Chatterbox Ian left speechless after finding family he never knew existed

Ian Joule during his No to Tesco vigil on the Square in Market Harborough
Ian Joule during his No to Tesco vigil on the Square in Market Harborough

It’s fair to say he likes a chat, does Ian Joule.

One moment he’s bantering with customers in his Joules Eating House establishment, off High Street, Harborough; the next he’s passionately putting his point of view to district councillors about the out-of-town Tesco store.

Ian's son Christopher Joule, Ian's sister Kathy Pegrum and Ian's brother Jake Dobson with Ian Joule (far right) at a reunion recently in Brackley, Northants.

Ian's son Christopher Joule, Ian's sister Kathy Pegrum and Ian's brother Jake Dobson with Ian Joule (far right) at a reunion recently in Brackley, Northants.

And in case there’s still any doubt, he’s against it.

He can be heard every Friday on radio station Harborough FM, regaling listeners with his opinions and anecdotes, and most days in Joules Yard – his antiques-plus business – getting soppy with his gentle, elderly Staffordshire bull terrier Millie.

And, yes, as an outspoken Harborough businessman for more than half a century, he’s also been in the Mail quite a lot.

So you might think you know all the key facts about this proud Harborough flag-flyer and quirky pillar of the community. You’d be wrong.

For a start, his name isn’t really Ian Joule.

And for another thing, he only met his birth-family for the first time three weeks ago, after nearly 78 years in unsettling ignorance.

“Yes, it’s been an emotional time,” he says, tears threatening. “I’m suddenly the oldest member – the head you could say – of a family of 30 I never knew existed.

“Yes, an emotional time.”

Ian Joule was actually born Michael George Cheshire, almost 78 years ago in Stretford, Manchester.

He was given away as a baby.

His earliest memories are of being shifted from one family to the next in the working class north-west.

“I don’t know how many foster families I lived with before I was nine,” he said. “Let’s say between five and nine different families.”

He remembers one house by the Manchester Ship Canal, another family that was involved with the Salvation Army, another one in Blackpool, where he went as a wartime evacuee. “To be honest, these different families are all a bit mixed up in my head after all these years,” he explained.

“Basically I was a Lowry kid, extremely unruly and ructious I think, and probably passed on when I got too much.”

That all changed when he was nine. Walter and Gwladys Joule collected him from The Adoption Society and drove him in their car – “I’d never been in a car” – to their upmarket home in Bramhall, Cheshire.

Young Michael took one wide-eyed look at the spacious street where they lived, full of blossoming trees, and said: “Please can I stay with you longer than I’ve stayed in the other places.”

He’d learned not to hope for a permanent mum and dad. But it turned out that hardware agent Walter and primary school headteacher Gwladys were in it for the long haul.

There were just a couple of catches. First, they were extremely strict. And second, the lad’s name had to go. His surname changed from Cheshire to Joule, and his first name to a hyphenated Michael-Ian, which he hated, and then – somewhere along the line – just Ian.

“I think basically Gwladys wanted people to think I was her child,” said Ian. “She’d been married just under 10 years, so the dates were just about possible. I was never allowed to say I was adopted.”

Gwladys took her brand-new boy to Kendal Milne, the poshest department store in Manchester, and set about transforming him. It didn’t work.

Michael-Ian, as he was now known, struggled with the rules and regulations of his new family. He was still a handful, running away from home so often “the police got fed up with me”.

But at the same time, he was catching up rapidly with his education, and won a scholarship to The King’s School in Macclesfield, an independent school which is still going today.

He flourished there, going on to Loughborough College and then to national service in Kenya “fighting the Mau Mau with the King’s African Rifles”.

Back in Britain again, he had a succession of jobs, usually involving the sale of clothing, for firms like Admiral, Tootal, Broadhurst & Lee, and finally Bukta sportswear. He married Jean and had four children.

But all the time, nagging away at the back of his mind, was the idea that one day he would like to find out about his real family: the Cheshires.

Then two years ago, an eager couple appeared at Joules Yard, thinking they might be relatives. They shared his unusual surname.

“I had to tell them I wasn’t a Joule, I was Michael George Cheshire, and thought that was the end of that.”

But his comments intrigued a professional family historian, who offered to research the Cheshire family, and find out why Michael/Ian had been given away.

The answers started to come.

It turned out that his mother was Alfreda Cheshire, a glamorous hairdresser with a film star profile, who had been working at Gleneagles Golf Club in Scotland, and enjoying being wooed by some of the confident clientele.

His father? He doesn’t really know. It could have been a well-known international rugby player, who is pictured with his mother at the right time. But the thing that really stunned Ian was that his mother had later had three other children with husband John Dobson, who she married nine months after Ian was born. Ian had a younger brother Jake and two younger sisters Kathy and Joanna that he never knew existed.

What’s more, his siblings had six children between them, and the children had children. The Harborough businessman, whose life had seemed an open book, suddenly discovered he had about 30 family members he had known nothing about.

“I’m almost overwhelmed by it all,” he told the Mail, as he flicks through a thick tome of research about the Cheshire family, in the long greenhouse behind his eating house. “It’s difficult getting it all straight in my head.”

When a sister phoned him for the first time, he could barely speak. And when he finally met his brother and one of his sisters in a pub in Brackley – midway between their homes – the emotion was intense.

“My brother, when I got hold of him in the pub, I just...” The sentence peters out. Ian is close to tears.

“He just said ‘I’ve never been hugged like that in my life’,” he whispered.

Now the large Cheshire family plans a proper get-together at Joules Yard on June 15 to celebrate the 78th birthday of their newest, and their oldest, member: Ian Joule.

And as he gazes for the first time on his blossoming family tree, the Harborough businessman who loves to chat will almost certainly be speechless again.