Break the Brick Walls: illegitimacy

Break the Brick Walls: illegitimacy

This month Jenny Jones looks at illegitimacy

Jenny Jones, Retired nurse with over 30 years of experience in family history

Jenny Jones

Retired nurse with over 30 years of experience in family history

Tracing fathers of illegitimate ancestors is challenging for family historians.

We should suspect that an ancestor was born illegitimately if:

  • The father’s name is missing from the birth or marriage certificate (although there may be a valid reason for this). From 1875, the father had to be present when the birth was registered so his name should appear on the certificate, whether legitimate or not.
  • On a census entry, a child listed as daughter/son but much younger than their apparent siblings may point to an illegitimate grandchild.
  • A child living with grandparents or other relative, perhaps some distance away, should also raise suspicions.

Further clues

  • Search baptismal records at – the entry may hold extra information. The child may have a distinctive first or middle name occurring elsewhere in family.
  • Search censuses, also available complete for England and Wales from 1841 to 1911 at – did the mother leave her home community before/after the birth, perhaps fleeing from scandal?
  • Was the mother subsequently married and was the child ‘adopted’ by a subsequent partner, changing the surname?
  • Or did both mother and child end up on parish relief? An address on a birth certificate may be that of a mother and baby home or workhouse. Check parish Poor Law records at county record offices (they are rarely online).
  • If you suspect that your illegitimate ancestor was born of a wealthy father, the child may be provided for in a will or estate papers of either the father or close relative. TheGenealogist has an extensive collection of wills and indexes to wills.
  • Before 1834, the parish was responsible for the upkeep of illegitimate children, so reputed fathers would be sought to pay maintenance. Bastardy Examinations are found in Poor Law records at county record offices (CROs).
  • Disputes over maintenance would have been heard in Petty Sessions. Where they survive, these records are held in CRO or diocesan record offices. (See our feature on Petty Sessions in the November 13 issue of the Periodical for more about these.)
  • Check in local newspapers at county record offices.

Recommended reading

Intriguing article?

Subscribe to our newsletter, filled with more captivating articles, expert tips, and special offers.

  • My Ancestor was a Bastard – Ruth Paley (Society of Genealogists, 2004)
  • Illegitimacy – Eve McLaughlin (McLaughlin Guides, 1995)

Discover Your Ancestors Periodical is published by Discover Your Ancestors Publishing, UK. All rights in the material belong to Discover Your Ancestors Publishing and may not be reproduced, whether in whole or in part, without their prior written consent. The publisher makes every effort to ensure the magazine's contents are correct. All articles are copyright© of Discover Your Ancestors Publishing and unauthorised reproduction is forbidden. Please refer to full Terms and Conditions at The editors and publishers of this publication give no warranties,
guarantees or assurances and make no representations regarding any goods or services advertised.