Throughout my life, the true story of my heritage remained unsolved. Seeking to join the Royal Marines 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 she was to marry in 1967.
Rose-Marie and Pete's Family Wedding Photograph
Rose-Marie and me at her wedding
After her marriage, I recall thinking how strange it would be to come home on leave and her not be there. We had had our disagreements 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, even at a very young age!
Initially, she and Pete set up home in a village just outside Lincoln. Two children came along, a boy named Simon, who was my godson, and then a girl named Sarah. After a few years, Pete was made redundant and he got a job in Wiltshire, so the family moved down there, which is where their third child, 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.
With Sarah - my niece - and Damian and James at James's Christening in 2019.
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 subsequent years, Rose-Marie and Pete divorced and Dad, then retired, often spent time staying at Rose-Marie’s, looking after the garden or any other jobs that needed doing. Sadly, Rose-Marie died at only 58 in 2004 of cancer.
My mother, Marie, died in Lincoln in May 1994, at the age of 82. 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!
It seems that 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, by that time he was on his deathbed, so I was unable to meet him. He died in 1998. I did, however, communicate with members of his family during that time.
My appearance led to problems with Pierre’s estate, as none of his family knew about Rose-Marie and me. French law required that we be given a portion of his estate. At that time, I received a letter written by Pierre’s second wife’s sister, Marguerite. The problem was that the letter was written in French, and I never had the opportunity to have it translated.
After I met Gay and told her the story, she translated the letter which revealed 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 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 by 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 important unanswered questions of who my father was, as well as who was Rose-Marie’s. There was every reason to believe that Marguerite’s statements were true after I took a paternal DNA test in 2018, which indicated that my father was not French but was of British descent.
Finally, 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 in 1876. Their death dates are currently unknown. The surname ‘James’ is extremely common in South Wales, but this particular family was from Glamorgan.
It would have made no difference to me whether Jim was my father or not. He was a really nice man who taught me a lot about making the most of life and of myself, and he was always there to help me if I needed a hand. I never heard him complain. Even when he lost a finger in an accident at work when I was young, he didn’t let that change his outlook on life. In later years he lost a leg due to developing gangrene, but he never moaned or complained. I would take him out in his wheelchair, and he would talk about his life and what he had done, and we would discuss what was happening in the world. Later he developed stomach cancer and in 1982, during the time of the Falklands War, he died. So, I was more than happy to learn that he was my real father.
That still left the mystery as to why my mother told Rose-Marie and me 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 sake. In the culture of the 1950s, growing up a ‘bastard’ was a very shameful thing. Perhaps she wanted to protect us from the derision and prejudice that we might have experienced. This also explains why she and Jim didn’t legally marry after her divorce from Pierre Gatepain because everyone 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 have added another twist to the puzzle, as it proves that my father Jim was not Rose-Marie’s father. Once again, we found that Marguerite’s letter was correct. There must have been 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 information becomes available online, we may be able to fill in some more of the blanks.
Chapter 15 - In Conclusion