Illegitimacy in England

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Illegitimacy in England

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 didnot 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 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 which 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 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 most 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:

to be continued