Siblings left as foundlings years apart reunite in TV special

Three siblings who were each abandoned in phone boxes as babies and only met in their 50s say it ‘feels like they’ve known each other their whole lives’ as they reunite for Long Lost Family special

  • David, John and Helen were abandoned as babies on either side of Irish border 
  • Trio’s mother was a Roman Catholic who had an affair with a married Protestant
  • David and Helen’s reunion was chronicled on ITV’s Long Lost Family last year
  • John’s daughter saw the episode and noticed similarities with his story – with a DNA test proving the trio are full siblings

Like many long-awaited reunions, the family get-together at David McBride’s Birmingham home last weekend was joyful.

David, his younger brother John and sister Helen stayed up chatting long into the night.

This is not unusual of course – except that until two years ago, none had the remotest idea that any of the others existed.

All foundlings, each was abandoned at birth without a trace of their origins.

David had been placed in a red tartan shopping bag in a car on the outskirts of Belfast on a freezing January morning in 1962, Helen Ward left six years later in March 1968, also in a red tartan bag in a telephone box on other side of the Irish border.

Despite the similarities between their circumstances and two large scale media appeals no-one had ever made the connection between them, leaving both to spend much of their adult lives in an unsuccessful search for their birth parents.

David, his younger brother John and sister Helen are pictured at his Birmingham home. They trio – all abandoned as babies – only discovered they were siblings last year

Only last year did DNA confirm that David and Helen were full brother and sister, born to the same mother and father six years apart.

Their astonishing story was revealed soon after in an episode of ITV’s Long Lost Family, which chronicled the siblings’ joyful reunion and the extraordinary fact that their Roman Catholic mother and married Protestant father had had a secret affair for decades.

Neither could have conceived that there might be a further twist. Yet watching the show many miles away across the ocean in Australia, a young woman called Donna felt the story resonated.

Her father John Dowling was also a foundling, left in an Irish phone box on a May evening with a warm bottle of milk beside him.

What’s more, his mannerisms bore an eerie resemblance to David’s.

Donna picked up the phone to her father – a heavy goods driver living in from Kilkenny – and suggested he too do an DNA test.

Incredibly, it showed that he was another full blood sibling to David and Helen, born three years after David and three years before his younger sister.

Their extraordinary story is sensitively charted in a special episode of Long Lost Family tonight which retraces the events and trail of secrecy that led to a mother and father giving away not one but three babies over the course of six years.

‘I always assumed I was the only one,’ as David, a 59-year-old-lawyer puts it. ‘To find out I’ve got not just a sister, but a brother too has been mind-blowing.’

Their astonishing story was revealed soon after in an episode of ITV’s Long Lost Family, which chronicled the siblings’ joyful reunion and the extraordinary fact that their Roman Catholic mother and married Protestant father had had a secret affair for decades

‘To go from one day being a woman who was adopted, to having a full brother and then another – it’s an incredible feeling,’ adds Helen, a 53-year-old former teacher.

For John meanwhile – who had even watched the programme featuring David and Helen little thinking it was his own siblings on screen – the discovery has prompted a maelstrom of emotions. ‘I was dumbfounded when I got the news,’ he says. ‘There’s sadness in this story, but there is also so much happiness.’

Chatting over zoom today with the three of them, there’s no question about the family resemblance. They all share the same wide smile and similar noses.

And despite being relatively new to each other’s lives, they first met earlier this summer, they already enjoy the kind of affectionate teasing that any group of siblings will recognise. ‘It’s like we’ve known each other all our lives,’ says David.

Thankfully, all three had happy upbringings with their respective adoptive families, although they discovered they were foundlings at different stages in life. For David, who was raised in Belfast, the revelation came when he was 15 and applying to join the military.

On the birth certificate he was required to produce, by his birthdate was written ‘on or about Jan 6th’.

‘I asked my father what that meant, and it was then that he told me,’ he recalls. He learned that on Jan 16th 1962 he had been found wrapped in a blanket, placed in a red tartan bag and left in the front seat of a car on a suburban street on the outskirts of Belfast.

He was around 14 days old at the time. ‘It meant that for the first couple of weeks of my life someone fed me, clothed me kept me warm, loved me, someone genuinely cared,’ he says.

The legacy of that revelation was profound. ‘Suddenly your view of the world changes slightly. You feel a wee bit lost to be truthful,’ he recalls.

It began a quest to uncover his origins including, in 2003, a television appeal.

