Illegitimacy in England

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Illegitimacy in England was never common, the number of such births in the past usually being under two per cent. That number increased to three per cent between 1590 and 1610. It rose to three per cent again about 1750, slowly increased to seven per cent in the 1840s (when about a third of women were pregnant at marriage), and then declined to about four per cent in the 1890s.

Parish Registers

The baptism of illegitimate children are normally found in the parish registers of the place of the child's birth, but the names of the putative fathers are only occasionally recorded there. From the mid-eighteenth century the likely name of the father may be surmised from entries such as "William Smith bastard of Mary Jones" where there is a strong presumption that the father was called William Smith.

In many cases, however, all that one can do is to assume that the father of such a child is the person the woman marries soon after the baptism. Bridget Newman of Amwell in Hertfordshire agreed to marry Francis Todd on Michaelmas Day 1634, but she produced a child, Amy, on the eve of the wedding. The vicar wrote in his register "untimely borne  the daye before, so turning the marriage feast into a christeninge" and the clear assumption is that Francis was the father.

Sometimes, however, the position is not so clear and assumptions about the paternity from the registers alone may be contradicted by other sources. These should always be explored.

Parish Records

Prior to the 1840s the first step is to look at any surviving account books of the churchwardens, constables and overseers of the poor, and at the minute books of the vestry of the parish where the child was born.

The deceived maiden, unable to support herself and the coming child, probably under pressure from her family, might well come to the attention of the parish overseer of the poor. By seeing the father and bringing further pressure to bear, a marriage might be arranged, the parish even paying for a marriage licence if there was urgency. Any incidental costs involved would be entered in the account books and explain the situation.

If a marriage was not forthcoming (and up to 1844 a fair element of coercion could be used) the father, or his father or mother, would be forced to enter into a bond to pay for the lying-in and subsequent maintenance of the child, indemnifying the parish against any future costs. This Bastardy Bond (or Indemnity Bond) would naturally be retained amongst the overseer's records in the parish chest.

It was the practice to extract from the father's family as much as it could afford. At Little Sampford in Essex in 1793 the parish officials agreed with James Hornsey of Bumpstead, "and took fifty pounds for a bastard child born of Mary Hall but to return ten pounds if the child doth not live two years from the birth". The child died after seven months and £10 was returned. In 1794 £10 was extracted from Mrs Willis "for a bastard of her son's" and £20 from Mr Woodham for the child "layed to his son by Ann Hawke".

In cases where there is no bastardy bond the account books may tell the story. At Great Sampford in July 1789 the accounts include, "Paid Mr Fowler for Lydia Bell's lying in £1 1s 0d", followed by, "a journey to Thaxted with Lydia Bell and from thence to Finchinfeld to apprehend Edward Choat 5s", "Justice's clerk for examination and warrant 2s", and "Expenses at Thaxted 2s". Edward Choat somehow escaped, for he did not pay anything or marry Lydia and for several years she received one shilling weekly from the parish to support her child. The parish even paid for a woman to look after her when she was ill in 1793. In 1795 she married Joseph Dazely at Finchingfield and it may be that she was pregnant again. Great Sampford, seemingly anxious to be rid of her, paid all the expenses (more than £8), including the cost of the marriage licence and the hire of a horse and cart, the constable and churchwarden going with her. As mentioned above these accounts may appear in any surviving account books of the churchwardens, the overseers of the poor, the constables, or of the vestry of the parish where the child was born.

A bastard took its place of settlement from the parish in which it was born (which encouraged the removal of pregnant women) but after an Act in 1743-4 it took it mother's place of settlement. Even after Lydia's marriage, Great Sampford was still liable for her first child and the parish continued to make payments until it died in 1801.


Paternal responsibility for illegitimate children "on the parish" might include arrangements for their future livelihood. Payment of premiums for apprenticeship was sometimes required and may feature in the above mentioned account books, or the apprenticeship indenture itself may survive. In the 18th century a premium of £5 was frequently paid to the master and would be reckoned good value in a parish paying 1s 6d a week or £3 18s 0d a year for a child's maintenance.

Illegitimate paupers were almost invariably apprenticed by the parish, and although the indenture will not normally show the name of the father, it may be deduced from his indemnity payments or from notations on the indenture. In one case, at Stow-on-the-Wold in 1788, when the seven-year-old illegitimate Thomas Steel Vincent was apprenticed to a chimney sweep for 14 years, his father (married and with children of his own) paid the man five guineas to take him away.

