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Ellie Sharp might look like an ordinary ten-year-old – but she has an extraordinary family...
YOU'D be forgiven for thinking having just one mum can be more than enough at times, but spare a thought for Ellie Sharp – she has seven of them.
The ten-year-old belongs to the UK’s only openly polygamous family (a ‘marriage’ with several partners) and, in a new Channel 5 documentary, they open the door to their farmhouse in East Sussex and lift the lid on what life is like in a family of one dad, seven mums and 18 children.
“To me, our life is normal; it’s just another way of living,” says bright, home-schooled Ellie.
“We’re a big family and we’re all happy here. I know I don’t do things that other kids do – like go to school – but lots of people don’t have a big family to turn to for help and I do.”
A Messianic Jew (“We’re Jewish, but believe in Jesus too,” Ellie explains), Ellie’s father Philip, 53, is a former Rabbi who started taking wives, all of whom he met at his synagogue in Hove, after a calling from God instructed him to live as a biblical king and build a big family.
Philip’s brood is unique – having multiple wives is not normally practised by Messianic Jews – and although he isn’t technically married to any of them as polygamy is illegal in Britain, each wife has changed her surname to Sharp and wears a wedding ring, and Philip has fathered all 18 children.
“I have been married under official British law but my wife and I haven’t seen one another for 15 years now – we’re separated,” explains Philip, a horse-trainer.
“But under biblical law I’m married to seven other women.
“I was 40 when I had this vision. Before that, if you’d asked me about a man having more than one wife, I would have said he’s off the rails.
"But you’re never going to understand it unless you study it in a biblical sense.”
Although Ellie calls each of Philip’s seven wives Mummy – Chava, 67, Hanna, 54, Judith, 53, Tracey, 45 (who left the family before the documentary was filmed), Margo, 42, Vreni, 41, and Karyn, 32 (who recently moved out) – it’s Judith who Ellie regards as her “everything Mummy”.
Judith, who Philip considers his first wife, adopted Ellie when she was three months old and closely raised her – even though Margo is her biological mother.
“I love Judith so much. I love all my mums,” says Ellie. “They are there to help me and guide me.
"Each mum does something wonderful for me. I’ve always known Margo was my real mum and I understand why she couldn’t keep me.”
“Margo couldn’t cope with Ellie so it seemed the right thing to do,” explains Judith. “I couldn’t have kids, so this turned out to be wonderful for me. It’s like that here – we help one another.”
It might have turned out ‘wonderful’ for Judith, but it doesn’t seem to be quite the same for Margo – who shares a moving and intimate moment with her daughter in the programme.
It’s also on this subject that Philip shows a different side in front of the camera.
“The witchcraft of women annihilates children’s love and respect for their fathers,” he says fiercely.
“When I had Ellie, I wasn’t able to meet her needs,” Margo says. “I wasn’t able to be a mother to her. It was a family decision and I agreed with it. Yes, it was painful, but I knew it was good for Ellie.”
Although Ellie confesses that the adults get “stressed and grumpy” (lots of people under one roof coupled with increasing financial struggles doesn’t always make for a harmonious household), she says that being able to go to school with children her own age is the only thing she’d like to change about her life.
“I would like to do my GCSEs at college. I’m trying to persuade my dad to let me go, but other than that, I love my life,” she smiles. “I started ballet when I was little and I met Alice.
"We’re now best friends. I’ve got quite a few other friends too and we meet up to go to the park.”
“I wouldn’t mind Ellie going to school part-time while continuing her home-schooling, but schools don’t accept that,” Philip says.
“I want Ellie to keep her innocence; I don’t want the rest of the world to infect her.”
He does reckon though that if, when she turns 21, his daughter decides to live a more mainstream life, he will stand by her choice.
“If Ellie decided she didn’t believe what I believed, then so be it,” he says. “I’d never disown her. My five oldest children don’t live this life and we have a great friendship. I can’t force them to think like me.”
Although she’s only ten, Ellie, who dreams of being a professional showjumper when she grows up, says she’d be happy being one of many wives when she’s older.
“I wouldn’t mind because I grew up with it,” she muses. “We all love each other and appreciate each other and, as long as I knew everyone loved me, I would find it fair.”
As the family prepare to sell their farm in Whatlington after being hit hard by the recession, Philip is planning to move them all to Crete for a three-month trial, where they will live off the income from his transport-hiring business.
“There’s been a lot of pressure on us of late, so we need this break,” he says.
“This family forces you to think of everyone as an ‘us’, not an ‘I’. One of the reasons wives have left is because they struggle to get an ‘us’ into the equation.
"The selfish, self-centred mindset does not gel with an ‘us’ mindset. That’s what this family is about. That’s what the world should be about.”
And, for now, daddy’s girl Ellie is enjoying family life as she knows it.
“I’m very happy and I love my family very much,” says Ellie.
“Dad will let me grow up like any other adult, so I know I’ll eventually see and do what they do. He’s just trying to protect me for as long as possible.”
WATCH IT! THE GIRL WITH 7 MUMS THURSDAY 9PM CHANNEL 5 (UK TV channel)