Who’s the Daddy?

Anyone who has watched TV programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? will know that they can often feature stories about illegitimate children – and sometimes it seems that finding such children is strange or unusual.  I’ve been researching family trees for a long time, and in my experience it is quite rare to find a tree that has no illegitimate children, or at least “near misses” (i.e. children born anything from 6 months to 6 weeks – or even 6 days – after the wedding).

My own family tree features at least two – one in my mother’s family and one in my father’s.  The one on my Dad’s side is fairly typical.  While looking for his great grandfather, John, in the census records I discovered a girl, Ann, listed as his daughter, but whose age suggested she must have been born before her mother, Mary, married John.  This inevitably leads to the question – was John her birth father, or had he “adopted” (this was before adoption became a legal process) Ann when he married her mother?  It took a while, but eventually I found the answer.  Ann’s baptism was recorded 3 years before Mary and John married, and her father was recorded as David.  The only information about David is his occupation, and he is not recorded anywhere else in connection to Ann or her mother.

Not so much a problem for a woman who took her husband’s name when she married, as Ann did, but what about a man?  On another tree I found a similar situation.  George was born illegitimately, with no father’s name recorded on his birth registration.  He was listed with his mother and grandparents in the next census, using their surname.  Three years later George’s mother married, so when George appeared in the next two census records he was recorded using the surname of his mother’s husband.  Yet when he married just after the second of these censuses, he gave the name of a father and used his surname, with his mother’s maiden name as a middle name.  Did he actually know who his biological father was?  Or did he make up a name to avoid embarrassment with his bride and her family?  We’ll never know, but as this surname is the one still proudly used by his descendants today perhaps it’s just as well we don’t.

Sometimes children are recorded as illegitimate simply because the parents were not married, and in those situations there are very often several children born to the same couple. I recently investigated one such family.  The parents never married, though in later life called themselves husband and wife.  There are, of course, all sorts of possible explanations for why the couple never wed – perhaps one, or both, was already married to someone else and couldn’t or wouldn’t get divorced; perhaps there was a big age difference; perhaps the family of one disapproved of the other or, as seems likely for this couple, she was from a staunchly religious family and he was an atheist.

The most unusual case I have come across was the marriage of two illegitimate children – discovered when the marriage record listed only mother’s names for both the bride and groom.  Further research into both families identified that the bride’s mother had had at least three, and possibly a fourth, illegitimate children and the groom’s mother had had five illegitimate children.  With just one exception there are no father’s listed on the birth records of any of these children, and from census records it seems likely that the father’s were different in most, if not all, cases.  Both families lived, at least for a time, in the same small village.  Hard to know what the circumstances were that would put two women living in the same place, of a similar age into such a situation, but both women survived – one lived to the age of 68 the other to the age of 82!

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