Why 'Mother Christmas' Jeanette is desperate to help children with nothing

Jeanette went into care a day before her sixth birthday and stayed for 10 years

Tuesday, 3rd November 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 25th November 2020, 9:19 am

In 2002, Jeanette Walsh, a social worker returned to work after recovering from a potentially deadly combination of a brain tumour and meningitis was given a task to 'co-ordinate Christmas' for children in care in Northamptonshire to ease her back into her job.

Since then, she has been 'Mother Christmas' to children growing up in the greatest need in the county, organising an annual gift appeal to make sure those with the least receive a present.

Jeanette's passion for helping children comes out of her own personal experience when as an abused, neglected and starved five-year-old she arrived in the care system - a life-changing experience.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Meeting Jeanette Walsh it is hard to imagine that this cheerful 62-year old gran had such an appalling start in life, but the first nearly six years of her life were spent in terror and grinding poverty with her seven brothers and sisters.

Born in Chester and raised in Manchester, Jeanette was the fifth of eight children. Her mum gave birth to her eldest brother when just 14 years old and the family grew rapidly, moving from house to house being thrown out by successive landlords when she got into arrears.

It was this poverty that led to the worst possible experience for Jeanette. Her mother sold her for sex to strangers with a series of men paying to abuse her. Vivid flashbacks still haunt her.

Jeanette said: "My mum was a nasty piece of work and so was my dad. The sexual abuse was when my mum would get different men. It was for money. My dad used to beat us up. He would be quite nasty and cruel.

Jeanette Walsh aka Mother Christmas inset a photo of Jeanette before she went into care

"All of us children slept in one bed. It was always wet because one of us would wet the bed and it was never dry. We didn't haven't electricity in the house and used the outside street lamp for light.

"For food she would peel a potato and give it to us raw. We never went to school. She would send us children round to the corner shop and she would have debts all over the place."

One freezing January, after the family had moved into yet another home in Manchester, Jeanette and three of her siblings went to explore the local park that one of her brothers had seen.

After playing on the swings she and one of her sisters were so cold they tried to find their way home.

Jeanette outside her NCH home

"All the streets looked the same - like Coronation Street. Eventually we saw a policeman and I said 'do you know where we live?' He had heard of our mother. He took us to the police station and our mother had to come to collect us and take us home.

"I remember she hit my brother with her shoe, with a stiletto, and there was blood coming out of his head."

By this time Jeanette's dad had left the family and, unable to cope, her mum placed all but the oldest into the care of the National Children's Home (NCH).

On the day before Jeanette's sixth birthday six of the children left the family home. The brothers and sisters were separated with Jeanette going to a national children's home, arriving in a cab.

The Duchess of Gloucester shakes hand with Jeanette at the children's home in Salford

Jeanette said: "I told the taxi driver it was my birthday the next day and he gave me a shilling. I spent it on cola cubes and pineapple chunks.

"We had our own bed. We had three meals a day. We went to school. We were warm, It was wonderful."

A few days after she had moved in Jeanette found a doll and a teddy on her bed. Confused, she went to speak to the 'house mother' to explain she had found them making clear that she had not stolen the toys.

She said: "They said well it was your birthday a couple of days ago so they are presents. That was my first real birthday. I couldn't believe that someone would give me something.

"I loved living in the home. That year Father Christmas came round to each house and we were given presents by other people - strangers. It blew my mind that somebody would give us a present."

Jeanette continued to thrive under the care of National Children's Home system and did well at school excelling at sports, making it on to many of the teams.

Jeanette on her wedding day

She and one sister moved counties to be reunited with two of her brothers which meant a new school, where she made more friends, won the top trophy for sports and became a prefect.

It was at this home where she came under the care of a Miss Faith - a house mother and was honoured to be a bridesmaid at her wedding.

Jeanette said: "She was my inspiration. She wanted to give the best for us kids - she's like me in that way."

