During a 30 year period in Britain, from 1945 to 1975, around half a million babies were adopted. Maybe as many as half of the mothers, that’s 250,000, were coerced into handing over their babies because they were unmarried.
Just stop and think about that figure. As with many statistics, the higher the number, the greater chance of number blindness and emotional overload. It’s so bewildering to imagine half a million, that both heart and brain switch off.
Jo Horsley’s mother was one of that number. But Jo, a pilates teacher in Kendal, is a natural storyteller, full of curiosity and has a need to see her world in words, rather than statistics.
So she’s written it all down, her own life story, pieced together with help from Coram, the first and longest-running children’s charity. Originally the Foundling Hospital, over three centuries more than 25,000 children were in their care, and Jo was one of them. They took over when Jo’s birth mother was unable to cope; in time they helped her to trace who her mother was.
Kissing frogs along the way
It’s a tale of love and laughter and failures and occasional successes in a life that’s full of longing for the fairytale ending that never happened though, as Jo says: “Plenty of frogs were kissed along the way.” The story, The Girl in the Purple Dress, is a delight to read, not great literature, but an honest and frank account of getting into a mess and working your way out of it.
Jo’s life has been full of incident, mini-traumas, hair-raising episodes, but she doesn’t over-dramatise. She doesn’t need to. She’s matter-of-fact about her life and her choices.
“So desperate was I to find a happy fairytale ending to my troubled life story, I fell into a marriage that didn’t even last long enough for me to bother changing my name on my chequebook. And, as ever, I only had myself to blame.”
Rocky road to happiness
In fact, Jo did eventually marry again, happily, and now says she feels blessed, with a daughter and grand-daughter whom she adores. But the road to contentment has been a rocky one. In her teens, Jo was groomed by an older man, but she tells that story without excessive remorse or soul-searching. It was a mistake, she got over it.
Then she became friendly with a moderately famous pop star with whom she shared adventures in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, and Gstaad, “with him footing much of the bill. He was never anything but a proper gentleman and we were all just good mates.” And eventually – after training as a nursery nurse and making a successful career looking after other people’s children – she became a single-parent mother herself.
But dismiss any notions of a tough cookie determined to battle through life. As a child and into her early teens, Jo had wept every night, in spite of her adoption by a kindly vicar and his family. Half-Malaysian, she found herself with five brothers and sisters, along with another adopted child, half-Japanese Ziggy. “It made me feel very different to the others because of my background. It was as if I had an empty well inside of me that constantly needed filling with reassurance.”
Searching for her mother
The family were kind and loving and supportive but Jo always felt different, separate, and in time it was natural that she wanted to track down her birth mother. Though not until after she was happily married, and after the tragic death of Ziggy. “That’s when I needed to do it, and that’s where Coram helped,” Jo told me.
We were chatting after her guest appearance at the Bowness book club, at the Burn How Hotel, a book-club that regularly invites writers to talk about their craft. Recent visitors have included a romantic novelist, a poet, an adventurer, and the top crime writer Martin Edwards. Jo talked about her search, just as complex and painful as the details of her early life, but all told without anguish or hand-wringing. Confident and articulate, she’s the epitome of life-affirming positivity, even though, once again, there was no fairytale ending to the search for her mother.
Just as interesting was her account of how and why she felt the need to write about her experience. It began, she says, during the Covid lockdown:
“I think that period fostered a lot of soul searching among many people. I used to sit on a big swing in the garden, thinking, just as I had done when I was a child. It was like a message or a calling, a spiritual experience. How could I use what I had gone through to help others?”
Government apology demanded
A further trigger was when the news broke about the many thousands of other enforced adoptions, and an ongoing campaign to put pressure on the UK Government to issue a formal apology following the lead of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments apologising earlier this year… and the Australian Government ten years ago.
This was when Jo started to hear, regularly, the expression: “It’s like a piece of me is missing.” “How many times have I said that very phrase throughout my life?” she said. She also tried to trace her birth father whose name she had tracked down with the help of Coram. “When my husband was on a business trip to Asia, I accompanied him specifically so that I could go back to my roots and visit Malaysia where half of me originates from. It proved to be a very poignant adventure, and I felt a strong sense of connection there.”
She failed there, so far, but Jo says that’s not the end of her story. “If I’ve learned anything it’s that you should never give up hope about who’s out there and whether they’ll ever turn up to complete the family puzzle. To anyone who’s been adopted I would advise: always, always carry hope.”
Now she wants to use her own experience to help others. She’s talking to a local adoption agency about potentially working with them: “I want to be able to make use of this story to reach out to others. I’d like to work with children who have been adopted and maybe give them some hope.”