Many of us, during the course of our family history research, stumble across long hushed-up secrets or skeletons in our family closet. One of the most common surprises is an illegitimate child, whose parents weren’t married. As late as the 1960s, the births of illegitimate children were often stigmatised. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, illegitimate children may have been forced to grow up in poverty, given up for adoption or raised in a workhouse or orphanage.
Some common signs that a child could be illegitimate include the absence of their father’s name on their birth certificate or marriage register when they reach adulthood. It’s also worth looking at the age ranges on census records: for example, if the children of a family are listed as aged 22, 20, 18, 16, 14, 13 and 2, this could indicate that the youngest child is in fact the illegitimate child of one of the unmarried young people, being raised by their grandparents to avoid a scandal.
If you suspect an ancestor is an illegitimate child, the first step is to collect as much evidence as possible. 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 – they are often fairly blunt, and it is not at all uncommon to find an illegitimate child labelled as ‘a bastard’. In the example below, an 1858 baptism record from the parish of All Saints in Rotherhithe, London, James Bellamy (whose name was later changed to William) is has ‘Illegitimate’ and ‘Workhouse’ written on his record.
You can also 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?
The next step is to talk to family members, but make sure you do so tactfully. If the illegitimate child was born 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.
You may never know for certain who the father of the illegitimate child is. However, 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, such as a neighbour on the census? Was the mother working for someone, perhaps as a domestic servant? If so, her employer might be a candidate for the father. In addition, if the mother got married after the birth of the child, bear in mind that the stepfather might be the biological father. It might also be worth looking at the suspected father’s will to find out if he left any money to the illegitimate child or their mother.