Look at the social history

This guide was last updated in 2009

As a genealogist, you will inevitably find yourself becoming a social historian as well – and this is particularly true when investigating an illegitimate ancestor.

It is likely that the very fact of illegitimacy had a significant impact upon your ancestor’s life, and delving further in to the documents can help you to paint a fuller picture.

You might discover, for example, through census returns, whether the child grew up with its mother, or whether it was sent away to distant family members, strangers – or worse. You might find that the child was accepted and adopted by the mother’s subsequent husband – often revealed by an adoptive or stepfather’s name listed on a marriage certificate.

And there are other questions that you may be able to answer: did the child have to work harder than other members of the family? Did they marry less well – if at all? Did the mother leave her home community after the birth, perhaps fleeing from scandal, or did she remain settled, suggesting that she and the child were accepted?

How did your ancestor’s standard of living compare to legitimate half-siblings? Did they display any particular talents or characteristics – musical or artistic ability, or a head for business, for example – that showed themselves in a choice of career, and were absent from the rest of the family? Or did either mother or child end up on poor relief or in the workhouse, impoverished by the absence of a breadwinner, or excluded by social shame?

Using certificates and census returns, you can build a picture of your ancestor’s life, and place them in a social and family context. Of course, it’s hard to know for sure what your ancestor’s life was like from the inside, but you may be surprised at how much you can uncover.

As with any research project, it is always rewarding to place your particular ancestor in the wider historical context. Was their experience typical of an illegitimate child of the time? How might their life have been different but for the circumstances of their birth? Through the experiences of your ancestor, you may open a gateway into a fascinating world.

For background reading, and for more information about tracing illegitimate ancestors, have a look at:
My Ancestor was a Bastard – Ruth Paley (Society of Genealogists, 2004)
Illegitimacy – Eve McLaughlin (McLaughlin Guides, 1995)
Illegitimacy in Britain, 1700-1920, edited by Samantha Williams, Thomas Nutt and Alysa Levene (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

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