Illegitimate ancestors

This guide was last updated in 2009


Long shrouded in family secrecy and shame, there are now plenty of ways to discover more about your illegitimate forebears, says Who Do You Think You Are? genealogist Jenny Thomas.

Many of us, during the course of our genealogical research, stumble across long hushed-up secrets or skeletons in our family closet. Often we are overjoyed to find that our ancestors had a bit of character that we weren’t expecting, and rush off to find as many records as we can to flesh out our discoveries.

One of the most common surprises is an illegitimate child. There are classic warning signs: the father’s name missing from a birth or marriage certificate typically sets alarm bells ringing. There can also be more subtle signs discernable on the census: for example, if the children of a family are listed as aged 22, 20, 18, 16, 14, 13 and 2, the eagle-eyed researcher starts to have doubts, particularly if the parents are getting beyond child-bearing age. Is the youngest child in fact a grandchild – the son or daughter of one of the unmarried young people on the census?

Caught in a wave of excitement, we want to find out more – but how can we set about doing so? The problem with illegitimate ancestors is that illegitimacy in itself did not create any particular records. Indeed, the existence of an illegitimate birth was so shameful just a generation or two ago that families often went to great lengths to hush it up, even to the point of falsifying records. This sometimes leads genealogists to declare a premature dead end to their investigation - but there is plenty of potential for further research, and here are some ways in which you might start.

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