Picture your average nuclear family and you’ll think of mum, dad and the two children. Now put that to one side because it’s time to meet the Harrisons – aka the Allendale Von Trapps – a family of ten children and a menagerie of animals who live under the same roof.
WHEN three-year-old Bridget Harrison was asked to draw a picture of her family at play group, they had to clear a large space on the wall and sharpen a few extra coloured pencils. For Bridget is one of 10 children – yes 10! And they all live happily together in a seven-bedroomed house in Allendale.
“They call us the Allendale Von Trapps,” said mum Emma. “But I can’t say the house is always full of the sound of music. And I’m certainly no Maria.” Emma laughs and shakes her head at the idea that she may be a super mum. But the very fact that she manages to feed, clothe and care for 10 children every single day is, in most parents’ books, nothing short of a miracle.
And then there’s the other members of the household – the dog, 18 cats, two ducks, nine chickens and one miniature Shetland pony called Bullseye. How does she do it? How come she looks so good on it? And, most baffling of all, how is her house so clean, tidy and welcoming? “That’s easy,” she said. “I’ve chucked all the toys into a big cupboard because I knew you were coming.”
Emma, who grew up with one brother, Chris, never planned on having a large family. But somehow, it just happened. It’s been 20 years of breast-feeding, weaning, changing nappies, cleaning up, sorting out squabbles and tripping over toys. “But it’s also been 20 years of love, laughter, cuddles, fun and magical times together,” said Emma, who is married to plumbing and heating engineer David. “And I don’t regret one, single minute.
“I am one of those lucky mums who just glow when they’re pregnant. I love it. My hair goes all shiny and glossy and I feel a million dollars. I’ve never been sick. And I love the feeling of the baby kicking inside you and wondering what they are going to be like.
“I have easy, straight-forward births and I just adore babies. The first six weeks are always horrible – that goes without saying. But then you get into a routine. You get to know each other and it’s wonderful. I love everything about babies, their first words, steps, smiles.”
Remembering your child’s first word, first smile, first steps is easy when you have one – or even two. But 10? Does Emma really remember each and every single one? “Yes, I do. I haven’t forgotten any of them. Jonathon’s first word was dog and Bridget’s was mama. Anna was amazing. She spoke a whole sentence at nine months – ‘shut the door’. It was hilarious.”
Jonathon is now 21 and the oldest of the brood. He has his own room, under the eaves in the attic. Ben is next. He’s 19, a student at Newcastle College who also works part time in the local pub. Then there’s 17-year-old Sophie, Emily (14), Anna (11), Franchesca (9), Cordelia (8), Paige (7), Alex (5) and three-year-old Bridget.
The four youngest girls share a room on the middle floor of the house and often tumble into each others’ beds at night. “We often find two or three of them cuddled up in the same bed,” said Emma. “They look so sweet, it’s a shame to disturb them.” There’s a few hours of blissful, slumbering peace before the gang are up and raring to go.
Ben loves them all but admits it’s not always easy being a boy in a predominantly female household. “Mornings are definitely the worse,” he said. “They’re up at 6.30am, singing, chatting, even whistling. There’s never any peace.”
“I am one of those lucky mums who just glow when they’re pregnant. I love it. My hair goes all shiny and glossy and I feel a million dollars.”
Breakfast is a staggered affair with various children grabbing a bite to eat before rushing out for the school bus or the short walk to the first school and play group down the road. Indeed the only time the family sit down all together round the huge kitchen table is tea time – a time that’s precious to Emma and husband David. “I like to sit down together, to share a meal, chat about our day and sort out any problems,” said Emma.
“Finding something they all like to eat is quite hard, even though I am a trained chef, but my home-made chicken pie, mashed potatoes, peas and turnip always goes down well. And Davey is a great baker. He’s very hands-on, a great dad. The only thing he has ever refused to do is change a nappy.”
In the kitchen, a magnet on the fridge door holds a thick wad of notes and letters to remind the family about school trips, music lessons and homework. “We have to be very organised,” said Emma. “The older kids are great and they often help with the little ones. And it’s getting much easier as they all get older.” Two washing machines and two tumble dryers help Emma to keep up with the endless washing, while a 12 seater mini-bus, parked in the drive, ferries them all on family trips.
In the afternoon it’s just little Bridget at home demanding attention. But come evening time, the house is full of children, all wanting to talk about their day. “You can’t give them all the attention they need all of the time,” said Emma. “And they have had to learn to wait their turn. I love them all to bits but there’s always someone squabbling, or someone needing something. And I do get grumpy and cross at times – we all do.
“If they were all born with a book, telling you exactly what they needed, it would be easy, but it’s not like that. And each and every one is totally different. But each and every one is very special too.
“Sophie is very athletic, Anna is a talented pianist and singer, Franchesca is fantastic at drama and singing, Jonathon is a brilliant artist, Ben is a great drummer and Emily is a lovely dancer. Cordelia is just a bubble of love, she’s so kind and caring and Paige is just gorgeous. She loves reading and animals. Alex has a passion for aeroplanes and taking things apart to see how they work and Bridget loves Peppa Pig and stomping around the house in clumpy shoes. The noisier the better!”
Emma breast fed all her 10 children – which may help explain why they are all so fit and healthy. “They don’t get sickly very often. They all had the chickenpox, one after another, in little groups. It seemed like we had spots in the house for months and months. But that’s been about it.”
Emma had eight of her 10 children at Hexham Hospital and would have had them all there if she could. But she had to go to the RVI in Newcastle with Alex when he was 16 days late. And Bridget was born at Wansbeck Hospital.
Emma has kept all the baby tags from their births and the outfits they came out of hospital in. She also ensures that those big moments in a child’s life – the first day at school, first Christmas, first Nativity play – are special for all of her children.
Bringing up 10 children is undoubtedly costly and supermarket bills alone can amount to £300 a fortnight with more money spent during the week on fresh fruit and vegetables. But the most expensive time of the year is undoubtedly Christmas when Emma budgets £200 per child, but always goes over. “They each have a stocking and there’s a huge pile of presents under the tree,” she said.
Emma is dreading the day the children fly the nest. “Jonathon is talking about leaving home and getting a flat and Ben may follow him. I try not to think about it. I know they have to grow up, they have to have their own lives, but I can’t imagine my life without children at home.”
Emma had a taste of what was to come when she found herself home alone, child-free, on Bridget’s first morning at play group. “I couldn’t cope with the peace and quiet. I turned on both tellies and the radio just so I could have some noise. This house is always full of chat, laughter and music. I didn’t like it at all. I just couldn’t settle.”
Emma has been having babies for 20 years and it has taken a toll on her health. She looks fit and well but she’s had problems with back and hips and now goes to pilates to help strengthen her core muscles. Zumba classes in Allendale also help to keep her energy levels up.
Despite her aching back, each and every pregnancy has been a delight for Emma and she happily admits that she would have more babies if she could. But David has put his foot down. “I was devastated at first as I would love another one,” said Emma. “I do understand why he wants to stop at 10, but never say never! That’s all I can say.”