in Family History

A child was defined as illegitimate in the eyes of the law (often very closely bound up with the eyes of the established church) if the mother and father were not married at the time of the child’s birth. With so many couples choosing not to marry now it is easy to overlook the huge effect it had, at least in some social circles, in the past.

Reasons for Illegitimacy

How illegitimacy was viewed depended upon the social circumstances of the parents, and mainly the mother. Human nature being what it is, a child was often conceived in anticipation of a marriage that both parties fully intended to solemnize. Lack of money was often the reason for couples to delay their marriage, or the reluctance of one or both of the couples, parents to agree to the marriage. In this was not as serious as in other situations.

Sometimes a marriage did not take place because it could not but the relationship was stable. Perhaps a former husband had deserted his wife and with no divorce readily available (especially if his whereabouts were unknown), the wife would be in a sort of limbo.

A child might be born to a rich man’s mistress. The social acceptability of the child varied in different times and also as to who the father was, royal bastards were generally accepted in the most illustrious circles!

Young girls have been seduced throughout history and children have always been a possible result.

Prostitution is called the oldest trade and again children have always been a possible consequence.

The most unacceptable cause of illegitimacy has always been incest. Even now, a child born as a result of an incestuous relationship cannot retrospectively be legitimated.

In 1926, an Act of Parliament was passed that allowed children to be legitimated by the subsequent marriage of their parents, provided that both parents had been free to marry at the time of birth. In 1959, this was relaxed so that children could be legitimated by a subsequent marriage even if one or both their parents had not been free to marry when they were born, ie had been married at the time. Children had to be re-registered to be made legitimate and a long gap between the birth and the date of registration may be an indication of a subsequent marriage.

How illegitimacy was recorded


There are a number of latin words used to denote illegitimacy

  •  ignotus = unknown (ie father unknown)
  • spurius = spurious
  • filius populi = son of the people, this is usually used where the father was a local lad but could be one of several
  • filius nullius = son of none, usually used where the father was a stranger or the girl would not give any information about him

There are also a number of English words used in parish registers to convey illegitimacy, base, bastard, spurious, imputed, misbegotten, chance begotten.

Sometimes a child would be described in the baptism register as

Baptised William son of Sarah Smith and the reputed son of William Brown.

This means that William Brown admits the child is his (or it has been proved to be his).

 Baptised William son of Sarah Smith and the imputed son of William Brown.

means that William Brown does not accept the child as his.

An apparent double barrelled surname can indicate illegitimacy since a bastard child would often take his father’s surname as a fore name and his mother’s surname. He may well then drop his mother’s surname if his parents married, particularly if they did so when he was still very young.

Outside the ranks of the gentry, a true double barrelled surname is extremely unlikely before about 1840 although double barrelled surnames are sometimes found before that in London, Yorkshire and Lancashire and in non-conformist families but it is not until the second half of the nineteenth century that double barrelled surnames become fashionable in less aristocratic circles. The second surname was usually the addition of the mother’s surname, or that of the pastor or a rich relation.

Birth certificates

A birth certificate from 1837 onwards of a bastard child will normally just show the mother’s name and her occupation. The father’s name could be included if the father actually signed the notification in person. If the woman was married, this will be shown by the presence of a maiden name, ie Mary Smith, formerly Brown. The legal surname of the child would be that of the mother but if she later married (either the father or somebody else), then the child may well adopt the new family’s surname.

If you cannot find the birth certificate of an ancestor, it is always worth looking to see if they were registered under their mother’s name.

Census Records

Sometimes parents would keep a child in the dark about his illegitimacy but give the true details to the enumerator. When a marriage took place after a birth, the census can sometimes show whether it was the father of the child that the mother married. The census may describe the child as son-in-law or wife’s son which will show that she married someone else. If the child is simply entered along with other children, this means either that either it was his father she married or the new husband has simply accepted the child as though he were his, and there is really no way of knowing which it is.

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