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Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle www.mn.catholic.org.au
ONE BY ONE
THINK I AM?
Former British child migrant James Gallagher,
now of Newcastle, tells his story.
This story begins with an Irish girl in
Bir mingham, falling in love with an
American airman, pregnant and alone in
post-war England. It's how I came to be.
In 1948 this mother was ill, only able to
get factory shiftwork, so placed her boy
in a home run by nuns.
In arrear s for his upkeep, she was not
allowed to see him. In despair, she
completely cut her self off from him. In
the words of church authorities, 'She
deser ted him.' She abandoned me, some
may say, but it was in despair and with no
Early memories of England, of the sea
voyage, are just blurry images . I was
one of the child migr ants consigned to
the Murray Dwyer orphanage, Mayfield,
I was there for six months . Nothing bad
is remembered. My strongest memory
wa s of meeting my adoptive par ents. We
formed a line while prospective foster
parents 'inspected' us .
My red hair and sunburn from my fir st
Australian summer made me the singular
source of pity that my adoption mother
fell for. I was adopted into this wonder ful
family but never forgot that I had another
mother in England and from time to time
wondered about her.
At 24, educated and with a car eer, I
decided on a working holiday in England
for some digging into my past. I had
weighed up settling down against
answering that nagging question, 'Who
do I think I am'?
Fir st, a visit to Somer set House for a copy
of my bir th cer tificate. There wa s nothing
new, par ticularly about my father.
In Aston, Birmingham, I visited the
site where I wa s born. The house had
been demolished. I called at St Chad's
Cathedr al and asked about local
orphanages. The only orphanage wa s at
'Coleshill' on the Coventry road.
In 1952 I had ar rived in Austr alia with a
cardboard suitcase tagged 'Coleshill'. I
was on the right track.
Next morning I took the bus to St
Edward's boys' home. I recognised the
building's exterior and went to the
Office and spoke with Canon Smith.
He remarked he had over seen my
depar ture in 1952.
He told of my mother putting me first
into day care, then per manent care . I now
knew she had come from Ulster. I was
told that Church and state officials could
not find her seventeen years earlier, so I
would have no hope in my search.
I was shown notes from
my Mum, such as "Please
find 17/6d for the upkeep
of James Gallagher ", and
answering demands for
unpaid upkeep. She could
write well, I thought.
The nuns, mostly Irish,
were welcoming. Some
remembered 'little Jimmy'. I
was shown photos of group
outings in which I recognised
myself at the age of five.
When my mother registered for a
hospital stay before my bir th, minimum
details were listed under 'father',
simply 'James Lee; American Ar my Air
I left better infor med but not satisfied.
I would find out 35 years later that my
mother died of bronchial cancer two
weeks after I arrived in England to
look for her.
In 2000, visiting my wife's relatives, I
attended Nottingham Child Migr ant Tr ust
office. The stair s and its waiting room are
'wallpapered' with hundreds of photos
of child migrants, many showing them
reunited with family.
Margaret Humphries, whose book on
child migrants, Empty Cradles, had been
released in 1989, saw me without an
appointment. She listened, without a
sign that she was listening to yet another
She commented there was little
infor mation to work on. Stonewalling by
the orphanage and Church authorities
was gr adually changing. She said there
are two organisations that ar e almost
impossible to get infor mation from;
the American military and the Catholic
Church. I had the quinella !
I now found that trying to talk about my
origins and the frustrations of my search
had uncorked emotions that I could not
explain. I no longer suppress feelings as I
previously would have.
In 2003 the English Bishops appointed
Joan Kerry to help trace
families and assist
Joan had a small
team of retired
nuns to be 'feet
on the ground'
my mother was
to one entry that
matched the criteria. But
how to find the link to her life in
My baptismal cer tificate stated that Ina
Ander son was my godmother. Searching
her unusual first name might be useful.
Joan found her. Ina didn't know what
happened to Jeanie after she lost
contact all those years ago but said a Jan
Watson of Stoke-on-Trent had been a
Jan was visited and remembered that my
mother had met someone to whom she
eventually had two sons.
Joan tr aced that someone and one of
their children : Ian.
How do you approach someone and
open up the past that many prefer
to forget? Joan carefully pr esented
the information to Ian, who called a
Ther e were actually four sons bor n to
Jeanie and their father. He had died some
36 year s earlier. She struggled to r aise the
boys on poorly paid jobs in cor ner shops,
pubs and cleaning. Jeanie had died when
the oldest was 21. Peter managed to keep
the family together. I was to find all four
had successful career s.
Jeanie had been circumspect about her
past. She said she was born outside
Londonderry but never spoke about her
dysfunctional family. I would find that my
mother was christened Sar ah Jane but
prefer r ed to be called Jeanie.
Jeanie was bor n on 5 November at
Str abane in a parish workhouse to an
unmar ried mother, and raised in an
orphanage. She moved to England in
1943 to work.
My daughter, Sarah, visited my godmother
who was in hospital suffering from cancer.
Ina described the times immediately
after the war. At a dance they met a tall
redheaded American Air Force Sergeant
called James Lee. She described him
as quiet and laconic. My daughter was
astonished : 'That's just like my Dad.'
Jeanie was besotted.
Lee was then posted elsewhere and
made no fur ther contact. I don't know
if he knew Jeanie was pregnant. He
was gone from her life. Ina could not
remember the details necessary to
tr ace him.
The open arms and bear hug from her
new uncle made my daughter feel ver y
welcome. His enthr alled daughter s were
so pleased to meet their Austr alian
cousin. When my tur n came to meet my
family you can imagine my sentiments.
Meeting my brothers one by one was
emotional but the family reunion dinner
Discovering where our mother was
buried, I paid an emotional visit to
the Lodge Hill Cemetery. My brother
Ian is now also buried there. I go to
Bir mingham as of ten as I can.
James is a widower and father. He has
retired and maintains strong connections
with his extended family in England.
BY JAMES GALLAGHER
How do you
open up the past
that many prefer
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