in the house. Fred was very upset when he realised how wrong he had been all those years and he tried to make amends. When Val got married, she asked Fred to give her away, not Charles.
The mistakable likeness of the two girls to their true families is striking – especially that of Val to her maternal grandmother.
Now, half a century later, a number of people here in Andorra have recently seen the BBC video, made in 1988, in which Val, Peggy and the two mothers took part, explaining in their own words what took place all those years ago. The four parents have now gone. Val and Peggy keep in touch and always introduce themselves as ‘sisters’. Val still becomes emotionally affected when talking about her life, but accepts that she grew up in an unusual environment, rich in books and academic strength. She feels she has many advantages, especially that of an extended family. All felt enriched by the experience, once the original trauma faded into the background.
Val is a wonderful, talented person, always willing to help others and be a good friend to many. She is loving, supportive mother to a son and daughter, which is how it should be.
The saddest thing is that a woman, a mother, can call a lovely little child a USURPER!
Val; my RAFIKI – we all love you.
Babes in the Forest
Written by Bernie Marchand ( Cruickshank)
Published in the Inter-Comm Summer 2003
Dear “Val” died on 5th April, 2016 in Andorra, age 89
she is missed by the whole community