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Bastardy or Illegitimacy in England

Richard W. Price, MA, AG®

(From Ancestral Trails, original edition and Tate’s The Parish Chest)

Compiled Nov 2004 by Richard W. Price

Bastard is properly the base child of a father of gentle or noble birth, but more generally any illegitimate child; child born out of wedlock, base-born child; basterino; pack-saddle child; natural child; of natural birth; unfathered, etc.

Percentage of children born illegitimate in three different parishes in three different counties:

1588-1600         None

1601-1650         .69%

1651-1700         1.35%

1701-1750         1.96%

1751-1800         9.97%

1801-1835         6.18%

A child born out of wedlock is legitimated by the subsequent marriage of his parents

1837-1965 about 4-7% of births were illegitimate

It is suggested the increase in illegitimacy in the 18th century was caused by the rapid growth in ale houses 1730s to 1780’s. Peter Laslett in The World We Have Lost (1965) states” Our ancestors, by this test of bastards born and registered as such, were rather more moral sexually than are we ourselves.”

Where to find records of illegitimate children – especially the name and identity of the father:

The first and best place to locate information on illegitimacy, including the name of the father, was in the parish registers1538-present

Civil registration (birth and marriage certificates) 1837-present might name father, although note laws referenced below.

A parish Edgmond, Salop has a special bastard register 1797-1828

 

  • Frendelesse the sonne of Joane Robinsonne base gotten as she saythe by one John Longe was baptysed the first day of November

  • Roger ye sonne of I know not who was baptized I know not when

  • 12 June 1698 at Wolstanton, Staffs; Baptized Providence, an infant whom her father and mother abandoned; but God will take care of her

 

Vestry Minutes:

 

Bastardy bonds, bastardy orders or maintenance orders were often kept, showing the name of the father.

Fathers of illegitimate children were obliged by the parish to care for the child financially.  Each case was handled differently.  Sometimes there was a lump sum demanded to be paid to the parish (which then would care for the mother and child until the child reached adulthood – age of 21/18)

In 1800 in Stockton, Salop

To indemnify the father of a bastard child no smaller sum shall be accepted than Eighteen pound eighteen shillings

Poor law 1601-1834 included settlement and removal

Act of 1732 ensures that any person after 24 June 1733 charged on oath with being the father of a bastard child shall be apprehended and committed to gaol until he gives security to indemnify the parish from expense. 

In 16th and 17th centuries the birth of an illegitimate child was an unusual event. Such events became commoner in the 17th century, still more common in the 18th, and so common as to create little surprise from 1750 onwards.

An illegitimate child could not take legal residence in the parish of his father or mother because he was not legitimate; hence, his legal place of residence was the parish he or she was born in.

1834-1865 Poor law records were kept by Board of Guardians and parish overseers. Poor law documents since 1834 are held in the Guardians’ records at the County Record Offices or at the Public Record Office (now National Archives). To determine which poor law unions existed and where their records are, consult Jeremy Gibson’s guides to poor law unions of England and Wales and their records. [Jeremy Gibson & C. Rogers & C. Webb. Poor Law Union Records:

1. South East England and East Anglia, 2nd ed.  FFHS, 1997.

2. The Midlands and Northern England, 2nd ed. FFHS, 1997.

3. South West England, the Marches and Wales, FFHS, 1993.

4. Gazetteer of England and Wales, FFHS, 1993. This Gazetteer helps to determine in which Poor law union a given parish lies.]

1865-1925 parish poor rates were replaced by a union rate, which was also collected by the overseers until their office was abolished in 1925.

In 1817 there were 15 bastard children supported entirely by the parish of Bingham, at a weekly expense. The sum of 2 shillings only is paid weekly by the parish toward the support of two bastard children.

Act of 1575 punished parents of bastard children. Father was committed to jail until the next Quarter Session unless he gives security to appear, when a fresh order shall be made.  This act remained the basis of the law until 1834. They also could be recorded in Petty Sessions.

Act of 1609-10 “Any lewd woman having had a bastard chargeable may be sent to the house of correction for a year. If she offends again she shall be sent tot her house of correction until she gives securities for good behaviour.   These acts encouraged abortion and infanticide.

Act of 1623-4 to kill a bastard is murder, and one witness at least is necessary to prove a still birth.

Act of 1627 gave all justices of Peace power to enact punishment of such women.

