‘I’d absolutely no clue my brother existed’: The husband who came home from the war to find a son who wasn’t his, the mother forced to give her boy away and the younger sister who tracked him down for emotional reunion 70 YEARS later
A chance encounter can sometimes change our lives for ever, and Barbara Jacobs often reflects on the one that transformed hers. Had she not bumped into an old family friend while out running an errand for her boss, Barbara might never have known that she had a third brother — one she knew nothing of.
The revelation came out of the blue when she ran into the woman — a former next-door neighbour — in the village near Southampton where Barbara has lived all her life.
‘We caught up on family news. I told her my two older brothers, Clive and Brian, had both recently divorced — and then she started reminiscing about my late mum, Betty, who had died when I was three years old. All of a sudden, the incredible story of another brother, Geoffrey — one I’d absolutely no clue existed — just spilled out.
Barbara Jacobs is reunited with her ‘lost’ brother Geoffrey on the ITV show Long Lost Family
‘I was utterly shocked. I walked back to work in a daze. Why had I not known this before? Why hadn’t my family told me?
‘I wonder now if Mum’s friend had been waiting for an opportunity to tell me, and because she was elderly she thought she might not get another chance.’
Talking to other old friends of her mother in the village of West End, Hampshire, Barbara pieced together the tragic untold story of her lost youngest brother.
Geoffrey had been conceived while Betty’s husband, Frank, was abroad fighting in World War II. She’d met his father, a soldier, at a dance in the village hall. During a brief romance, she’d become pregnant and had given birth to Geoffrey during Frank’s absence.
‘All the young women in the village went to the dances, and for a short time the austerity and misery of wartime was forgotten,’ says Barbara. ‘There was music, fun, laughter — I can understand how appealing it must have been. And Mum became pregnant. Then Dad came home from the war in 1945 expecting to find two sons — and there were three.’
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Barbara can only imagine the furore that ensued; the recriminations, the ultimatum; the subsequent heartbreak.
For Frank gave Betty a choice: she could stay with him and their sons Clive and Brian and put Geoffrey, then 18 months old, up for adoption; or leave the family home with her illegitimate son for good.
Her decision was an invidious one, but Betty decided to keep the family intact and give up her youngest boy. ‘My mum’s friends told me that it broke her heart,’ says Barbara.
‘I felt her pain at losing him, but when I thought of a little boy — my brother — playing with Clive and Brian and then suddenly being parted from them, and losing his mum, too, it ripped me to shreds.
‘Mum had died many years earlier when I was a little girl, but I remember being so angry: with Mum and Dad by turns. Why had Dad given Mum the ultimatum? Why had she accepted it? I swung between sadness and anger.
Barbara is pictured with her brothers Brian and Clive as children. They both died in 2001
‘But mostly I thought: ‘That poor little boy.’ I couldn’t get Geoffrey out of my mind.’
Barbara was in her early 20s when she first learned of Geoffrey’s existence, and for the next 50 years barely a day passed when her lost brother didn’t cross her mind.
After her father died in 1999 she attempted to find him, but the trail went cold when she discovered Geoffrey’s birth certificate, amended to say he’d been adopted but not giving his new surname.
Then two years ago she applied to the ITV show Long Lost Family, and in April this year — thanks to help from its professional intermediaries who tracked him down through his adoptive surname, Tonks — Barbara met her missing brother for the first time.
The emotion of their tearful first hug is captured on film in tomorrow’s episode of the programme.
Embracing his newly discovered sister, 73-year-old Geoff, who spent his early years thinking he was an only child, tells her: ‘I can’t tell you how important this day is for me. I’m stronger now, knowing I have a sister.’
‘And that she loves you,’ says Barbara, 71, holding his hand. ‘I couldn’t stop worrying about you,’ she tells him. ‘Oh, I worried lots. I haven’t got to any more. Seeing how happy you are is a weight lifted from my shoulders.’
Three-year-old Barbara with her mother Betty
Geoff and his wife Wendy, who have been happily married for 50 years, had considered trying to find his birth family when he accessed his adoption records through Barnardo’s in 1995.
‘But I hadn’t been wanted when I was 18 months — and I was frightened of a second rejection,’ he admits.
‘But you’re wanted now, without a doubt,’ smiles Barbara, and Geoffrey smiles back at her.
‘I have a sister now. I am wanted. It’s a big thing. It’s overwhelming really,’ he says between tears.
Geoff and Barbara felt bonded by their blood ties the instant they saw each other. Now they are irrevocably a part of each other’s lives.
Barbara has been on holiday with Geoff and Wendy, 71, at their static caravan in Mid Wales. A big family party in Hampshire, with her new brother and his wife as guests of honour, is planned for Barbara’s birthday in September.
‘When I first learned I had a sister and heard the full story, I felt really emotionally drained and had a good cry,’ he says. ‘Then I met Barbara and the conversation flowed so easily. If we had another 70 years together, I don’t think we’d stop finding things to talk about. We get on so well. I tease her a lot. We’ve so much in common. Barbara is lovely. She’s part of our family now.’
Barbara works at a doctors’ surgery doing admin. Smart and kindly, she is divorced with two grown-up daughters and three grandchildren. Geoff, retired from their family motor components business in the Midlands, is amiable and warm. He and Wendy have a son and a daughter and three grandchildren.
Geoff was taken into care by Barnardo’s after he left Betty’s home. He has no recollection of his young life until he was adopted, aged seven, by Harry Tonks, a bus driver, and his wife Violet.
