Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union

Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union

Camden Review

Angela Cobbinah

Elizabeth Anionwu

THE early years of one’s life normally follow a predictable path with any unexpected twists and turns suitably documented for posterity.

But it was not until she was in her 60s that Elizabeth Anionwu, one of the country’s most senior nurses, was able to discover why she ended up spending the best part of her childhood in the care of Roman Catholic nuns.

The revelations came in the form of a thick blue dossier containing almost 60 documents handed over to her from a Catholic children’s home in Birmingham.

“It consisted mainly of letters dating back to my time in my mother’s womb to when I left care, and the words that jumped out of the pages took my breath away,” recalls Elizabeth. Up until then I had a few bits of oral history passed down, but literally only bits.”

Her mother, the darling daughter of devout Irish Catholics living in Liverpool, had fallen pregnant while studying classics at Newnham College, Cambridge. The frantic back and forth correspondence between the family and the reverend in charge centred on concealing the pregnancy and whether the baby should eventually be adopted.

“There was a great deal of stigma surrounding illegitimacy in those days but this was only the start of the drama – at this stage, my grandparents were unaware that my father was from Nigeria.”.

Despite their renewed shock, they supported her mother’s desire to keep the baby but insisted that Elizabeth be placed in a children’s home at the age of six months so she could resume her studies. But, as her mother reveals in further correspondence, she planned to marry her father, who was also studying at Cambridge, and bring her baby home again.

What happens next is told in Elizabeth’s forth­coming autobiography, Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union, how she did not get to live with her mother until she was nine, but then only briefly because of her step­father’s hostility, and only met her father at the age of 24…

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