The Stork matches high-class couples of a certain ‘type’ – the joining fee is £10,000
As a successful businesswoman and well-spoken GP’s daughter who enjoyed foreign travel and dined in only the finest restaurants, Lucy Cartwright-Wells led a charmed, single life.
However, like many women in their late 30s, she was acutely aware of her ticking biological clock and was eager to start a family.
But time wasn’t on her side and she loathed the idea of ‘settling’ for a man beneath her social standing purely for the purposes of procreation or, even worse, going down the anonymous donor route and having a child alone — a baby, she firmly believed, deserved two parents. Where could she find an eligible bachelor equally desperate to be a father? As luck would have it, there was an agency out there just for people like her.
Appropriately known as The Stork, it matches couples of a certain ‘type’ (the joining fee is £10,000) who are desperate for children they can co-parent. If a relationship and marriage follow, then all the better, but that is not the primary aim of the introduction. Today, Lucy, 42, is the besotted mother of a beautiful two-year-old boy, Jake. His father, James, is a 55-year-old, equally besotted, retired Household Cavalry officer of impeccable breeding.
James’s parents — aristocratic landowners — are equally delighted, as he now has an heir ready to inherit the family fortune.
The icing on the cake is that Lucy and James liked each other so much they’re living together and planning to get married next year.
It was, says Lucy, the perfect arrangement. Meet, decide to have a baby, and fall in love.
‘We knew when we met that each of us was desperate for a child, whether or not our relationship came to anything. It was refreshing because it meant we didn’t have to skirt around the subject, make small talk and have lots of dates before plucking up the courage to mention it, as we both had in previous relationships.’
Immoral, or a practical solution to a problem of our time? The agency’s founder, Fiona Thomas, who set it up in 2014, is convinced of the latter.
‘Our members have everything — amazing careers, wealth, education, travel — but not the one thing they really want: a family,’ she says. ‘We’ve built up the agency slowly and, so far, over 12 matches have been made and five babies born or on the way.
‘We have a thorough vetting procedure and a most exclusive clientele — we have guys so wealthy they make the Forbes Billionaires list — so absolute discretion is key.
‘Several of our members are also titled — we have a marquess and a baronet — but I can’t say who we have that’s ranked higher than that because, once you get to dukes, there are only so many people it could be.’
Fiona Thomas from Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, who set up the agency
Most members are hopeful of finding a relationship that leads to parenthood, while some are happy to simply co-parent with someone who shares their values on child-rearing.
In the latter cases, babies can either be conceived the old-fashioned way or, if preferred, through artificial insemination or fertility treatment.
Fiona, who also runs a property business with her partner, has long been part of the hunting, shooting and fishing set near her home in the Cotswolds and was acutely aware of the need for an agency for well-heeled people of a certain age, interested in mating, not just casual dating.
‘There are huge numbers of titled people in this country without an heir,’ says Fiona. ‘They are very motivated to have a child, rather than see the title passed to nephews or nieces, or die out, but they want to meet financially independent women who want the same thing, not the sort of gold-diggers they might encounter on dating sites.
‘I have one such gentleman getting married in June to another of my clients, a lovely art dealer, and they won’t have a child until afterwards as an heir to his title must be born within wedlock.’
At least one couple matched through Stork went abroad to choose the gender of their child through IVF — something which isn’t legal in Britain — as the hereditary title could only be passed to a male heir.
Fiona, 41, says she is too busy enjoying her freedom to want children herself. But she recognised the demand for a service like hers as she had so many friends and acquaintances — with highly successful careers and businesses, whose fertile lives were drawing to a close — panicking because they had not met Mr Right.
Some were even contemplating going it alone using sperm donors, a route Fiona disapproves of.
One of the clients ‘Lucy’ with her son, who preferred to remain anonymous
‘Research has shown that growing up never knowing, nor having the opportunity to know, your father has a negative psychological impact on a child,’ she says.
‘Even if the people we bring together decide to simply co-parent, rather than enter into a traditional relationship, at least they will both be there for their child, which I believe is far more ethical.’
Fiona has up to 100 clients at any one time, around 65 per cent of whom are women, a fact she puts down to men having a less visceral drive to become a parent and being ‘unable to be bothered’ jumping through the necessary hoops before being added to the list of potential suitors.
Most of the women are aged 37 to 41 — although one 49-year-old is exploring the possibility of carrying another woman’s egg, fertilised by one of Stork’s male clients — while the men range in age from late 30s to 50s.
As the joining fee, which gives access to Stork’s client list for one year, is £10,000, the less financially solvent are weeded out at the start.
That’s just as well as Stork employs a firm to conduct background searches into all applicants’ company turnover or incomes, the deeds to any properties they claim to own, and to check for any debts.
‘It’s important that both partners are in a good position to support any child they may have,’ insists Fiona.
As part of the service, Stork offers DNA tests to its members before providing each with a list of potential mates they would be most biologically compatible with. ‘When it comes to procreating, we are best matched to the people we are least genetically similar to,’ explains Fiona.
‘This leads to more successful pregnancies, with a better chance of going full-term, and any children you have together are likely to be healthier as you’re not carrying the same rogue genes which can lead to certain disabilities and conditions.’
