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Illegitimacy

  Introduction

You may come across a case of illegitimacy while researching your family history.

However, this does not always mean that a branch of your family research has come to an end.

Sources available at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO) which can help in these cases are listed below.

  Parish registers

Sometimes the clergyman will have noted the name of the reputed father at the child’s baptism.

You may also find clues to the father’s identity in the names given to the child; sometimes the father’s surname was given as a forename or middle name.

It was also not uncommon for the parents of illegitimate children to marry shortly after the child’s birth.

Therefore you may find that a child was baptised in the mother’s maiden name, but then known by the father’s surname for the rest of their life.

After 1837, fathers’ names were routinely recorded in marriage registers.

In many cases this section was left blank for people who had been born illegitimately, but if the person knew the name of their father, it may have been given.

If the baptism and marriage entries do not reveal the name of the father, there is still a chance that you can discover his identity by searching parish deposits and court records.

  Bastardy papers

The following papers can be found in the parish deposits; see PD lists.

Bastardy examinations

Before 1834, if the father of an illegitimate child was not known, the responsibility to maintain that child fell on the parish.

The parish overseers of the poor would therefore be keen to discover his identity and make him pay maintenance.

The first part of this process was for the mother to go voluntarily, or be called, before a justice of the peace.

She would be required under oath to name the father, or she could face prison.

Bastardy bonds

The overseers of the poor and perhaps the churchwardens of the parish would then pay a visit to the alleged father.

The favoured option was to put pressure on him to marry the woman if he admitted paternity.

If he refused to marry her, he could enter into an agreement whereby he would either consent to pay weekly maintenance or a lump sum to the overseers and to indemnify the parish against all future costs. These documents are called bastardy bonds.

Often a wealthier relative and/or employer was required to act as guarantor and countersign the bond, in which case they would be liable should the man default or abscond.

The bond remained in force as long as the child was dependent.

Bastardy warrants

If the man denied paternity and refused to sign a bastardy bond, then the overseers could apply to a local magistrate for a bastardy warrant to be issued.

This ordered the local constables to apprehend the alleged father and bring him before a justice of the peace, or provide sufficient surety for his appearance at the next quarter sessions court.

If he were required to attend the next quarter sessions and could not provide surety, he could be held in prison until his appearance.

Bastardy warrants could also be issued if the father absconded or failed to make agreed maintenance payments.

Bastardy orders

When the alleged father appeared before the justice of the peace, he would again be given an opportunity to admit paternity and either marry the woman or sign a bastardy bond.

He might still refute paternity but unless he could prove that it was not possible that he was the father, for a reason such as he was in prison at the time, then in all likelihood the justice of the peace would issue a bastardy order.

This ordered him to pay the overseers of the poor and churchwardens a weekly maintenance for the child.

Men who still disputed paternity could take their case on to the quarter sessions court, but it was very difficult to provide the proof required to overturn these orders.

If he failed to convince the court, he would also be liable for costs.

  Apprenticeship indentures

Many children were apprenticed, usually by the time they were 14 years old.

The parish would often arrange for poor children to be apprenticed at a very young age.

Some of these apprenticeship indentures have survived among the parish deposits (see PD lists).

Some fathers did take an interest in their children and some may have taken them on as apprentices themselves.

It is worth checking therefore to see if the master left a will, which might acknowledge the child as his own.

The father of an illegitimate child may also have countersigned the apprenticeship indenture, so you find a counter signature for no obvious reason, check to see if that person has left a will which might mention the child.

See our guide to wills and other probate records for further information on using and accessing these records.

  Overseers' accounts

Overseers’ account books record the parish’s expenditure on poor relief, so collections of maintenance payments are likely to be found there. 

Sometimes separate accounts of bastardy payments were kept (see PD lists).

  Quarter sessions

Quarter sessions books hold details of some bastardy orders, up to c1844.

If you cannot find a bastardy order in the relevant parish deposit, it may be worth searching quarter sessions records - see list C/S 1.

  Guardians of the Poor

Responsibility for poor relief switched from the parish to the poor law unions after the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

Thereafter, the guardians of the poor could apply to quarter sessions courts for maintenance from an alleged father.

These applications were called affiliation applications and, if granted, an affiliation order was made.

Details of affiliation orders can be found in the guardians’ minute books (see C/GP lists).

Unmarried mothers often had to go into the union workhouse for the birth of their children.

See workhouse admission/discharge records, birth and baptism registers in the C/GP lists.

  Petty sessions

The Poor Law Amendment Act in 1844 allowed women to apply to the petty sessions courts, rather than quarter sessions, for maintenance from the father.

Therefore it is the petty sessions books that will hold details of such affiliation applications and orders after 1844.

Affiliation orders are usually recorded in the general court minutes, but for the North Erpingham Division, there is a separate series of affiliation orders, 1865-1922 (see PS 24/19/1). 

Many early petty sessions books have not survived, but those which have can be found in the PS lists.

However, copies of these orders were sent to the relevant guardians of the poor and there may be a record of them in their minute books (see C/GP lists).

Please note that petty sessions books are subject to 100 years’ closure to public inspection.