The year was 1939. Britain was on the verge of war, and in St Mary’s Hospital, Portsmouth on March 20, Irene Hingston was going into labour – to have triplets.
But a day after they were born, Irene had a fatal seizure caused by a blood clot on her lungs and her naval husband, Eric, was left with the triplets as well as their other five-year-old daughter.
The leading seaman was away for months at a time in the navy, so he had no choice but to put his children up for adoption.
The grandparents and other relatives couldn’t have them, so the call went out across the hospital that three newborn babies were homeless.
Out of the two girls and a boy, Wendy Hingston was taken in by one of the hospital porters, who had lost his son just four months previously, and she became Kathleen Barham.
Now Kathleen Bishop, 74 and living in Southsea, she says: ‘My adoptive mother was pining for a baby. My father had said before that he couldn’t cope and I don’t think the system was as formal as it is these days. It was almost as if anyone could have us.’
Kathleen moved to Southsea while her sister Truro, renamed Valerie, moved to Tipner. Their brother Collin moved to Wittering.
But disaster struck again for the triplets just six months later as, unbeknown to them, on October 14, 1939 their father died in one of the biggest Second World War maritime disasters on board HMS Royal Oak.
Oblivious to the loss, Kathleen grew up with loving parents in Portsmouth. She even used to visit a childhood friend on the other side of the city.
She explains: ‘I used to play with Valerie when we were children and I had no idea she was my sister. Obviously my dad and her dad knew each other because they were both porters at St Mary’s.
‘I remember thinking she was a good friend, but I didn’t know any different.’
Kathleen would regularly head over to the Isle of Wight with her adoptive parents. She didn’t bat an eyelid at those who worked on the boat, and couldn’t pick a face from the crowd.
Years later when she was 12, her parents broke the news to her – they had adopted her as a baby and both her biological parents were dead.
She says: ‘I don’t think they really wanted me to know, they thought I might disappear and leave them.
‘But I would have stayed with them, as they brought me up. I went to the good grammar school and I almost feel embarrassed because I wouldn’t have been that lucky otherwise. I felt like they had gone without to raise me.’
Kathleen adds: ‘And then they told me one of the women I saw on the Isle of Wight boats was my grandmother, and I was the spitting image of her. I couldn’t work out why they didn’t tell me when I saw her, because I knew I wouldn’t get the chance to again.’
Admittedly, Kathleen didn’t feel very affected by the news. She had parents she had always known and loved, and there was no way she could see her birth parents, so nothing would change.
But things did change in 1956 when she was just 17. She still lived in Southsea, was working as a trainee nurse and was already being courted by her future husband of more than 50 years, Harold Bishop.
Then one day her old playmate, Valerie, turned up on the doorstep. ‘She just told me we were part of triplets,’ laughs Kathleen.
‘I was absolutely amazed, I couldn’t believe it.
‘She lived in Godalming and had found our brother living in Chichester. She then came down to me on the train and just knocked on the door. I remember being shocked and thinking my parents must know about it, but I didn’t want to go off and upset them.
‘Then we got on the train to Wittering and met Collin. It was very surreal. I went from being an only child to one of four overnight.’
For Kathleen, it was an unbelievable moment.
‘I hadn’t heard about them before and no-one had told me until they turned up. My parents lost their own little baby and didn’t want to lose me I guess, so didn’t tell me. But I believed her straight away.’
While the triplets came to terms with being one of three, and discovering they had an older sister who now lived in Canada, Kathleen’s boyfriend Harold arrived and took a picture of them together (above).
It was the first time they had been together since the day they were born. The day changed their lives, as Kathleen explains.
‘Soon after Valerie moved to Nottingham and I didn’t speak to her for a long time. We all did our best to stay in contact, but it was never easy.’
She adds: ‘We went to Collin’s wedding and he came to ours. Valerie was a bridesmaid at our wedding too.’
The triplets slowly started to form the relationships they had never had, and it wasn’t until 1989, when they had all turned 50, that another big change took place – their older sister, also named Valerie, was over from Canada to visit a friend.
They all agreed to meet up together and surprise Val while she was in England.
It wasn’t easy as Collin lived in Wittering, Valerie in Nottingham and Kathleen in Portsmouth. Needless to say, there was a lot of emotion and tears – it was the first time all the Hingston siblings had been together in their whole life (pictured above).
Kathleen now has five children of her own, eight grandchildren, one great-grandchild and another on the way.
She says: ‘We also found out that Val and Collin went to the same school, but they didn’t know. It must have been so hard for our father to give us up, heartbreaking.
‘But I’m fond of them all. I’m glad I did find out about them in the end.’