Act of 1662 states that when the mother and father of a bastard run away the overseers on the order of two justices may size their goods.  It seems that women then kept quiet about their condition, hoping to dispose of the child quietly (sometimes a “doorstep baby”. Father often disputed paternity

Law of 1732-4 ordains that a woman pregnant with a bastard child is to declare herself so, and to name the father. 

Act of 1743-4 a bastard born in a place where the mother is not settled is to have its mother’s settlement.  The mother is to be punished by public whipping.

Until about 1750 parish officers dealt with the problem without much fuss.  It seems that few cases were brought before quarter sessions.  The most general method was making the father responsible by bond for the keep of his child: another similar practice was to allow him to pay a lump sum in discharge of all responsibility.

The problem the Justices faced was whether to force the father to marry the woman before the birth of the child, or to leave it to the father to provide for his offspring, or force the father to pay for the child’s keep under an order from justices or quarter sessions. 

All children born more than a month after marriage were legitimate. So some parishes appear regularly as suitors at quarter sessions, others not at all. 

Justices of the Peace were responsible to see they are financed.

The vast majority of bastard births have no record save an entry in the baptismal register. 

Removal orders or settlement certificates or examinations. Examinations often indicate the woman and her illegitimate offspring; orders for the apprehension of putative fathers, etc. and above all, bonds if indemnification given by them to the parish.

Records of illegitimacy and paternity of such children can be found in Churchwarden’s accounts, constable’s accounts and overseer’s accounts.

Vestry minutes often contain agreements for the care of bastards, and the lists of apprentices and lists of newcomers to the parish are useful too (in determining paternity of bastards)

Bond of Indemnification:

1747 “I Abraham Atkinson of Cambridge, Cambridge apothecary am held and firmly bound unto the Churchwardens of the parish of Littlebury in Essex and the Overseers of the Poor of the said parish in the sum of 50 pounds of good and lawful money

If this man and his heirs promise to support the child and all manner of costs, charges and expenses which shall or may in any wise hereafter means of the birth maintenance or bringing up of the said Bastard Child – then his obligation to be void.

Justices of Peace were usually wealth local landowners, were closely involved in parish affairs.  They reviewed complaints from the poor that men had father illegitimate children but refused to pay for their maintenance 

The justices approved the placing, by parish officials, of pauper [or illegitimate] children as apprentices to local farmers or tradesmen.

Hence, the accounts of parish officers were regularly checked by Justices of the Peace, hence both sets of records need be checked. 

If your ancestor was illegitimate, the father may not be named in the parish register or other surviving parish records, but the Justices may have questioned the mother as to the father’s identify and recorded the examination. Justices records may also include a complaint brought against the father (by the mother or parish officials) requiring him to pay maintenance for the child.

From 1572 two members of the vestry were elected annually to act as Overseers of the Poor

After monasteries were suppressed by Henry VIIII, a statue of 1536 made the parish responsible for the care of its poor, and the office of overseer of the poor was created in 1572.

1601-1834 the system of poor relief consisted of the levying of a poor rate, and the distribution of the income to needy parishioners.

Overseers’ accounts may record the parentage of illegitimate children. i.e.:

  • 1805 Cash received from George Gooch to exonerate him from a bastard  child liable to be born on the body of Jane Pavitt Ten pounds

Father’s names rarely appear on birth certificates of illegitimates

1837-1875, if the mother informed a registrar of an illegitimate child’s’ birth and also stated the father’s name, the registrar could record him as the father, but did not have to.

Marriage certificates had a place for naming the father of the bride and groom.  Illegitimate individuals often left the space blank.  Others would name the father if they knew him.  Others would fabricate a name, usually with their mother’s maiden name (and hence their own surname), or they would name their grandfather or an uncle as their father.  This, again, would hide the fact of their own illegitimacy. 

From 1875-present a man could only be named as the father on a birth certificate if he consented and was also present when the birth was registered.

Space for father’s name is usually left blank on birth certificates of illegitimates

Father might be named in parish or poor law union records ch. 18

Or in Courts records chapters 23-24

An alleviate child usually took the mother’s surname, but could take the father’s surname even if they never married

The father may agree to let the child take his name

Sometimes a mother was embarrassed about the illegitimacy so she would fabricate the name of the father and call herself Mrs. Mary Jones when in fact she was unwed.

Illegitimate children of the daughter of a family were often treated as younger children of the child’s grandparents

If a woman marries shortly after the birth of an illegitimate child, it is possible the husband was father to the illegitimate child

Paper presented at the UGA Annual Conference – Salt Palace – Salt Lake City, Utah 8-10 April 2004.

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