At the age of 12, Jeanette and her sister were fostered out but after an unhappy three-month experience, Jeanette returned to the home pleased to be back.

Even though she was now older, the visits by Father Christmas to the children in the home were still as special as before.

She said: "We would get a stocking with an apple, an orange, some nuts and a few little things. We would get a present from the staff and because we had no contact with our parents we got little extra presents and we'd always get a selection box. It was very special."

The year she was 16, the authorities told her she would have to move out and they placed an advert in the paper to find someone who wanted a lodger. A couple who answered lived in an area where she knew some people from a church where she had been attending and it was through them that she found a social life, going on youth camps and became a Christian.

Jeanette was determined to work with children but as she was too young, she worked in various office jobs given the support and guidance by her social worker.

When she was 18, she was given £25 by NCH and officially left care, moved in with her sister and carried on as "the world's worst" typist.

As soon as she reached the age of 20, she wrote a letter to the boss of NCH asking for a job - a brand new children's home was opening in Salford and in 1978, Jeanette was given a live-in carer role.

She said: "It was me to a tee. I was like the cat that got the cream. The kids knew I got them and they got me. I absolutely loved it. You got your food and somewhere to live - it was fantastic.I could think like the kids."

From care worker, Jeanette progressed quickly to residential social worker and at 23 became a team leader - the same year she met her husband-to-be, John, when they both went on a Christian youth holiday trip to Spain. Even though it had not been love at first sight, the pair chatted on the phone regularly, Jeanette queuing up to use the pay phone in the home to call his house in Northampton.

Keeping in contact as friends, the relationship blossomed when Jeanette had to drive in her battered Mini from Manchester to Bournemouth. Thinking the journey might be too much, Jeanette stopped over with the only person she knew 'down south' - John Walsh, a Northamptonshire paramedic.

The pair got engaged over the phone with Jeanette giving up her job to move in with John's mum before their wedding in 1982.

After son Tim was born a year later, Jeanette restarted her career working with looked after youngsters at Northampton's Clarence Avenue Children's Home. But after the birth of second son Oliver in 1988, Jeanette moved to a social work - a role without as many shifts.

In 2000, she could feel something like a ball bearing inside her head. After months of to-ing and fro-ing to different doctors, an MRI scan revealed two slow-growing tumours.

Jeanette said: "I thought, oh here we go. The night before the operation the anaesthetist came and saw me and said there was no way the operation could go ahead because I was too big to survive a nine-hour op. They told me to lose five stone and come back, I lost six in six months. They couldn't believe it."

The 12-and-three-quarter-hour surgery was a success but unfortunately she contracted meningitis whilst in hospital.

After a long recuperation, Jeanette's first task back at work was to co-ordinate the 2002 gift appeal, encouraging donations from county companies, organisations, councils, and individuals.

Early retirement in 2014 has not slowed Jeanette down. She carried on organising the gift appeal as a volunteer. In 2019 she was recognised for her outstanding service by Northamptonshire County Council with a special achievement award. She was nominated to go to Buckingham Palace for a tea party.

Over the years, Jeanette estimates that she worked with more than 1,000 children who have been fostered, live in children's homes and those being helped in their family homes across the county. She thinks that more than 5,000 children have benefitted from the appeal.

She said: "I think of the kids. If I don't do this, the children would not get anything. This is all about the children getting a present on Christmas Day.

"It shouldn't be the kids that suffer because of the situation they find themselves. I still remember that feeling of excitement at Christmas and I want that for all children."

To donate to our toy appeal click here.
Message from the editor: Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

In order for us to continue to provide trusted local news on this free-to-read site, I am asking you to also please purchase a copy of our newspaper.

Our journalists are highly trained and our content is independently regulated by IPSO to some of the highest standards in the world. The dramatic events of 2020 are having a major impact on many of our local valued advertisers and consequently the advertising that we receive. We are now more reliant than ever on you helping us to provide you with news by buying a copy of our newspaper.

Jeanette at Buckingham Palace
Jeanetter with her special award