Yet despite his efforts he was unable to solve the mystery of his beginnings.

Little could David – who now lives in Birmingham with his wife Anastra and their three children, and who also has four grown up daughters from a previous marriage – have known that his sister was on a parallel journey.

Six years after David was abandoned Helen Ward – just days old, snugly dressed, and with a bottle of milk beside her in the tartan bag in which she was placed – was left in a telephone box in the Irish town Dundalk on a rainy March night in 1968.

She was discovered by a lorry driver and subsequently adopted by a loving couple who, while always open about the fact she was not biologically theirs, chose not to disclose the full circumstances of her birth.

‘When I was 17, I asked my dad for more information, and he said ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’ But of course, you can’t,’ Helen, from Dublin, says. ‘There are so many questions. My birth mum especially was always in the back of my mind. I thought of the hardship she had gone through giving me up and I had this huge need to know who she was.’

Brothers in arms: John discovered her was David’s brother after seeing his reunion with Helen last year

Particularly following the birth of her own children, a son and two daughters, now in their twenties.

‘I struggled when my first baby came along – my daughter was missing out on her grandmother,’ she reflects. ‘You think about the day that she dressed you, put you in a bag, put you in a phone box, and sent you off. And you look at your own little baby and you say ‘how could she have done that?’

Finally, in 2003, Helen plucked up the courage to visit an adoption centre in Drogheda, Ireland. She hoped to find more information about her birth mother’s identity, but instead her birth certificate contained only the simple words ‘child found exposed’.

Those three words broke her heart. ‘I had gone in with such hope’ Helen recalls. ‘It’s heart-breaking but also frustrating. You feel somebody out there must know something.’

Her search continued: eight years ago, Helen went public, talking to a local radio station about her quest. Although it prompted an emotional reunion with the lorry driver who had found her, it provided no further answers – although it did lead to a curious conversation with a local journalist who said he had heard of a similar story to hers which had occurred three years earlier in Drogheda, 21 miles down the coast from Dundalk.

‘It was very similar, but as a foundling you think a mother could only leave one child,’ she recalls.

More years passed, until the advances in DNA led Helen to take a test and in 2019 put herself on an online database.

Reunited: David and Helen’s reunion was chronicled on ITV’s Long Lost Family last year

Months later, there was a hit: unbeknownst to her producers for Long Lost Family had uploaded David’s DNA onto the same system and discovered a full match. They got in contact and the discovery was astonishing to both of them.

‘Finding I had a sister was probably one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever had,’ recalls David. ‘At the same time there was also sadness, knowing that she had gone through the same difficult journey as me.’

The brother and sister’s first meeting, weeks later in late 2019, in a guest house close to the Irish border that had separated them for their early years, was joyful. ‘There was just this immediate connection,’ says David.

‘It was like we were just in a room on our own and nothing else mattered,’ adds Helen.

Naturally, both were desperate to know more about their birth parents. Yet neither were prepared for the trail uncovered by researchers, who through a spider’s web of related DNA matches and forensic detective work managed to put together the pieces of the jigsaw.

Their mother was originally from Kerry, their father from Dublin, where he was a shop manager and band leader. He had died in 1993 at the age of 82.

Married with 14 children, he had conducted a secret extra-marital affair with their mother, who was 17 years younger, for nearly 40 years.

‘They must have really loved each other for it to go on for that length of time,’ says David.

David, Helen and John (David and John are pictured)  are now getting to know some of his remaining children, some of whom knew about their father’s extra-marital relationship but had no idea there were children stemming from it.

What’s more, their mother was Roman Catholic and their father Protestant, a further scandal at a time of huge sectarian tension. ‘It was a double taboo – an affair but also across the religious divide,’ David adds.

Both believe it goes some way to explaining why their mother gave up her children, which she had had between the ages of 34 and 41 – then a relatively advanced age.

‘It must have been a very lonely situation she was in and it must have taken a huge amount of thought to give us up for the man she loved – but perhaps it was the only way,’ says Helen.

Heartbreakingly, their mother passed away just four years ago at the age of 90. She had never married or had any other children – so they thought.

‘I think we both have this sadness for her,’ says David now. ‘It’s very hard to put yourself in the place of our parents in sixties Ireland and the choices they had to make.’

It was only when returning from visiting their mother’s grave that Helen mentioned to David that she wondered if there might be a third sibling.

What is a foundling? 

