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A life-changing mistake

Valerie and the Rylatts
Image caption The Rylatt family accepted Valerie was their biological daughter when she was in her twenties

Two French families whose babies were swapped at birth 20 years ago recently won more than two million euros in compensation. The episode had echoes of an extraordinary British case from eight decades ago.

"Peggy often says that I lived her life and she lived mine," says Valerie Rylatt. For their first 20 years, they did.

In 1936 an administrative mix-up at a Nottingham hospital, blamed on a change of shifts by nurses, meant two baby girls went home with the wrong parents.

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Media captionMargaret Wheeler (recorded for a BBC documentary) on her growing doubts that Valerie was her child, and Valerie's reaction on the Jeremy Vine Show

Valerie was brought up by Charles and Margaret Wheeler. But, from the start, Margaret had suspicions that the "daughter" she had taken home was not hers.

"I was a premature baby," Valerie, now 78, told BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine Show. "I think I was four or five weeks premature... but she knew that she'd given birth to a full-term baby. And this was her second baby and she recognised the signs and she knew straight away. I wouldn't suckle properly. My nails weren't formed properly and I'd got this down on my ears."

Margaret became more and more convinced that the other baby involved in the mix-up - christened Peggy - was her own. When she made this point to the hospital, doctors told her she was mistaken.

But, still trusting her mother's instinct, she tried her best to stay in touch with Peggy, visiting her from time to time.

Image caption The Rylatts also continued to care for Peggy (right), who they had been wrongly told was their daughter

Each visit made Margaret more convinced she was Peggy's real mother, leading her on one occasion to describe Valerie as seeming like a "usurper" when she "scowled" at her.

"I feel very, very upset, actually, to hear that I was regarded as a usurper," says Valerie, "but she said it was only at that moment [that she felt that way]."

As the two girls grew up, they started to look more like their biological parents.

But Fred Rylatt wouldn't believe Peggy was not his own daughter. He refused to allow her to take part in a blood test at the age of six or seven, when Margaret requested she do so.

And the doctor who had delivered Peggy, perhaps wanting to protect his professional reputation, told Fred there hadn't been a mistake.

But Valerie had her own suspicions that she'd been placed in the wrong household. "I was a cuckoo and I was aware of this," she says. "I had a long face, a long nose... but the others were round-faced, with stubby noses and dimples and things. I just noticed that we weren't the same."

As the girls grew up, both families had increasing doubts, but continued with life, each providing a loving home for the girls in their care. The Rylatts and the Wheelers also maintained contact, confusing an already complex situation.

Margaret, the woman Valerie thought of as "mum", went about once a year to see Peggy. Valerie doesn't remember the same level of contact with the Rylatts, but there was some.

"They didn't believe it [that there'd been a mix-up], so I suppose I didn't feel welcome. But I did stay there for four or five days when I was eight, and I can remember walking around Peggy's bedroom. She was at school and I remember touching things and not feeling bad about it. I felt as though I had a right to do this and as though it was mine."

When Peggy was 20 and about to be married, Margaret could no longer hold back. She told her she was her biological daughter, a fact by now recognised, if not mentioned, by both sets of parents.

The information was out, but it was several months before Valerie visited her biological parents. "At the time it was very traumatic... It was a complete feeling of just not belonging anywhere."

But, after the reunion with her biological parents "the bonding was amazing, just absolutely amazing", Valerie says. The same was true for Peggy and her real parents.

However, Fred Rylatt had to confront the fact he had effectively rejected Valerie, his own daughter, albeit on the advice of a doctor. "He was very sorry about it all," she says. "I could understand it all. He was very proud of me and I was very fond of him."

The Rylatts and the Wheelers became increasingly close. DNA tests have confirmed the mix-up, but there's never been any attempt to sue the hospital involved.

"Over the years it's made me a much stronger person," says Valerie, "and we all became one great big, united, happy family, as it were, with two mums and two dads."

Valerie, who now lives in Andorra, has taken the surname of her biological parents, Rylatt. She is philosophical about what happened.

"I wouldn't have had all the rich experiences I've had in life," she says. "I wouldn't change anything."

Valerie Rylatt was interviewed on the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2 by Paddy O'Connell.

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