Throughout my life, the true story of my heritage remained unsolved. Seeking to join the Royal Marine’s at the age of 17 and my birth certificate revealing that Jim was not my real father was something I took in my stride. My sister, Rose-Marie, however, was not so at ease with the revelation.
Rose-Marie and I remained close for the rest of her life. While I was in Aden, Rose-Marie met Pete, the man who she was to marry in 1967. I recall thinking that it would be strange to come home on leave and her not to be there. We had fought, particularly as kids, but we were always there for each other if anyone else was creating problems. In many ways, I owed my speed and agility to her as she would frequently chase me, and I could run upstairs and jump out the bedroom window from quite a young age.
Initially, she and Pete set up home in a village just outside Lincoln and two children came along, a boy named Simon, who was to be my godson, and then a girl named Sarah. After a few years, Pete got a job in Wiltshire, so the family moved down there, which is where Damian was born.
I always got on well with Damian, in fact he was to become the son that I never had. We shared a lot of things in common and our lives went along similar patterns. We both joined the military and started in the ranks and then got commissioned. When we left the military, we both went into business and did well at that. However, whereas I had no children he has a son, James, who calls me Grandad, so I am very much part of his family.
Even after Rose-Marie moved to Wiltshire we would still see each other, as I would drive down with Mum and Dad a couple of times a year. In the subsequent years, Dad, then being retired, would spend some time staying at Rose-Marie’s looking after the garden or any other jobs that needed doing. Sadly, Rose-Marie died in 2004 and was never able to find out the details of who her father really was.
Marie, my mother, died in Lincoln in May 1994. After she died, I was sorting through her papers and discovered, much to my surprise, a divorce decree for Marie and Pierre Gatepain, dated April 29th, 1965. Pierre Gatepain had not been killed in an automobile accident after all. At that time, I began a search for my father through the Red Cross and eventually discovered that Pierre was still alive and living in Roquefort-les-Pins, France, near Nice. Unfortunately, he was on his deathbed, so I was unable to meet him and sadly, he died in 1998. I did, however, communicate with members of his family during this time.
My appearance led to problems with Pierre’s estate, as none of his family knew about Rose-Marie and me. At that time I received a letter written by Pierre’s second wife’s sister, Marguerite. The letter was written in French and I had never had it translated. After I met Gay and made her aware of the story, she translated the letter and reveal that Marguerite was very unhappy about the dispensation of Pierre’s estate. She claimed that Rose-Marie and I had no right to an inheritance because we weren’t really Pierre’s children. She elaborated as follows,
Pierre and Marie had been married for almost ten years and had had no children. They grew apart after moving to Lille in 1944, and in 1945 they separated and each had an affair, Pierre with Marguerite’s sister, Yvonne, and Marie with a soldier in the Allied Army, who Marguerite said was an Englishman. Marie became pregnant. The child’s father had to continue on with the Allied forces and left Marie and the baby in Lille.
In the meantime, Pierre had moved his blind mother to Lille, and Marie moved back in with him to help care for her. They pretended that their marriage was still intact. Several months later, according to Marguerite, Marie learned that the child’s father had been killed. When the baby girl was born, Pierre agreed to give her his name.
By 1946, Pierre was living with Yvonne, and Marie and the child were living separately. She became pregnant a second time, also to an Englishman. In 1947 she left France and moved to England. But, when the second child was born, she gave him the Gatepain name as well, since she and Pierre were still legally married.
Marguerite said that Pierre and Yvonne had wanted a child and when they didn’t conceive, Pierre went through medical tests only to discover that he was physically unable to father a child. So, Pierre could not possibly have been father to Rose Marie and Ron.
By 1965, Pierre and Yvonne wanted to marry, and so he began the legal process to divorce Marie, which was finalized on 29 April 1965 in Nice, France. Marguerite didn’t say why they hadn’t divorced earlier --- perhaps it was for religious reasons, but it’s more likely that Marie refused in order to protect her children.
This still left the unanswered questions of who was my father and who was Rose-Marie’s? There was every reason to believe that Marguerite’s statements were true after I took a paternal DNA test, which indicated that my father was not French but was of British descent.
The proof came in March 2021 when the website MyHeritage identified a close DNA match for me with a man named Robert James from Wales. The name ‘James’ and further research pointed to only one conclusion - that Jim James was not my stepdad but was in fact my true biological father! The pieces all began to fall into place.
Robert James and I are second cousins, which means that we share a common great-grandfather. Working with information from Robert’s daughter, Gay and I discovered that the common denominator is William John James (1863 – 1940). William had a son named Rees T. James, born in 1875. Jim’s birth certificate names Rees T. James as his father. His mother was Mary Ann Thomas, born 1876. Their death dates are currently unknown. The name ‘James’ is extremely common in South Wales, but this particular family was from Glamorgan.
That still left the mystery as to why my mother told Rose-Marie and I that Jim was not our biological father. It would be easy to condemn her but Gay and I believe that she did it all to protect Rose-Marie and me. Given the attitudes in the mid-20th century toward illegitimate birth, it is understandable that our mum wanted to hide our true parentage for our sakes. In the culture of the 1960’s, growing up a ‘bastard’ was a very shameful thing. Perhaps she wanted to protect us from the derision and prejudice that we would have experienced. This is also an explanation for why Marie and Jim didn’t legally marry after her divorce from Pierre Gatepain because everyone they knew thought that they were already married.
For over 50 years, I believed that I was the son of an English Catholic woman and a Frenchman. Instead, DNA has proved that my mother was 100% Ashkenazy Jew, born in the Jewish ghetto of Whitechapel, London, and that my father was Welsh. What a revelation! Rose-Marie’s son Damian’s DNA tests will ultimately prove whether Jim James was also father to Rose-Marie or if Marguerite was right and there was another allied soldier in Marie’s past.
Gay and I will continue to seek answers for the many mysteries in Marie’s family history and Jim’s as well. As more and more information becomes available online, we may be able to fill in some of the many blanks.
Rose-Marie and I at her wedding, 1967.
With Sarah - my niece - and Damian and James at James's Christening, 2019.
Images of Ron through the ages.