Researching illegitimate ancestors

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.



Collect as much evidence as you can

You need to confirm from the outset that the evidence really is pointing in the direction of illegitimacy, and for this you need to gather together as many of the basic genealogical documents as you can.

If a father’s name is missing from a birth certificate, it could just be that the father failed to turn up to register the birth and came up against a particularly immovable official. And if the father’s name is missing from a marriage certificate, it could conceivably be that he disowned his child or that some major feud resulted in a blank space where his name ought to be. So it is a good idea to obtain both of these documents.

You might also supplement the birth certificate with a baptism record – baptism records are often fairly blunt, and it is not at all uncommon to find a child labelled as ‘a bastard’. And you can search for your ancestor on the census to see the context in which they are living – for example, are they at home with an unmarried mother, or obscurely listed as someone else’s child? (For more about searching for clues on the census, have a look at step 4).

It is these documents that will confirm your initial hunch, and provide a fuller picture of your ancestor’s situation. You can find these documents, or indexes to them, at several websites, including:


Talk to family members

When you do this, make sure you do so tactfully.

If the event that you are investigating occurred within the last few generations, it may be that there is a memory of it in the family – you’ll be surprised at what people have kept quiet over the years. Your relatives may be able to shed some light on the circumstances surrounding the birth or subsequent life of your ancestor, or you may discover that something is already known about the identity of the father.

But do remember to exercise some caution in your questioning. Your relatives may have kept it quiet because they share or sympathise with a sense of shame. On the other hand, you may find that they knew nothing about it, and are upset at the possibility you awaken. But if anyone is in the know, and willing to share, their information may be invaluable to your continuing investigation.


Look to the father

You may be able to speculate – and probably no more than speculate – about who the father of your illegitimate ancestor might be.

Although you may never be able to prove your theories, there are sometimes signs that are worth serious consideration.

Does the child have a distinctive first or middle name that they share with someone associated with the family (even if associated only by geographical proximity)?

Does the mother marry soon after the birth of the child, and is there any connection by name between ‘stepfather’ and child? Was the mother working for someone, perhaps as a domestic servant, who is a candidate for the father? Again, certificates and census returns are the major tools here.


Was there money in the family?

If you suspect that your illegitimate ancestor was born of a wealthy father, there are some other pieces of evidence that you might be able to use.

If, like John Hurt, you have an idea as to the identity of the father, you might investigate whether he or any other member of the family provided for the child in a will. The census might indicate whether the child ever lived with or near the father, or whether, perhaps, they were sent away to school to get rid of them.

You can search for wills after 1858 on the government’s Find a Will service.

For wills before 1858, have a look at:


Look at the social history

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)