These days illegitimacy is not frowned upon, but in the past it was a big deal. Anyone tracing their family history will have no doubt come across it several times in their tree and with our modern eyes it doesn’t mean much but then?
Let’s start with what illegitimacy is. Well according to www.collinsdictionary.com “Illegitimacy is the state of being born of parents who were not married to each other” https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/illegitimacy
I suppose up until the 1960’ illegitimacy was frowned upon and the mother was deemed immoral, but now a lot of children are born to parents who aren’t married and no one cares as long as the kids are looked after and happy. But this has not always been the case.
In the past it was not unheard of for single women to be sent to the workhouse or worse for having a child out of wedlock, but nothing was ever done to the father of the child. There is some evidence of women being committed to mental institution for being a single pregnant woman especially if the father of the child was an important person. He wouldn’t want the woman to be listened to and people believe he was the father, must think of his reputation and all that.
The laundry’s and homes run by the Catholic Church were another example of how the women were treated. They were sent there to have the child and have it adopted and some never left. They spent the rest of their lives there. The author Steve Robinson covered this subject in his second Jefferson Tayte genealogical mystery novel “To The Grave”.
Thankfully most women had the child and raised it with the help of their family and went on to have a normal life and in some cases married the father of the child.
In my family illegitimacy is not uncommon. Take my great grandfather for example. He didn’t know he was illegitimate until he had to produce his birth certificate in order to be ordained as a Church of England vicar. When they found out about his illegitimacy they refused to ordain him, even though he had been working as a lay reader for years and thus he became a chemical factory foreman. We have copies of letters he wrote begging for help to achieve his dream of becoming a vicar. It’s a good Christian attitude if you ask me and ironic as if you believe the teachings of the Church. He was baptised so what did it matter. Now the subject of who his father was that is interesting to me. Just 3 years before he was born his mother was in service to the Canon of Norwich and Archdeacon of Norfolk. Now although there is no evidence that anyone in the church was his father, his mother was obviously linked to the church and so could his father have been part of the church? Mind you his mother was pregnant when she did get married 8 years later to the child’s father, so who knows.
The other case of illegitimacy in my family which I find intriguing related to my 3 times great grandmother Sarah. She had 2 illegitimate children one born in 1863 and the other in 1864. I’ve found the records of her and her first child entering the workhouse in Stockport in May 1864 and the reason for entering was pregnancy. He eldest daughter was released 2 days later by order of the parish and lived with her grandparents. Sarah and her new daughter were released in October 1864. Now in some respects she at least had the workhouse hospital to help birth the child, but really was it the best thing to do to 17 year old servant girl? I don’t think so, but perhaps it was to scare her into mending her ways? In any case she didn’t have any more until she was married to my 3 times great grandfather and her children lived with them as a family, including her eldest daughter’s illegitimate son!
Throughout history the stigma has been on the mother for being immoral, but surely the same should have been placed upon the father. The mother hopefully knew who the father was, so he should have shouldered half the blame, if not more as I reckon some of the girls probably either were too young to understand, too frightened to say no or just given promises he had no intention of keeping.
So if you find illegitimacy, don’t judge, just think that without that child I probably wouldn’t be here.