There is also a questionnaire, drawn up by a relationship psychologist, to complete so that couples can be matched on the basis of their values and outlook. It tackles modern parenting concerns, such as attitudes to screen time and, given the clientele, state education versus private boarding schools.
Indeed, this is a subject that Lucy, who is state educated, and James, a privately educated aristocrat, are currently debating, each preferring their son to take the route most familiar to them.
They are confident of a compromise, however, and both have their son’s best interests at heart. Indeed, there isn’t much they disagree on. It has, both admit, been a terrifically good match.
When Fiona introduced them four years ago, Lucy admits she was nervous. ‘I was concentrating so hard on making a good impression that I didn’t really think about whether I fancied James.
‘It was after we’d met a few times and chatted that I thought ‘I like you’, and decided we could do this as a couple. Fortunately, James felt the same way.’
They moved in together on James’s family estate in the Cotswolds, complete with livery yard which is now run by Lucy, seven months after meeting. Eight months later, Jake was conceived.
Lucy believes it took a while because of her relatively advanced age. They waited until their baby was born to discover his gender as both were happy with either.
Because the delivery was traumatic, due to a prolapsed umbilical cord which resulted in an emergency caesarean, they decided not to have more children.
So precious and long-awaited is he that Jake has never been left to cry at any time, day or night, without at least one of his parents immediately going to his aid. Lucy plans to continue breast-feeding her son until he self-weans.
In fact, Jake, the only grandchild on both sides, is the apple of his whole family’s eye.
While his middle-class grandparents take him on trips to the zoo and local parks, his aristocratic gran and grandad indulge him with eye-wateringly expensive gifts, such as a ride-on electric miniature tractor, worth over £1,000, to navigate around the family acres he will inherit.
Clients have included bankers, music moguls and heiresses
Success stories like this prompted Charles Holt, 47, who made his fortune in the music industry, to sign up to Stork at the start of this year. He wanted someone to share, and ultimately inherit, the fruits of his labour.
He says: ‘In my younger days I didn’t give much thought to having children, but as you go through life you become more philosophical.
‘I’ve made a lot of money and think what’s it all about if I don’t have anyone to share it with and pass it on to? I would love nothing more now than to meet someone, settle down and have a child.’
Charles has been introduced to several women with whom his DNA is compatible, but says the tricky part is finding mutually convenient times when they can meet again and get to know one another better.
He has a house in London but spends several months a year at his second home in Ibiza, playing golf and tennis, so pinning him down can be tricky.
‘This is not just about finding a suitable date, or even a partner, something I could do through an upmarket dating agency, but also a mother for my child,’ says Charles. ‘The women I’ve met via Fiona have been in their mid-30s, attractive, intelligent, independent and in a comfortable position financially. A highly-vetted group — one was a banker, another a lawyer.
‘I’ve been in long-term relationships in the past — one lasted six years, with a woman who was unable to have children, which wasn’t an issue for me at the time — but I’ve never been married, or had kids, so hopefully I’m seen as a good catch, as I don’t bring any baggage with me.
‘In the initial meetings with the three women I’ve met we got straight to the topic of parenting, because we both knew exactly why we were there. We’re working on finding mutually convenient times to get together again.’
The irony is not lost on Charles that one reason Stork members may have reached middle-age without realising their dreams of becoming parents is that other ambitions and desires have, all too often, taken priority.
Fiona has, however, been approached by women in their early 20s, from wealthy backgrounds but yet to establish their careers, asking to join. Suspicious of their motives, she has turned them away: ‘They know we have a lot of affluent gentleman on our books, to be honest,’ she says. ‘I tell them: ‘You’ve got another 15 years until the panic is on!’
Tom McCardle, 43, a Government adviser who has accrued a significant fortune over his working life and is on course to retire aged 50, came across similar women during the four years he spent on elite dating sites, prior to joining Stork last November.
He says they were ‘looking for a meal ticket’, but Tom values shared life experiences, and being able to reminisce about such things as music and children’s TV shows, with women his own age.
However, most of those he encountered had already completed their families.
Originally from the North-East and now living in Wales, Tom was introduced to three female Stork clients and ‘really hit it off’ with one, Emma.
She is a 39-year-old stockbroker, a working-class girl made good like him, who divides her time between a flat in London and her house in Somerset. Tom is very optimistic this will lead to his dream of becoming a father becoming a reality. If it leads to a relationship, then all the better.
‘I want children for egotistical reasons, to leave a lasting impression on the world, but also because family is huge to me — I’m very close to my mum, sister, nephews and nieces,’ says Tom. ‘Sometimes I wake in the night thinking about how great it would be to be a dad, caring for someone else, but until now I just haven’t met the right woman to make that happen.
‘I’ve been told there’s no love like that you have for a child and I’m desperate to experience that.
‘Like the other Stork ladies, Emma has the same kind of drive and focus as me, which is why she’s been so successful, and I find that a very attractive quality.
‘We also both have big hearts and are in a position, financially and emotionally, to give our children a good life.’
The couple are planning to wait until October before trying to conceive, by which time Emma will have turned 40.
Whether nature is as kind to them as other life experiences have been remains to be seen.
Fiona always makes a point of telling clients she is no miracle worker. ‘I manage all of my clients’ expectations and don’t claim to be the answer to all of their prayers,’ she says. ‘I can introduce them to suitable people who really want the same thing as them — a child — but what happens from there is down to them.