Finding Illegitimacy in Family Tree Research

Illegitimacy was not uncommon in earlier centuries.  About 5% of all children born in England and Wales between 1837 and 1965 were illegitimate, which means they were born out of wedlock.  Many family tree researchers will find during their research that there is at least one illegitimate ancestor in their family.  Illegitimacy is no longer frowned upon like it was in the past, but finding that your ancestor was illegitimate may pose a problem when you conduct family tree research.

If you find there is a long gap between siblings' birth dates, it is possible that the younger child may not be a brother or sister, but an illegitimate son or daughter of the supposed elder 'sibling', and passed off as being the child of the girl's parents.  This brought great shame on the family, and they would go to any extreme to cover up this fact, even falsifying records, which could pose problems for the family historian.

Circumstances could have prevented a marriage

Illegitimacy occurred in many walks of life.  It is possible that the couple had always intended to marry, but circumstances, such as the man being called into the army, or losing his livelihood so they could no longer afford to marry, precluded this from happening before the birth of the child. 

In some circumstances, however, the man could have taken advantage of the woman, especially if they were in a servant-master relationship.  Many unmarried mothers were domestic servants.  If they were unemployed, their desire to find a source of income could have led to them becoming prostitutes as a way of making ends meet.  This, in turn, could lead to the woman discovering she was pregnant.

Some women murdered their babies

To hide the shame of giving birth to an illegitimate child, some women actually murdered their babies to hide the fact.  It is terrible that we once lived in a society where women felt compelled to take this drastic and devastating step.  

Father's name taken as a middle name

It was not uncommon for the illegitimate child to have their possible father's surname as a middle name, or to take the surname of their mother's future husband, if she subsequently married, but it does not necessarily mean that this man was the child's biological father.

Birth and Marriage Certificates

After 1837, finding that no father is recorded on a birth certificate usually meant that the child was illegitimate, but could also have meant that the father did not register the birth.  The mother's maiden name was stated in these circumstances.  If you do not see the father's name on a birth certificate, it is also worth checking to see if the child was baptised, because the entry in the baptism register could help you to determine if the child was indeed illegitimate.  

This can cause a problem in family history research, but sometimes the registrar or clergyman would insist that the baby was given the father's surname as a middle name.  Although this may not have been insisted upon by the clergyman, my illegitimate ancestor was named William Baker Carrington, subsequently changing his name to William Carrington Baker. 

Although William was born on 6 June 1852, his parents did not marry until 27 March 1856.  If you find your ancestor has a surname as a middle name, they could have been illegitimate, so if you are unable to find their birth registration, it is worth checking the index under their middle name as well.

William Baker Carrington Birth CertificateWilliam Baker Carrington Birth Certificate

When illegitimate children married, they did not always state their father's name on a marriage certificate because they might not know it and also because the father might not have acknowledged their illegitimate child.  If the father was not stated on a marriage certificate, the bride or groom may have been illegitimate, but it could also simply mean that the father had disowned his child for some reason.

It is possible the bride or groom could simply make up a name, giving this fictitious man the same surname as themselves which can be very confusing when researching family history. I have experience of this as my own relative, William Dunkley, stated Joseph Dunkley was his father when he married. Joseph was in fact his uncle.

If the events occurred after 1837, it is always worth obtaining both the birth and marriage certificates to prove or disprove your theory.

In earlier centuries, illegitimacy was considered sinful, and the clergyman could be most unfair to illegitimate children by writing the word 'bastard' after the entry in the baptism register.

Illegitimacy shown on the Census?

Sometimes, when looking at the ages of children born to the parents on a census, and the ages 20, 18, 15, 11 and 3 are shown, it is entirely possible that the 3 year old is in fact an illegitimate child of one of the elder siblings, so is in reality a grandchild rather than a child.

Does your family know about the possible illegitimacy?

If the event occurred in within the lifetime of elder family members, they may be able to help you shed some light on whether your hunch is correct.  If you take this path, however, please tread carefully because family members might find it difficult to discuss these events.  It is possible that the shame they felt at the time is still deeply felt.  Do not be too disappointed if they are not prepared to divulge the information.

Definitive proof may not be forthcoming

It is entirely possible you will never be able to prove that a particular man is the child's father, although you suspect that he was.  

My ancestor, Maria Dunkley, had two illegitimate children William Campion Dunkley and Isaac Campion Dunkley in 1827 and 1835 respectively, them both being baptised with the middle name of Campion, leading me to believe that a Campion was my ancestor's father. 

Although there was a family of Campion's in Roade, Northamptonshire at the time of the births, I have never been able to establish beyond reasonable doubt which Campion was the father.

Newspapers can provide a breakthrough

Sometimes, a breakthrough can come where you least expect it.  My ancestor, Ann McJannett, had an illegitimate daughter Jane in 1846, but the child's father was not mentioned on the birth certificate and the birth was registered under the mother's name of McJannett.

Whilst looking in a newspaper, I came across Ann's name with regard to this matter, and it turned out that Jane's father was reported as being John Shingler.  This proves how important newspapers are as a resource for tracing your family history.

Could the child be mentioned in a Will?

If the father of the child was wealthy, he may have provided for the child in any possible will.  This may help you to prove your suspicions.

Illegitimacy - the Bastardy Bond

From 1576, Justices of the Peace could track down the father of a bastard child and issue a bond known as a Bastardy Bond. Bastardy Bonds were issued by the parish against the father of an illegitimate child, so that they could ask him to reimburse the parish for any possible expense of looking after the child. Bastardy Bonds can be found in quarter sessions records.

Bastardy Examinations

The Bastardy Examination was conducted before two Justices of the Peace and enquired into the circumstances surrounding how the woman became pregnant.  A woman had to attend a bastardy examination, but these usually occurred after the birth of the child.

I have come across a great site which gives details of bastardy examinations, and also lists further reading on the subject should you wish to know more.