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Monday, August 9, 2010

Tracing an Illegitimate Ancestor

Dave sent a question about tracing an illegitimate ancestor
I'm tracing an ancestor name Lancelot Hardy who was born in 1796 in Yorkshire, England.  I've found his birth record in the IGI and only a mother is listed.  I obtained a copy of the original record through the LDS church and he is listed as a 'bastard' and only the mother's name is given.  So my question to you is, in a case like this, is there any hope of being able to trace the father?  What steps, if any could I take?
ASK OLIVE TREE RESPONSE: Dave, that's a great question and one which many researchers will find impacts on their genealogy lines.

My own great-great grandmother was baptised in a church in England as Georgiana the daughter of the widow Hannah Golding. No father's name was mentioned but I thought it would be pretty easy to find Hannah's deceased husband Mr. Golding. It was, but what I found was that he'd died four years before my Georgiana's birth! So I was in the same boat you are - how to find an illegitimate child's father's name.

I find it helps to try to put ourselves in our ancestor's shoes. So think about the cirucmstances. What are the possibilities?

1. Lancelot's mother did not know who the father was (a child of rape or prostitution or any number of other circumstances) If this is the case you're out of luck

2. Lancelot's mother knew the father's name but never told anyone else. Again you are out of luck unless she kept a diary or noted it in a family bible and you can find it

3. Lancelot's mother knew the father's name and had some kind of ongoing or non-combatant relationship with him and told the child. More on this in a moment

4. Lancelot's mother knew the father's name and told family or friends. You may be in luck as one of them may have told someone else and you may be able to find out that name through family stories passed down in your branch or another branch

Let's talk about #3. As I was gathering more documents on my Georgiana Golding, I acquired her official marriage registration. Lo and behold her father was named on it as George Norris. What a stroke of luck! Apparently Georgiana's mother wanted her daughter to know her father's name and perhaps even had a long-standing relationship of some kind with him. In any case armed with that one tidbit of very important information, I have been able to find Georgiana's father George Norris and trace him back several generations.

You are probably asking how I could possibly know I have the correct George Norris. Luckily this all happened in a very tiny village called Lenham in the 1840s. George was their next door neighbour for over 30 years. He never married. Some of his relatives were witnesses at various marriages and baptisms of Georgiana's children. So while I haven't got 100% proof, I have enough circumstantial pieces of evidence to satisfy me that I have the correct man.

Another illegitmate ancestor of mine had no father named at her birth in Suffolk England in the 1790s. However I found Bastardy Examination papers for her which gave the father's name and residence. If you are not family with Bastardy Examination records this might be a very good source for you.

Local parishes did not want to be financially responsible for an illegitimate child born in their parish, so a woman who was pregnant or had given birth would be examined (questioned) by a midwife or other authorities. The father's name would be noted and both parents would be ordered to pay so much money per month for the child's upkeep.  You can read a bit about my search for Removal Orders and Bastardy Orders if you are interested

So don't give up your search. You may still find that bit of information you need


  1. Thanks for posting this!

  2. I have not researched English bastardy records, but in the USA up to the mid-1800s in most places the County was concerned about who was going to support the child, just as in your article.

    In one case of a distant cousin, her husband gave her father's name in her death record! There was an extensive Court record upon her mother's death that made clear that she was not daughter of her mother's husband. The death record's information was a surprise gift. I love these messages from the past.

  3. Hi Dave, very good chance we're related. Lancelot Hardy from Yorkshire who died in Ontario is on my tree... be great to chat

    Chris in Vancouver