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  • Illegitimacy

    There will be very few of us who do not discover at least one illegitimate Ancestor in our tree. This is not necessarily the 'dead end' it may first appear. It also may not mean that our ancestor's were punished and outcast from society as so many people would have us believe...

    Baptism entries can describe the mother as many different things - this Vicar describes the mother as a Spinster.

    Through Time

    Before 1835, illegitimate children were, in theory, a charge upon the Parish in which they lived. Strenuous efforts were made to discover the identity of the father of the child in order that the Overseer for the Poor, or other Parish Official could extract a payment from him. Midwives were often paid to find the name of a father from a woman in labour. Pregnant women were often called before a panel of Parish officials to reveal the name of the father of her child.

    After 1835, the laws regarding Poor Relief changed from a Parish-based (Church run) system to a more national system - people were becoming far more mobile and the old system of Parish Settlement had become unworkable.

    So, the Overseer of the Poor, and/or the Workhouse Master now assisted the mother (vigorously) in taking out a Bastardy Order against the father of the child in the local county assize, and later, in the Magistrates Court. But if she left the Workhouse, or refused to divulge the name of the father, little could be done - the responsibility for claiming maintenance for the child had now shifted to the mother, not the Authorities.
    There were differing attitudes to illegitimacy over the centuries. Pre 1650, Bastardy was a crime. Both parents faced a prison term, unless they agreed to marry. It remained a crime for another 150 years, but generally it was only the MOTHER who was imprisoned.

    However, it is likely that the general population, although paying lip service to the Church's horror of illegitimacy, had much more liberal ideas, particularly those living in rural areas.

    Different Circumstances

    There were, in the popular mind, varying degrees of illegitimacy.

    Top of the list was a child born out of wedlock to a couple who were 'walking out' together. As long as the couple eventually married, no-one was even remotely upset about this, other than the Church. Indeed many farming communities more or less insisted that the woman prove her breeding ability before anything as serious as marriage was undertaken.

    Next on the list were Servant Girls who had been taken advantage of by the Master at the Big House. Everyone was immediately sympathetic to her plight and indeed, applauded for her cleverness, because she and her baby would be taken care of financially and her child might even better it's social position in later life, being the recipient of a well-placed job, an education and even maybe a share in the wills of rich relatives!

    Then came the silly girls who had got pregnant by someone of their own social standing, who did not wish to marry them. Great pressure would be brought on the reluctant male (if he could be found) to do the decent thing, or at least provide for the child. Everyone would be rather cross with the girl for the trouble this caused.
    Then a smaller group of girls who did not know who the father of their child was. If they had any brain in their head, they would dream up a name pretty quick and the parents would probably put about a vague story of "a Gent" hoping for a bit of social sympathy. No one was very pleased with them.

    Wrath was for those girls who got pregnant by a married man. Many country areas, including Scotland and Wales, would "tin" the girl out of the village. This "tinning" consisted of the whole village gathering outside the girl's house, banging on saucepans etc, until the girl came out. She would then be escorted over the Parish Boundary by this mob, banging and shouting. She would presumably finish up in the Workhouse - her family would not dare take her or her child in.

    Bottom of the heap and universally condemned were babies born of incest. These children rarely survived infancy, meeting with odd accidents like drowning, falling in fires etc. No one made any attempt to investigate these deaths and it is probable that many of them were concealed anyway.

    How to find out more

    Before 1835, look for Bastardy Orders and Bastardy Bonds, in the Poor Law Records. Bastardy BONDS are quite rare and only apply to a father who had wealth to be bonded. However, other male relatives could be Bonded, including Grandfathers, Uncles, Brothers - anyone who had a bit of money or local standing, and who was prepared to take financial responsibility for the child.

    After 1835, look for Bastardy Orders and Maintenance Orders, Orders of Affiliation etc, in County Assizes and later, in the Magistrates Courts.

    Generally, the later the order, the more difficult it is to find! A2A website has many early orders listed, and the titles of these give the mother's name, the father's name and very often the child's name too. You can search the A2A website by clicking here: A2A Access to Archives.

    It is also always worth looking for a baptism for the child - often the Vicar will pencil in the 'reputed' father's name, and the earlier the child was born, the more likely this is. During the 1800s a clue to the child's parentage is often given by the use of a middle name - Joe Bloggs Smith, child of Annie Smith, can sometimes be a strong clue that the father was Bloggs.

    Finally, it is surprising how FEW of these Orders were ever challenged by the reputed father and therefore conclude that the women must have been, for the most part, telling the truth.

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