Nonetheless, “absolutely everyone will have at least one, if not several, illegitimate ancestors,” says Ruth Paley, author of My Ancestor Was a Bastard (Society of Genealogists). Clues include a birth certificate lacking a father’s name, the absence of a marriage record, a note in church records, or simply dates that don’t add up. Long age gaps between siblings are red flags: Biological grandparents passing a baby off as their own was a common cover-up.
Despite the desire for secrecy, naming practices can point to possible paternity. The father’s surname might be given as a middle name, for example. If you have an address for the birth, it might be that of a workhouse or unwed mothers’ home which could have extant records.
In England, illegitimate ancestors born prior to the 1834 reform could actually be easier to track because local parishes had to pay for the children’s care; the church in turn might go after the father for funds, creating a paper trail. This could include “bastardy examinations” to prove paternity.