The law denied unmarried mothers any rights over their children when the children reached the age of seven, and they were obliged to hand them over to the father if he so desired. He might be rich enough to offer the child a better chance in life and there are instances of wealthier fathers taking their children away from mistresses with whom they had broken.

Church Courts

In the heyday of the church courts (in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries) instances of fornication, adultery and bridal or prenuptial pregnancy might, in some areas, be brought to their attention by the churchwardens of the parish concerned. In many cases both parties would be named and the possibility of further information in their records should always be explored.

Maintenance Orders

As early as 1575-6 the Justices of the Peace in each county were given powers to order the mothers or putative father of illegitimate children to pay for their maintenance, either directly or through their parish officials.

If the father of the child was unwilling to acknowledge his responsibilities, the woman might be taken before two local justices to make a statement on oath (an Examination) naming the father and describing the circumstances of her child's conception. The justices would then make an appropriate maintenance or affiliation order, providing the names of both parents and the amount of maintenance to be paid. In earlier times these orders were generally signed by two justices acting outside Sessions, they filing copies with the Clerk of the Peace of the county.

Under the provisions of the Bastardy Act 1733 the man might be imprisoned until he gave security to indemnify the parish for the costs of looking after the child, or until he agreed to marry the woman.

Edward Woodhouse of Aldbury in Hertfordshire, detained in custody in January 1805 for want of sureties in connection with the child of Mary Jennings of Braughin, was still there the following January. In January 1765 Samuel Timson had been committed until he indemnified the parish of Flamsted in respect of Ann Woodfield's child, but the next January Caesar Saunders, the master of the gaol, was fined one shilling for negligently allowing him to escape.

Under an Act of 1609-10 the mother of a bastard which had become chargeable to the parish might be imprisoned for a year, and under the 1733 Act she was obliged to name the child's father. It did not happen often, but Sarah Mason of Bayford was committed to gaol "until she discloses the name of the father of her bastard child" in 1741, the only instance recorded at the Hertford Sessions.

At Hertford the records show that there were 513 maintenance orders in the years 1799-1833, of which only four went to appeal (two successfully). At the St Albans Sessions 1784-1820 about eight per cent of the cases heard concerned the maintenance of illegitimate children.

A typical entry in the Minute Books of the Epiphany 1820 Hertford Quarter Sessions (one of ten such orders made that day) reads, "Sarah Impey widow swears that about eight weeks ago she was delivered of a male bastard child in Stevenage since christened Charles and that Charles Henshaw of Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, is the father who is heard and adjudged to be so and ordered to pay £2 8s 0d for the lying in and maintenance to this time and from hence two shillings a week and she sixpence a week or nurse her said child".

Poor Law Unions

With the grouping of parishes into Poor Law Unions in 1834 the Poor Law Guardians took over many of the functions of the parish overseers and their Minute Books are a further source of possible information. Two examples from the Minute Books of Hertford Union are typical:

In 1835 Mary Cox of Walkern said that she had an illegitimate child, Catherine, aged two, but that its father, James Miles, who had regularly paid maintenance, was now in prison and his payments had ceased. The Board of Poor Law Guardians refused her request for assistance, considering that she could support herself. The name of the child's father had not been recorded when Catherine was baptised in February 1834. In 1837 the father married Lydia Bardolph, she having produced an illegitimate child in 1835 which by 1841 had taken his name and was presumably also his.

In December 1835, Jemima Bigg of Aston, aged 25, who had lived with Mr Wordsworth, Junior, had, two weeks previously, left him, and expecting to be confined in a month was ordered to be received into Watton Workhouse. In May 1836 the child was three months old and Jemima was attempting to support herself by plaiting straw. Her application for assistance was adjourned for a week whilst the Board's Relieving Officer went to see Mr Wordsworth. In June 1836 it was ordered that she and the child be received into the workhouse at Hertford. What conversation, if any, there had been with Mr Wordsworth, is not recorded.

Petty Sessions

The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 gave powers to Quarter Sessions to make orders against the fathers of illegitimate children when the costs of their maintenance fell on the parish. In 1839 these powers were transferred to the Petty Sessions which had been created in each county in 1828.

