In 1960s Sheffield, an ordinary lady went about an extraordinary job. Irene Hancock would often be seen in Darnall pushing a pram full of children to the post office to collect benefit payments.
One of the youngsters was white with blonde hair, another a redhead, and the third mixed race. Two black twin boys toddled alongside the pram.
Irene, who was in her 30s, would get some dreadful comments and even nastier looks from strangers about her unconventional-looking family unit.
What they didn’t know is those children were among a staggering 256 who were looked after by single foster mum Irene over a quarter of a century.
Now aged 84, Irene, of Broomhall, recalls: “I often got some very nasty looks. My feelings were hurt at the time, however, it did not stop my from continuing to foster children.
“I thought, whatever some people might think I am doing a worthwhile job. Neither that type of person or anyone else will stop me doing the job I love.”
Irene began fostering at her home on Chelmsford Street in 1961 after she had been left by her husband and found herself out of work.
She says: “I was paid £2.50 a week for short term caring or £3 for long-term fostering.
“In old currency this was adequate for feeding the children. I was a big believer in good old stew and meat and potato pie, all cooked in the oven heated by a coal fire. If money was short, I would make a potato and onion mash.”
Irene, who at that point had one daughter of her own, Sue, had no running hot water, no fridge and no indoor toilet.
But she still piled her love on all of her children, making sure they were warm, clean and well-fed. One of the children’s birth mothers taught her how to plait Afro-Caribbean hair, so she was always able to ensure her young ones were neat and tidy.
Sue O’Connell, now 63, was about nine when her mum started fostering and remembers being fiercely protective when people gave Irene a hard time.
“I was very protective,” says Sue, who is now in the process of applying to become a foster mum herself.
“My mum would have the pram full of kids and she used to get some dreadful looks. I would say, ‘She’s a foster mother, don’t be so ignorant’.
“I made her a badge out of an Ovaltine lid and it said ‘Foster Mother’. I put a safety pin on the back, stuck it on with some glue and made her wear it.”
In 1971, Irene and her flock of up to six kids at a time moved on to the Manor estate.
Irene says: “The house had three bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and a very large garden. Life was very different.”
The same year, Irene fostered a three-month-old girl called Jayne and eventually adopted her. Jayne is now 43 and has two children of her own.
“In all I have two daughters and five grandchildren and I’m very proud of them all,” says Irene.
After 25 years, the placements dried up and Irene’s fostering career came to an end.
“I remember the last child – he was a baby with Down’s Syndrome and I looked after him from six days old to about 10 or 11 months,” Irene says.
“That little baby is now a man and every year I get a Christmas card and photograph of him.
“I have to keep reminding myself that some of my children are now parents, and some even grandparents. But they will always be children to me.”
Irene’s two daughters couldn’t be closer if they were blood relatives. Jayne Bosworth, of Bradway, and Sue O’Connell, of South Wales, were both brought up by Irene.
Qualified chef Jayne, who was raised by Irene from being three months old, said: “It was an amazing upbringing. “My biological mum had 12 kids in all. I just think I was quite lucky to end up with my mum. “It was a stable upbringing to say there wasn’t a dad there – she just did everything on
her own. She made sure that everyone got a bit of her love.
“Now we are even closer than ever. I don’t know how she did what she did with being a single parent. She has just been amazing.”
Sue added: “It was wonderful.
I was eight or nine when mum started fostering and I know at one point I thought I was fostered myself. “I talked to her about it and she said, ‘Of course you’re not!’ And she started to show me photos of when I was a baby.”
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