One of the most common causes of genealogy brick walls is “illegitimacy”. Our research comes to a grinding halt when we discover that the father of a child is “unknown”. This post looks at some of the ways you can investigate these so called “illegitimate” ancestors to try and figure out who the fathers were.

How to deal with illegitimate ancestors. Bespoke Genealogy

“Illegitimacy” was not that uncommon in industrialized countries in the 19th century. According to recent research; 6.5 per cent of births in England and Wales were “illegitimate”, with a higher number (9 per cent) in Scotland. There is therefore a good chance that you have at least one “illegitimate” birth in your family tree. Note: this post focuses on records from the British Isles, but similar records should exist in other countries.

There will probably only be a small chance that you will identify the father of an “illegitimate” child with 100 per cent certainty, but you may find some clues that can point you in the right direction.

Note: The terms “illegitimate” and “illegitimacy” are unfortunate and would not be used today. The terms are used in this article as they appeared on official documents until relatively recently, so this is what you will see in your research. FYI: Genetic genealogists today use the term “non-paternity event”.

Talk to family members

If the “illegitimate” child was a grand parent or great grand parent, then there may be someone in your family who knows something. As well as your immediate family, it’s always worth talking to cousins, uncles and aunts as well. Of course, this will be a sensitive subject, so some tact and diplomacy may be needed.

Look at the name

There may be a big clue in a child’s name. Very often a child’s middle name will be the surname of the father. If he child was a boy, he may even have the father’s first name as well.

Find the Baptism record

If you only have the child’s civil birth record, look for the baptism record. The minister may have known who the father was and recorded it. Also, baptisms sometimes happen several months or even years after a birth and circumstances may have changed, for example the parents may have married.

Look for other Church records

There may be other church records where a minister has recorded the name of a suspected father. For example the Kirk Session Minutes in Scotland often record this information in great detail. Incidentally, these Scottish records are being digitized and will eventually be available online. Keep an eye on the National Records of Scotland website for updates.

For other areas, check the church and the local archives to see what records are available.

Look for an RCE entry on Scottish Birth records

If the “illegitimate” child was born in Scotland from 1855, check for an RCE (Register of Corrected Entries) reference. If there is an entry in the register, there will be a note in the margin of the civil birth record which references the RCE. Birth records and RCE entries can be downloaded from Scotland’s People (pay per view).

There may be an RCE entry if the parents married after the birth or if the mother wins a paternity case in the courts.

The Courts

The unmarried mother may have gone to court to have a child’s legal paternity determined and to get maintenance payments. In Scotland, that meant the Sheriff’s Court. Paternity Decrees for 1750-1922 are available on Findmypast (subscription).

For England and Wales, disputes over maintenance payments for the child would be held in the petty sessions. These records will likely be kept in the county archives. To locate the archives for the county you’re interested in, see the English and Welsh Parish Register guides on this website to find links.

See also this useful guide to courts of law at the National Archives.

Irish Petty Sessions Registers can be found on Findmypast.

For other countries, I recommend contacting the local archive. If minor court records are not held there, they should be able to tell you where you can find them.

Poor Law Records

If the child was born before 1834 (in England and Wales), it is also worth checking the local archives for Poor Law records. The local parish had a legal obligation to be responsible for the upkeep of an “illegitimate” child. They may have pursued the father for maintenance payments and if they did, you should find records.

Find out as much as you can about the mother and child

If you don’t make any progress with the suggestions above, then I suggest looking in detail at the lives of the mother and child. Focus especially on where was the mother was living and working 9 months before the birth. Look at census records and electoral registers if available.

How was the mother living after the birth? If the father was wealthy, or perhaps married to someone else, there may be signs of money. Did the mother have a better standard of living then her siblings? And the child, where was he/she educated and where did he/she work? Is there anything unusual here?

If you suspect someone, see if you can find a will. The father may not have left money directly to the child, but he may have set up a Trust Fund for him, or left money to his mother.

Piecing together the lives of mother and child may yield useful clues.

DNA testing

If all else fails, DNA testing is becoming an increasingly useful tool for determining the paternity of “illegitimate” ancestors. By contacting “matches” and comparing family trees, it is sometimes possible to figure out who a father was. I know a couple of people who have managed to do that.

See Which Genealogy DNA Test? for an overview of the main companies offering tests.

Once you have your results, it’s a good idea to also put them on GEDmatch to increase your chances of a match.

Good luck and happy researching!

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