The Waltons: The return of the magnificent six

Back in 1983, the Walton sisters caused a sensation. Now the first recorded surviving set of all-female sextuplets is about to turn 18. How, wonders Julia Stuart, has life been treating them so far?
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The Independent Online

An animated man with a strong scouse accent is talking to a group of middle-aged women in a village hall. Every few minutes they roll their heads with laughter. It's a good job the speaker, Graham Walton, has a keen sense of humour. As the father of the first recorded surviving set of all-girl sextuplets – who all still live at home, and who turn 18 on Sunday – he needs one.

"One man said: 'Six babies all in one go? What did you use, a bloody sprinkler?' " Graham, now 51, tells the Womens Institute members at the local village hall. It was, in fact, fertility treatment that produced Hannah, Lucy, Ruth, Sarah, Kate and Jennie back in 1983. The odds of such a feat were 104 billion-to-one, and unsurprisingly, the birth sent the world's media completely potty. News footage from the time shows Graham sporting substantially more hair and a somewhat dumbstruck expression as he holds six fingers up to a bank of feverish cameramen.

At the time, Graham was a jobbing painter and decorator – as he still is. The family faced a grim financial future. To the criticism of some, he and his wife, Janet, now 49, decided to accept payments from the media for exclusive coverage of their remarkable progeny. The first photos of the babies, who spent their first six months in hospital, were said to have gone for between £10,000 and £100,000. The couple, then living in a tiny terraced house in Liverpool, also gladly accepted sponsorship from a number of companies. It is hard to believe that anyone with six mouths to feed and 12 continually growing feet to shoe, would have done anything different.

"At the beginning Graham took about a year off so that he could help at home, and so the reason why we did the media and the advertising at first was to compensate for his salary," says Janet, who works as an appeals administrator at Liverpool Women's Hospital. "We were offered a lot more than we took. We only did just enough, we didn't want to use the girls at all for that. And it's worked out well because the girls are very level-headed. They know who they are. Graham and I have worked hard all the way through to finance things."

"There's no manual to tell you how to do these things, so we did our best," says Graham. "People think we didn't do the right thing, well it's hard luck, we think we did the right thing."

Certainly, the Waltons, who are featured in a BBC documentary tonight, come across as a regular – though highly populated – teenage household. One dreads to think how the girls could have turned out, had it not been for their parents' obvious affection and common sense. The famous Dionne quintuplets from Canada were not so lucky. The five identical girls, born in 1934, were placed under the guardianship of the province of Ontario and gawped at by three million tourists over the next nine years. In 1943 they were returned to their parents, who, the surviving three quintuplets say, physically abused them. Both parents are now dead.

The Waltons, by contrast, still live in the double-fronted, seven-bedroom house in Liverpool to which the family moved just before the girls' third birthday. There are regular battles for the bathroom, and the house is never quiet, with music blasting from every bedroom. Like all self-respecting sisters, they pinch each others' clothes and help each other to get ready before going out.

Hannah is doing her A-levels, and thinking about going to university. Jennie, probably the most outspoken of the six, whose eyes are surmounted by thin arcs of plucked brows, had a job for a while in a medical centre, but decided it wasn't for her and left. "I don't think I need one [a job] because I'm a teenager and I want to enjoy my teenage years, not have a job or go to school," she says. "If I need money I'll get myself a job, but I don't need money at the moment so I'm not working."

Jennie would love to marry one day, and has already decided on the colour of the flowers in her bouquet and the sort of husband she wants. "It's always like the women that have to cook and clean and that. I hope I meet someone who can iron, Hoover and polish and stuff like that, because I don't really wanna do that," she says, screwing up her face.

Kate is studying for her A-levels. Sarah didn't enjoy school – "I just went for the social side" – and now works for an insurance firm. "When I started, everyone kept saying: 'Are you one of the Waltons?' It does get annoying, but you deal with it," she says.

Lucy has done a nursery nurse training course and now works at the same place as Sarah. She would, however, rather be a presenter, actor or model. "I've always wanted to be famous, really. I don't know why," she says. Sarah isn't convinced that Lucy is the best person to have around at work. "It can be all right, but sometimes she can get on my nerves and spread rumours around the office which aren't true," she says.

Ruth has recently finished a child-care course and is hoping to get a job. She is particularly looking forward to her birthday this weekend, as it will mean she no longer has to do media interviews. "I don't like people knowing who I am and what I get up to. But you can't really have the Waltons with five. When I'm 18 I'm not doing anything else, that'll be my choice." They still do promotional work – the AA is sponsoring their driving lessons.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that the girls are about to become fully fledged adults, the hard work continues. "It's still hard now, but in a different way," says Graham. "Life comes along with different problems when you've got teenagers. It's been tough, but we've had a lot of fun out of it. To have a family anyway is lovely. We just wanted one baby really. But to have a family of six has just been fabulous. To see them fit and well everyday has been wonderful. They are wonderful kids.

"They have their moments and we have our battles and our fights, but at the end of the day they're brilliant kids and I'm proud of them."

For Janet, the best thing has been "all the cuddles and kisses and love in the house". She says they have coped simply by taking one day at time. "That's literally what we do now. Every parent will tell you that there are really bad times, and there are, there's no getting away from that. But it's no good worrying."

Certainly, Graham and Janet are not out of the woods yet. Their six good-looking daughters attract a steady stream of gentlemen callers. "They're like jackals," says Graham. "They're everywhere." No doubt Janet and Graham will be called upon to mend many broken hearts.

But a bigger challenge will be to face up, as they one day must, to their own pain: when the sextuplets move out. Some of the girls are already discussing it. "I don't think they'll all leave at once," says Janet. "Hannah and Kate are looking at universities at the moment, but they are actually looking at Liverpool. They don't want to leave home. And the others aren't at a stage of leaving home yet. It is obviously going to be very hard when they do leave home. We'll miss them, but I'm sure they'll all keep coming back."

"It could be another 10 years before they go," says Graham, seemingly unfazed at the prospect.

Meanwhile, there will still be queues for the bathroom and Graham will find more anecdotes with which to amuse his audiences. He is now considering giving up painting and decorating and devoting his energies – what's left of them – to full-time after-dinner speaking. "They were born in four minutes," he tells the WI members. "According to my wife Janet, that was twice as long as it took to conceive them."