Squeezed into a four-bedroom council house in Guernsey lives a woman branded the UK’s most prolific single mother.
Joanne Watson, 40, has 14 children, ranging in age from three to 22 and survives largely on state benefits after the breakdown of her marriage in 2010.
Once celebrated in endless articles in the press for her clan of immaculately turned-out blonde children, who were then supported entirely by the salary of her hardworking husband John, Joanne Watson and her family have now become figures of ridicule – and even hate.
The family’s bubble was burst four years ago when an accident meant John, 46, had to give up work as a lorry driver.
The financial pressure of caring for his 14 children meant John made a decision he will forever regret. As his health improved and with bills mounting, John claimed benefits while simultaneously taking some earnings.
He was caught, and the man who for two decades had been seen as the model father was sent to prison. The couple, who Joanne says had been arguing for years, separated and divorced.
‘I feel pretty sore about what went on,’ John says now. ‘I’ve been married 20 years and been a good father. I’ve worked hard. Nobody can say I haven’t, because I have.’
‘I did get done for benefit fraud,’ John admits.’ But I paid my punishment, I went to prison and I paid all the money back.
Joanne leaps to her ex-husband’s defence. ‘He wasn’t doing it to go on holidays and buy mobile phones,’ Jo says. ‘He was doing it to support us.’
The publicity the case attracted has made life – one that was already played out in the public eye – yet more difficult for the Watson children. Georgia, 15, says her regular appearance in the papers makes life at her school in St Martins very difficult.
‘When we’re in the papers, everyone talks about it at school the next day,’ she says. ‘Last time I was in the paper everyone was discussing it. People were leaving messages on my Facebook page. There were over 100 comments and not one of them good.
‘A boy at school the next day saw me and said, “Oy, what’s a Watson doing here?” I said I’d been here all along but he said I shouldn’t be there because there was too many of us.
‘We’re only a family. We’re like everyone else,’ she adds.
But Georgia is not entirely like everyone else. She is a sweet, calm girl with an outlook that is mature beyond her years. She helps tirelessly at home: planning school uniforms and packed lunches for the rest of the children, bathing her three-year-old sister Indianna and putting her to bed.
While her home life is no doubt happy and full of love, she has, perhaps, missed out on some of the carefree moments that children in smaller families take for granted.
Son Bradley, a professional boxer, says the taunts are never-ending.
‘If your name is Watson, it doesn’t go down too well,’ 21-year-old Bradley says evenly. ‘They never say anything to my face, but your ears are always burning. I don’t like it, but what can you do about it?’
But while the children of the household struggle with life under the microscope, Jo is defiant about the public’s reaction to her and her brood.
‘When I was in town this week, a woman looked at me and said, “Oh look, it’s the baby-making machine.” I just glared at her,’ Jo adds. ‘Sod them all,’ she says. ‘This is the way I am.’
Despite Jo’s ability to rise above the attention though, it’s clear that her children despair of their mother’s continual procreation – and of their own cramped (if always neat and tidy) quarters.
‘Our family is huge, laments one of the littlest boys. There’s a new one born nearly every year. Being in a big family is horrible. If she has any more, that’s it, this house won’t fit us.’
Indeed, the house is full to bursting. With 11 children still living at home, getting ready for school is a military style operation, with little uniformed bodies filing out of the front door in a seemingly endless line. Packed lunches are a production line involving bags of fruit and dozens of sandwiches. There are mountains of washing to be done daily – 56 loads a month, to be precise.
Joanne pays only £27 a week rent for the house, a heavily subsidised fraction of the normal cost, receives a total of £160 a week in family allowance for the 11 children still living at home, and another £405 a week in supplementary benefit. But money is still tight, and a budget must be adhered to.
And since her marriage broke down, with a little help from her children, Jo has to do it all herself. But despite the workload, Joanne believes firmly that ending her crumbling marriage was the right thing to do.
‘When I was expecting my 14th child, my husband phoned the papers to tell them so they could arrange a photoshoot. But I refused to do it. I couldn’t go on playing happy families. It’s not right. I couldn’t take any more. The way we were arguing, I didn’t want the children to hear it any more.’
Since her marriage broke down, Joanne has been on the look out for a new love – and hasn’t given up on the idea of having another baby.
In the hopes of meeting a new man, Joanne signed up to local dating agencies. But even there she met with prejudice.
One dating agency refused point blank to have her on their books, saying the men they dealt with wouldn’t want someone like Joanne.
‘She made me cry,’ says Joanne. ‘She said the men wouldn’t want someone on state benefits, with so many children, or living where I live.’
But Joanne has developed a thick skin. Last year, Joanne was left devastated when her pregnancy with what would be her fifteenth child ended in miscarriage. She had fallen pregnant just three weeks after embarking upon an affair with leisure centre worker Craig Le Sauvage, 35, who was an old neighbour.
Two weeks later, she split up from Craig, who subsequently told his story to the papers. Headlines appeared: “How I escaped the baby machine”, talking of how Jo bombarded Craig with texts begging for a fifteenth baby. Joanne was devastated, but now says that nothing people say about her can match the hurt of losing the baby she named Billy.
Fighting back tears, Jo looks through a box of scans and tiny foot and handprints from the little boy. ‘Holding his little body, seeing his tiny feet and hands. That hurts,’ she says. ‘People criticising me, slagging me off, that’s not hurt.’
Joanne’s 16-year-old daughter Mariah recently had her first child – making Joanne four times a grandmother. The media glare this brought upon the family (and their decision to take part in Channel 4 documentary 15 Kids and Counting, which aired last night) means the Watsons are unlikely to be out of the headlines any time soon.
But Joanne, who once enjoyed the fame and notoriety her large family brought her, now insists she regrets their infamy.
‘I don’t want anyone coming to our house looking for a dirty story,’ says Joanne. I wish they would just leave us alone.’
THE WATSON CHILDREN
- Natasha, 22
- Bradley, 21
- Shanice, 19
- Mariah, 16
- Georgia, 15
- Caitlin, 12
- Brittany, 11
- Febrianne, 10
- Charlie, nine
- Lilly-Arna, eight
- Nerilly-Jade, seven
- Armani, five
- Tallulah, four
- Indianna, three