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Illegitimate Children, a Search for British Parentage

A look at Illegitimacy. History, terms, and places to search, as well as a brief look at a personal illegitimacy search.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Shelley Poblete
Word Count: 886 (approx.)
Labels: Marriage Record 
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There comes a time in most genealogists' research when they discover an illegitimate ancestor. Although you may feel as though you have hit a brick wall this isn't necessarily the case. Often the father's name or clues to who the father is can be found. Having some familiarity with the history of illegitimacy, terms used, and places to look can help provide the missing piece to your puzzle.

Discovery of an Illegitimate Child

While I was researching my second great-grandfather Samuel, I excitedly mailed away for his birth certificate with hope of determining his parentage. I soon discovered he was an illegitimate child. His birth certificate gave little information other than a date of birth and his mother's name. Although I searched through the parish records for baptisms I was unable to determine which baptism was his as there were three possibilities. Being a new researcher at the time I became discouraged. Had I hit a brick wall? I shelved my research. Several months later I returned to my search, shifting my thoughts to Samuel's wife Sarah. I mailed away for their marriage certificate. This time I received an unexpected surprise. There it was, Samuel's father was named on the marriage certificate. I returned to the notes I had taken on the baptisms and quickly determined the correct baptism record enabling me to continue searching.

A Brief History

Illegitimacy has always been common place. Social class and financial position generally determined how illegitimacy was dealt with. Not much stigma was attached to illegitimate children of the lower class, although it often posed a financial burden. Financially, the parish church was responsible for the poor. Therefore, it was considered in the Church's best interest to determine who the father was and have him marry the girl. If the Church was unsuccessful in marrying the girl off other steps were taken.

Couples coming from different social classes were not expected to marry. In these cases the father usually made arrangements to provide the girl with a financial payment. The Church may have sought a "Bastardry Bond"(repayment to the church at a later date) from the father if he refused to marry and did not have the means to pay. Occasionally, the girl's father may have supported her until someone more suitable came along. It should also be noted often couples who planned to marry often did not do so until a second or third child was born.

Illegitimacy rates were much lower for the upper class, as it was important that unmarried girls remained virgins. Husbands demanded legitimate heirs. These girls were valuable chattel used to increase wealth, political standings, or to gain territorial interests. Upper class girls who became pregnant out of wedlock may have been married off quickly to a man willing to marry her or likely she was sent away with an "illness.".The child born to the mother may have then been given to a lower class couple, along with some form of financial arrangement. In rare instances a child was kept in the family as some other relative (Mc Laughlin, 1985 3-9).

Illegitimacy Terminology

Some of the many terms used to describe illegitimacy in English and in Latin are as follows:

English terms. Baseborn, bastard, spurious, supposed, imputed misbegotten, chance begotten; reputed - father has been proven or has admitted to parentage; imputed- father has not been proven or case is unsettled.

Latin Terms. Spurius; ignotus - unknown father; filius populi -used when the father may be one of two men; filius nullius - stranger, the girl can't or won't say who the father is (McLaughlin 5).

Where to Look

There are a number of places in which to conduct your search. This not a comprehensive list but will provide you with a good starting reference. Your Family History Center can provide you with further information.

Parish registers. Baptisms often list the father's name, i.e., "Baptized Mary daughter of Rebecca Shaw and the reputed daughter of John Smith." If a couple was planning to marry, a child may have been given his father's full name, i.e., for Mary Smith and Tom Jones the son would be named John Jones Smith. The mother's surname would later be dropped. Not all double surnames should be assumed as illegitimate children, as some are legitimate belonging to old aristocratic families. (Mc Laughlin 5) The parish chest may provide other useful records check for include, examination records (a document in which the girl states whom the father is), bastardry bonds, accounts (payments), assizes (men brought to trial).

Apprenticeship Indenture. Sometimes a father would pay for an apprenticeship. Look for a counter signature on the indenture, as this may be the father's signature.

Other names. Apprentices often took the last name of their master. Children brought up by a grandfather, uncle, or stepfather may also go by the head of the household's name.

Non-Conformists. Check the minute book the couple may have been called upon to confess their "wickedness."

Wills. Often a rich man will mention a bastard child in his will.

Marriage Certificate. An elusive father may show up on a marriage certificate. Often a child was told who their father was when they came of age (Mc Laughlin 7-9).

Illegitimacy is not necessarily a brick wall, more likely a mere bump in the road. If you can familiarize yourself with history, terms, and places to look, chances are you will find the piece to your illegitimacy puzzle.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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