A further Act in 1844 allowed the mother of such a child to apply to the Justices in Petty Sessions for a maintenance order against its father. The maximum she could obtain was set at five shillings a week for the six weeks prior to the birth of the child and two shillings and sixpence a week thereafter. In cases where the support of a pregnant woman or her child had become chargeable to the Union or parish, the Guardians of the Poor could seek similar orders. The father had a right of appeal to Quarter Sessions. By the 1890s the maximum amount for the maintenance and education of the child had been increased to five shillings a week, it going up to £1 a week in 1923.

The threat of such an order (with the publicity it might attract in a local newspaper) might bring a measure of agreement or even marriage. In the late 19th century the yearly reference book Whitaker's Almanack said, "a man who is adjudged the father of a bastard child may be peremptorily dismissed by his employer". It was, of course, understood that, "a menial servant to be enceinte [pregnant] may be peremptorily dismissed without notice", a wording which appeared in Whitaker's until as late as 1926, though by then the menials were being called "domestic servants" and a warning had been added that  "any attempt to examine without her consent a servant supposed to be enceinte renders the employer liable to an action".

Bastardy Returns

By the 1844 Act the clerks of the various Petty Sessional divisions were required to make annual returns, listing the applications heard, the summonses issued, and the orders for maintenance, to the Clerk of the Peace. The latter was to preserve them and to send copies to the Secretary of State at the Home Office with lists of the appeals and their results.

These Bastardy Returns give the name of the mother, the date of the summons and hearing, the result, the name of the father, and the amount of maintenance to be paid. Judging by those for Middlesex, the place of residence and occupation of the father rarely appears.

Bastardy returns for the period 1845-1859 may survive in county record offices and may act as a substitute in places where the records of the Petty Sessions themselves are lacking. There are returns, for instance, at Hertford 1844-71, at Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1844-76, at Nottingham 1833-58, at Maidstone 1845-58, and at the London Metropolitan Archives 1844-60 (not 1850). The London ones, previously in annual bundles but now organised by court, include returns from the Police Courts, but many of the series are unfortunately incomplete; the appeals only survive for the years 1847-48.

Births after 1837

With the introduction of civil registration of births in 1837, the birth certificates of illegitimate children usually show only the name of the mother, who is the informant, though the name of the father may sometimes appear. From 1875 the registrar could not enter the name of the father, unless at the joint request of the father and mother, when the father also signed the register. When an illegitimate child marries it may leave blank the space for its father's name, but it may then reveal the truth, if it has been learned in the meantime.

It was all too easy to register the birth of an illegitimate child as though it were legitimate by inventing the name of a father. Where a woman does this she may invent a man with the same surname as herself (so that she is "Smith formerly Smith") and give him her own father's forename. A birth registered late by a woman may indicate that the child is illegitimate, particularly if a marriage cannot be found or if her husband's surname is the same as her own. In such cases the baptism of the child may reveal the true position and this should always be searched for.

Wills and property

The property of a bastard who died without surviving spouse or legitimate issue before 1927 reverted to the Crown and grants of administration are found in the Prerogative Courts of Canterbury and York and, from 1858, at the Principal Probate Registry. For the famous actress Mrs Jordan, "a spinster and a bastard" with 13 illegitimate children of her own, the grant of administration in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury clearly shows that her parents were not married.

With the creation of the Estate Duty Office in 1796, bequests to illegitimate children were taxed as though they were bequests to "strangers" (i.e. persons who were not blood relatives), and the notations in the registers, 1796-1903, at The National Archives may throw considerable light on doubtful cases.

The child described in a will as "natural and lawful" is legitimate. The use of the word "natural" alone does not, however, imply illegitimacy, being used to mean "real son", not son-in-law, stepson or adopted son. Wills are not usually reticent about illegitimate children, but where there is some sensitivity they may sometimes appear without any relationship being stated.

By the 1926 Act an illegitimate child could be legitimated by the subsequent marriage of its parents, provided that they were free to marry when the child was born. In 1959 this proviso was abolished. Since the Family Law Reform Act of 1969 the rights of an illegitimate child have been broadly similar to those of a legitimate child, though in no case can it succeed to, or transmit a right to, any dignity or title.

[adapted from an article "Records of illegitimate children" by Anthony Camp in Family Tree Magazine (UK), vol. 17, no. 7 (May 2001), pages 7-9].