Stamp saliva solves 80-year mystery of abandoned baby on Downs

Anthea Ring hugging David Nicholson the moment she found out the identity of her father, Patrick Coyne
Anthea Ring hugging David Nicholson the moment she found out the identity of her father, Patrick Coyne

Saliva from a stamp has unlocked the 80-year-mystery of a baby abandoned on the South Downs: who were her parents?

Anthea Ring was discovered on August 26, 1937 in a blackberry bush on Steep Down, near Dankton Lane, Sompting with her hands tied together after a family of holidaymakers from South London were attracted to her cries.

Patrick Coyne, father of Anthea Ring

Patrick Coyne, father of Anthea Ring

The story made front page news in Worthing and across the country – and almost three decades ago, years after her adopted parents told her the truth of how she was found, Anthea decided to find out who her parents were.

In 2016, she discovered she was 92 per cent Irish, with great-grandparents named O’Donnell from Charlestown in County Mayo, Ireland and a likely ancestor named Coyne from County Galway in Ireland.

And thanks to genealogist Julia Bell and DNA testing company Living DNA, Anthea discovered who her biological father was – from saliva left on a stamp.

Research and tests identified Dot Prendergast from Rhode Island as Anthea’s first cousin, and saliva samples from letters sent to her by Patrick Coyne in the nineties were analysed in laboratories in Germany, revealing he was Anthea’s father.

Anthea Ring as a baby

Anthea Ring as a baby

The 81-year-old said: “It is fabulous. I realise if I had not lived to be in my eighties or in an earlier time, we wouldn’t have this technology.

“Truth is stranger than fiction: if you wrote all this in a story, people would say ‘oh yes – pull the other one!’

“I can now finally tell my children and grandchildren about their roots and where they came from.”

Mr Coyne was one of six brothers and two sisters from a family in County Galway in Ireland. The lifelong batchelor was an avid Liverpool supporter, and according to Dot was ‘the life and soul of the party’.

Anthea Ring, right, with Julia Bell, genetic genealogist, and David Nicholson from Living DNA

Anthea Ring, right, with Julia Bell, genetic genealogist, and David Nicholson from Living DNA

Anthea said: “He was apparently asked if he ever thought of getting married, and he said he liked his independence, so we don’t know if he knew about me.”

Through Julia’s research, Anthea had previously discovered her mother’s identity: Lena O’Donnell, a telephone factory worker who had got married in Ireland in 1945, seven years after Anthea had been found. DNA tests on one of her other four children revealed he was Anthea’s half brother.

One of the most startling discoveries was Anthea’s birth certificate, which showed she was born Mary Veronica O’Donnell at St Mary Abbots Hospital in Kensington on November 20 – five days later than her adoptive parents Margaret and Douglas Shannan picked for her birthdate.

In a strange twist of fate, Veronica was also the name of Margaret and Douglas’ daughter, who died in a road accident three years before Anthea was adopted.

Anthea said: “I think I will celebrate two birthdays. Five years younger would be better, but five days will do.”

The only remaining mysteries are how her biological parents met, and why she was left on the Downs.

But the great-grandmother from Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire believes it was not her mother’s doing. It is thought that Lena left Anthea with a foster mother while she went out to work, who then tried to sell her for adoption.

While she is now in contact with the Coyne family, Anthea said: “These were my birth parents, but the parents who adopted me were really my family.”

David Nicholson, managing director at Living DNA, oversaw the DNA analysis process. He said: “Stamps and other materials containing DNA – such as hair from a brush – can often provide vital evidence in DNA testing, and this has proved critical in Anthea’s very personal, and long-running, case to learn her roots.

“We’re delighted that Anthea has finally found the peace and answers that she’s been searching for all her life. We used the latest forensic technology to analyse small areas of the stamps and seal and despite the initial three tests not revealing anything conclusive, it was the fourth attempt where we found the match with Anthea’s DNA and her biological father.”

Julia Bell said: “I’ve been honoured to be part of Anthea’s personal journey of discovery from the beginning, helping put together the jigsaw pieces in quite complex circumstances.”