A founldling is an infant that has been abandoned by its parents and is discovered and cared for by others. 

Helen and David share remarkably similar stories – but no one put the pieces together as they were left on either side of the Irish border. 

David had been placed in a red tartan shopping bag in a car on the outskirts of Belfast on a freezing January morning in 1962, 

Helen Ward left six years later in March 1968, also in a red tartan bag in a telephone box on other side of the Irish border. 

John was found in  Drogheda in May 1965 by a journalist Paul Murphy after he heard the sound of a baby crying from a local phone box as he walked home from a visit to a friend.

Their mother was originally from Kerry, their father from Dublin, where he was a shop manager and band leader. He had died in 1993 at the age of 82.

Married with 14 children, he had conducted a secret extra-marital affair with their mother, who was 17 years younger, for nearly 40 years.

 What’s more, their mother was Roman Catholic and their father Protestant, a further scandal at a time of huge sectarian tension. ‘It was a double taboo – an affair but also across the religious divide,’ David adds.

‘That conversation from years ago with the journalist had taken on a new resonance after finding David,’ she says. ‘The fact there was six years between us also left a question mark in my mind.’

‘I thought Helen had lost her marbles at that point,’ David admits. ‘But when I did some research there were only three reported cases that I could find anywhere in Ireland over the Sixties of children being abandoned – and Helen and I were two of them.’

As it turns out, that third case was John. He had been found in Drogheda in May 1965 by a journalist Paul Murphy after he heard the sound of a baby crying from a local phone box as he walked home from a visit to a friend.

He found a baby lying in a hold-all wrapped in a rug with a warm bottle of milk beside him. He called the police and the baby – later given the name John – was taken to a local hospital and subsequently adopted.

Raised alongside a sister, he recalls he was always told he was adopted, but his parents had no idea he was a foundling, having been told nothing about the circumstances behind his placement into the adoption system.

‘I had a very straightforward conversation with my mother and father who were very good people, and gave me a great upbringing,’ he says.

The birth of his three daughters with wife Paula prompted more curiosity over his past, but it was not until 2013 that he decided to make further enquiries.

‘I was always that little bit afraid of what I might find,’ he says.

Encouraged by a friend who had stumbled upon the story of a baby left in a phone box around the time of his birth, John’s enquiries led him to the discovery that he was that baby.

‘It was strange,’ he admits. ‘It puts all these thoughts in your head regarding where you are really from.’

Yet like Helen and David any attempts at further enquiries yielded only dead ends. ‘I told myself that maybe I wasn’t to know,’ he says.

That is, until last year, when his daughter Donna watched Helen and David’s reunion on Long Lost Family, which is also shown in Australia, where she now lives.

‘I felt a very strong emotion to the point where I thought these people could be related to my father,’ she recalls on the show. In particular, she felt they shared an identical walk and that – of all things – their hands looked the same.

She contacted the producers on email and rang her father to suggest a DNA test.

The news that they were related, when it came a few short weeks later, was ‘dumbfounding’. ‘I was overjoyed,’ he says. ‘It felt like winning the Lottery.’

The trio’s first meeting earlier this summer was as joyful as that of Helen and David 18 months earlier. ‘It’s amazing to actually look into someone’s eyes and to see is there a similar person looking back at you,’ says John.

‘It was very natural and easy,’ says Helen. ‘I think that’s the biggest feeling out of all this, there’s no barrier there between us. We talked about everything, our past, our feelings. It’s amazing to find people who know exactly how you feel.’

That joyful reconnection also extends to their children, many of whom met for the first time this past weekend. Our children want to know where they come from too – it’s about their sense of identity,’ says David. ‘Suddenly they’ve discovered new cousins. Several of them look very much alike, and it’s been lovely seeing them make their own connections.’

There are other family bonds being forged too: while four of their birth father’s offspring have sadly passed away, David, Helen and John are now getting to know some of his remaining children, some of whom knew about their father’s extra-marital relationship but had no idea there were children stemming from it.

‘We have to be sensitive to the fact that this was their father,’ says Helen. ‘For some of them there has been a lot to take in. We have now met two of them and they have been very welcoming.’

Today, all three feel grateful they have been able to answer some of the questions that have haunted them their whole adult lives – and for the chance to forge deeper bonds. ‘There’s a sense of completion for all of us,’ says John.

Long Lost Family Special – Born Without Trace What Happened Next is on tonight (14 Sept) at 9pm on ITV.

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