His childhood was a solitary one, without affection. ‘As an only child I didn’t have other children to play with. I wasn’t cuddled. My parents never held my hand. They certainly didn’t tell me they loved me.’
The family was comfortably off — they had a car and went on holidays to the seaside— but there was never any emotional closeness. Geoffrey knew, too, that he was adopted as he remembers the formal procedure he went through when his name was changed.
He says he did not experience love until he met Wendy at college in Walsall, Staffordshire, where he was on day release from an apprenticeship and she was doing a secretarial course. ‘I saw Wendy through the window in her typing class and I thought, ‘She’s the girl for me.’ And now we’ve just had our golden wedding anniversary.’
Meanwhile, Barbara’s young life was clouded by the loss of her mother. Betty died of cancer when she was just 32.
Barbara, then three, says she has scant memory of her mum — ‘though I do recall sneaking a peak, some years after Mum died, at letters people had written to Dad, to make me feel close to her.’
She remembers, too, how her father soldiered on, raising Clive, Brian and Barbara (who was born 17 months after Geoff had been sent to Barnardo’s) single-handed.
Barbara’s father Frank, who died in 1999
‘I was very close to Dad, and after Mum died I think he was anxious about bringing up a girl on his own — he knew he’d cope with the boys — but he did a good job.
‘He worked as a scaffolder and we were latch-key kids. We all had chores to do after school. I did washing and cooking from an early age.
‘I don’t think we spoke about Mum during all my young life. I was much older when I realised what I’d missed, and then I couldn’t talk about her without dissolving into tears.’
Barbara was married with a young child of her own — her elder daughter Kim was just a toddler — when she met the old friend of her mum’s who first told her about Geoffrey. She vividly remembers the initial shock and confusion. Then pieces of a jigsaw began to fall into place.
‘Dad had a photo of Mum with a child whose name I knew was Geoffrey. I remember asking him who Geoffrey was and he said: ‘I don’t know. He’s one of your mother’s relatives.’ Of course I knew by then that Geoffrey was actually her own baby.
‘The story was almost unbelievable but it had to be true because I connected the name with the photo. And I thought: ‘How have I not known this before? How have I got to my 20s before finding out?’
‘I felt my mother’s pain, but also my father’s anger. I confronted Dad and said: ‘How could you possibly have made Mum give her baby away? How do you think I’d feel if someone told me I had to give Kim away?’ He just looked at me and said: ‘You weren’t there. You don’t know. So shut it.’
‘And that was the last word he said about Geoffrey. I can imagine it was a hammer blow to know Mum had had another man’s child while he was at war. But I also know how Mum’s heart must have broken to have to give him away.
‘Out of respect for Dad, I didn’t bring up the subject of Geoff again. But I was haunted by the thought of the bewilderment and pain my brother must have felt when he had to leave his family.’
After Frank died in 1999, Barbara faced a double bereavement: both her older brothers died in 2001. Then her marriage fell apart. Finally, when she started to emerge from a fog of grief, she began to wonder again about Geoffrey.
‘I felt this urgency to find him,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t that I wanted to replace my brothers; I just needed to know he was all right.
‘By then, Mum was my first priority — I wanted to find him for her sake — but Geoffrey himself came a very close second. I was terribly worried that he’d had an awful life.’
Through Long Lost Family, who used a specialist social worker to legally access his adoption records, Geoffrey John Tonks was traced via the electoral register to Staffordshire. Barbara’s quest is now complete.
‘Getting to know Geoff (as she now calls him) has given me far more than I ever hoped for,’ she says. ‘Before I met him, I felt such dread that I was feeling physically sick. I was thinking, ‘Is it going to be worth it?’
She first met Geoff at a hotel near her home in Hampshire. ‘As soon as I opened the door and saw him sitting there, I just felt natural, comfortable. All my fears disappeared.
‘And when I saw the happiness in his face as he hugged me, it was amazing. I felt tremendous warmth. I’ve already told him how much I love him, because without doubt I do. And he’s said the same to me.
‘We chat all the time, and if there’s a silence then it’s a comfortable one. I’ve taken Geoff family photos and he’s building up an album of them.
‘I’ve given him one of our Mum and he’s framed it and displayed it on the sideboard, alongside a brooch of hers that I’ve given him.
‘And Wendy has been just wonderful. She’s allowed me into her life, too, and it’s great. More than I could ever have hoped for.’
Wendy is delighted by the happiness that Barbara and Geoff’s newly discovered kinship has given them both. ‘It’s lovely to see their closeness,’ she says. ‘Geoff keeps repeating: ‘I have a sister!’ He is so thrilled.’
Wendy has also remarked on traits and similarities that mark them as brother and sister. Both have a little bend in their index fingers. They share a sense of humour and are relaxed enough to tease each other.
Barbara reprimands Geoff for calling her ‘our kid’. Geoff, who has a gentle Black Country accent, tells her he’ll have to have elocution lessons as she speaks ‘posh’.
Most of all, of course, the ties that bind them are familial: they are both Betty’s children.
And though her life was short and in many ways tragic, Barbara believes she is happy now.
‘Both Wendy and I are convinced Mum had a hand in all this,’ smiles Barbara. ‘It’s been a long time coming, but we know she’ll rest in peace now.’
Long Lost Family is on ITV tomorrow at 9pm.
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