Genealogy Q&A: Birth Records for “Illegitimate” Ancestors

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Q. How do you trace an “illegitimate” ancestor? My grandfather was born in 1887 and was illegitimate. His biological father was supposedly highly connected.
A. Ancestral attitudes toward children born to unmarried women varied from shame and scorn to a tacit acknowledgement. Henry VIII of England, for example, acknowledged that he was the father of a bastard son, Henry Fitzroy (though he likely had others). In the 19th century, however, illegitimacy was strongly frowned upon and the children usually could not inherit (although a trust fund might be set up for the child, a source of possible clues). England’s 1834 Poor Law “reform” included a Bastardy Clause that absolved the father of responsibility for his child, purportedly to discourage women from becoming pregnant to elicit financial support.

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.

From the October/November 2013 Family Tree Magazine 

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