manchestereveningnews: A woman whose mum hid four stillborn babies at the family home for years says the ordeal made her a better ‘person and mother’.
Joanne Lee’s harrowing experience was truly shocking. But, incredibly, she says: “I wouldn’t change any of it.”
This is the woman who discovered her mum, Bernadette Quirk, who died in February, aged 64, had hidden a stillborn baby in a red plastic bin in her wardrobe.
She helped her bury it in the family grave in St Helens, the Liverpool Echo reports.
Years later, Joanne found out her mum had hidden three other stillborn babies – one in that same bin and two in a canvas bag kept by her bed.
When pregnant at 15, she walked in on her boyfriend having sex with her mum.
Joanne’s first child, John, was born in May 1987, and lived for just 30 minutes. She would stay with her then partner for 19 years.
She later found out this same former partner was the dad of one of the four stillborn baby girls hidden by her mum, making her the dead baby’s half-sister and stepmum.
She was arrested on suspicion of murder after she asked a family friend to report her mum to the police in the summer of 2009, as she believed she may be hiding a second dead baby.
From being a child, she was expected by her mum to look after her younger sister, Cath, and younger brother, Chris.
And yet Joanne, who prefers to be called Joa, wouldn’t change anything. ‘I couldn’t stand the woman, but it’s made me a better person’
Talking about her late mum in her eldest daughter Natalie’s home in St Helens, the 47-year-old mum-of-three and gran-of-four says: “I couldn’t stand the woman – and what she put us all through.
“But I wouldn’t go back and change any of it. It’s made me a better mother and person.”
Joa has now written Silent Sisters (to be published by Mirror Books on April 18), which tells the whole harrowing story.
In 2010, Bernadette Quirk admitted four counts of concealing a birth. She was spared jail, instead receiving a two-year community order, subject to supervision.
She was also ordered to take part in a women’s intervention project. She had said all the babies, which were full-term, were stillborn. Forensic evidence suggested they all had congenital disorders.
Police believe Quirk gave birth at various points between the mid-1980s and late 1990s. After the break-up of her marriage in the mid-1980s, she fell into a downward spiral of drinking and casual sexual encounters.
Each baby had a different father. ‘My brothers killed themselves less than
Joa was a 26-year-old mum-of-two in May 1998, when she discovered, via her then 16-year-old sister, Cath, that her mum had put the remains of a baby in the red plastic bin in her wardrobe.
Not wanting her sister to be involved, Joa helped her mum bury the baby in the family grave, where her own son, John, was (legally) buried.
She says: “If I had known then what I know now I would have gone to the police there and then. I knew I was doing wrong and I could have gone to jail but I think a lot of it was to do with me losing my own child, and I felt sorry for her.
“I thought she was grieving.
“I just felt I had to do it. I knew she wouldn’t talk to anyone, and she was a compulsive liar anyway so I thought if I went behind her back there was no guarantee she would admit anything.”
Joa recalls how her mum used to claim Freddie Mercury had given her ballet lessons and that she had ‘got off’ with Michael Jackson: “It’s sad, really, because she clearly had a mental illness.”
There were 11 years between Joa’s shocking discovery and makeshift burial.
“I felt as though I would never be clean again,” she adds.
The eventual discovery of the remains of three more baby girls, which took place in the summer of 2009.
Earlier, following one of her mum’s frequent house moves, Joa and Cath, full of suspicion, confided in their brother, Chris, who looked inside the plastic bin and saw bin bags and air fresheners.
Fearing her mum had concealed a second baby, Joa eventually broke down and told a friend and her friend’s mum. The latter went to the police on her behalf.
Joa was later interviewed and, after giving details about having buried a baby (named Helen) in the family grave and now being too scared to look in the red bin, a police officer asked her: “Have you had a lot to drink?”
Joa adds: “They thought I was crazy and I can’t say I blame them.”
She, her mum and her brother – who was living with his mum – were all arrested.
Police found the remains of three babies at her mum’s home. Then the whole sordid truth emerged, including that one of the fathers was Joa’s former partner.
How angry had she been with HIM after discovering he had slept with her mum?
She says: “We had a massive row and broke up, but then got back together again. I never actually blamed him. I knew what my mother was like – I blamed her. He was 17 and she was in her 30s.”
And when she found out her former partner was the dad of one of the babies concealed by her mum? “I was relieved, really. I had suspected it and this verified it. He was full of apologies – unbeknown to me it (their sexual relationship) had carried on for a long time.”
Then there was the gossip. A friend heard ‘two shoppers discussing how mum gave birth to babies and the rest of their family ate them’.
And a next door neighbour whispered ‘murderer’ at her in the street: “I told him ‘Well, you’d better watch your back, then.’ He scurried off.
“He was a hard knock, a big lad – and he always says ‘hello’ when he sees me now!”
Asked for her reaction when, after a seven month wait, she was told she wouldn’t be facing charges, Joa says: “It was like winning the lottery. I had committed a crime and was convinced I was going to jail. I cried, and I don’t cry very often.”
Meanwhile, even though she didn’t want anything more to do with her mum, Joa didn’t feel jail was the right place for her, believing she needed specialist help.
Life has moved on. Six years ago, Joa, who is currently going through a divorce, had her third child, Alex. He is profoundly deaf, and this has led to his mum working at Happy Hands Deafness Resource Centre in St Helens.
She says: “It is so rewarding and has definitely been part of my recovery – Alex has totally changed my life.”
And of Silent Sisters, Joa says: “I’d always wanted to write a book because my life had been a jigsaw puzzle which I wanted to piece together.
“But I will never know the whole truth. I will never know how she hid those babies all those years. Where were they in between her moving houses? How do you hide the smell of a dead body? The smell is indescribable. It clings to you and you can taste it.”
After the court case, Joa organised a funeral service for the babies – Katie Anne, Angela Sheila, Elizabeth Julia and Helen (now named Angelica Helen).
Before their ashes were scattered, Joa gave a reading which included the words: “This shouldn’t be a sad day. Our four sisters are at peace. They are now free.”
Source: Published by manchestereveningnews