Friday, July 31, 2020

'I was found as a baby wrapped in my mum's coat – but who am I?'

Tony May was only a few weeks old when he was abandoned by the River Thames in London, in the middle of World War Two. He had no idea who his parents were for more than 70 years. Then a DNA detective dug up the truth about his past.

A few days before Christmas, in 1942, a baby boy was brought in to a police station near the Houses of Parliament in London.

He had been found wrapped in a bright blue woman's coat on Victoria Embankment, a road lined with trees and occasional benches that runs along the north bank of the Thames. The boy was judged to be one month old and, after no-one came forward to claim him, he was allotted a birthday. He also needed a name. It was common at the time to refer to the place a child was found - and so he became Victor Banks.

"I always wondered who they were, you know? And why I would have been abandoned, I think that's the main thing."

Tony May is sitting in an old easy chair in his flat in St Albans, just to the north of London. There are jazz CDs piled on a side table, and photos of trumpet players on the wall.

"I used to run a club on the jazz circuit," he tells me. "We'd get musicians who had played at Ronnie Scott's."

Tony is in his 70s. Though he moves carefully around his flat his voice is full of energy. He gestures now to one of the pictures crammed on to his mantelpiece.

"My mum and dad, Arthur and Ivy, didn't have any brothers or sisters so they had friends who we called aunt and uncle. They were lovely to me."

The couple adopted Victor Banks when he was a toddler in 1944, changing his name to Tony May. They went on to adopt a little girl called Eleanor who became Tony's sister. Tony remembers being told he was adopted when he was about seven.

"It was no big deal really. But I remember my sister went around telling everyone we were adopted and I was so embarrassed."

Image copyrightTONY MAY
Image caption
Tony and his sister, Eleanor
When he was growing up, Tony was particularly close to his father.

"My dad was very bright but although he was very interested in sport he was no good at it at all. When he realised I was good at it, he used to give me and my friend Mick cricket catching practice every night. He'd come home from the bank - I can see him now with his hat and umbrella - and he'd come down the garden to help us. And he'd take me to see major sporting events at White City stadium in London.

"I became a very good cricketer and schoolboy athlete because he believed in me. And when you're adopted you need people to believe in you."

Tony's adoption was rarely mentioned by his parents.

"I remember once my dad knocked on my bedroom door when I was a teenager and asked what music I was listening to," Tony says.

"It was John Coltrane on tenor sax playing ballads. He said: 'Do you think you play such mournful music, because you're adopted?' I said: 'No Dad, this is world-class music played all over the world.' He said: 'Oh, OK then.' That was that, there was no dialogue about it."

Tony only discovered he had been found as a baby on his wedding day, at the age of 23.

Image copyrightTONY MAY
"My dad sidled over to me after the service," he says.

"He told me that when I got back from my honeymoon he'd have an envelope for me with my exam passes and adoption order. He said: 'There's a word on it that you might not know, the word foundling. Just letting you know.' I didn't twig for ages what it meant. It was much later that I realised I'd been abandoned."

Tony went into banking, like his father, and then into recruitment. He also had two children.

Looking back, he wonders whether not knowing where he came from did affect him, despite what he told his father about the music he'd been listening to that day.

"I worried a lot about things going wrong, which meant I worked extra hard at getting things right. It did mean when the auditors came around at work I knew I'd get a clean sheet.

"Though I laugh and joke and muck about, I'm not tactile. I'm fairly reserved, I would say, about showing emotion. But I can cry my eyes out watching a rugby match."

It wasn't until his adoptive parents had died that Tony felt ready to investigate where he came from. His first port of call was the London Record Office, where he was amazed to find out he wasn't allowed to look at his own adoption file. The rules at that time stipulated that a social worker had to go in and make notes in pencil on his behalf.

The file revealed that after being found on Victoria Embankment on 19 December 1942 he was taken to the old Canon Row police station near Westminster Bridge - but there was no mention of who had found him or at what time of day. After being examined at a hospital in Chelsea, he was evacuated to Easneye Nursery in Ware, Hertfordshire, away from the risk of bombing.

Image copyrightTONY MAY
Image caption
Ivy May
Little Victor first met Arthur and Ivy May at Easneye. Before they were allowed to adopt him they fostered him for a year and Tony is visibly moved as he reads out a welfare report from that time.

"Date on which visit made: 5 November 1943. Is the child well cared for? The answer is: 'She devotes her whole time and attention to the baby and he is responding well to individual care and is becoming interested in people and things.' Are the applicants satisfied with the child? 'They are very pleased with him and delighted to have a baby of their own.'"

"That's lovely, that," Tony says, tapping the table for emphasis.

Letters in Tony's file reveal the Mays wrote to the authorities to see if they could find out any more about his history. The reply was definitive - exhaustive inquiries had been carried out to trace the parents, but all efforts had been unsuccessful.

Having reached this dead end, Tony then took his story to the media in the hope it might jog someone's memory. He appeared on radio, TV and in newspapers in the mid-1990s. Some nurses who had worked at the Easneye nursery during the war came forward, but Tony was no closer to finding out about the circumstances of his birth.

"I had given up. I thought, 'No man can do more than I have done, so that's it,'" he says.

Then, four years ago, Tony joined a Facebook group for foundlings. They swapped stories about their lives and their theories about why they might have been left.

Tony thought he could be the result of a liaison between a British woman and an American GI. It's estimated that about 22,000 children were born in this way between 1942 and 1945.

"I was found in London and I know this is an area where it was happening," he says.

He mentioned his theory in the Facebook group, and it was a move that would change his life.

The post was spotted by Julia Bell, a genetic genealogist who has used DNA to track down American servicemen who fathered children during World War Two.

Julia's first successful case was working out who her own GI grandfather was."My mother was over the moon to find out. Her father had died in 2009 but she had five brothers and sisters living all over the US. They send her presents for her birthday."

Julia was inspired by her experience to work on other GI cases, but she was now looking for a new challenge.

"I was finding the American servicemen cases very easy. They all knew who their mothers were, but not their fathers. I thought, 'How about giving that gift of knowing where you come from to people who don't know who either side was?'"

She had started looking at foundling cases when she came across Tony's Facebook post, so she introduced herself and offered to help free of charge.

"I thought, why not?" Tony says.

"I've tried everything you know, if you like you might as well go for it. I didn't think she'd be successful. How can you possibly be from so little information?"

And he was right that the case was a tough one, in fact it was the hardest that Julia had ever attempted to crack.

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