Do you have a bastard ancestor?
If you know or suspect that one of your ancestors was a bastard, the bastardy records within the Old Poor Law collections are an incredibly useful source of information. If you are trying to identify whether or not your ancestor was a bastard, it is often directly stated in the baptism registers. Where this is not the case, tell-tale signs might be the child’s baptism record only naming the mother or no trace of a marriage between the child’s parents.
When looking through the bastardy records, one of the things that struck me the most was how common-place bastard children were. Unlike a century or so later, there appeared to be very little shame in actually producing a bastard child; the concern lay much more with ensuring parents stepped up so their offspring did not become chargeable to the parish. Despite being hauled before the justices of the peace to swear the name of the father either while pregnant or once the child had been born, this did not seem to put women off and they were clearly not afraid of punishment by the parish. It is not unusual for the same names to crop up multiple times with numerous bastard children, often each by a different man… Mary Bromley of Condover had so many she was described by the overseers as ‘a most for-sworn abominable whore’ and was conveyed to a different parish while in labour so the child was not born in Condover!
Taking a different example, in the parish of Bromfield, Mary Weale was examined no less than seven times between 1803 and 1809. Five of these relate to her four bastard children, the remaining two to her place of settlement. From the bastardy examinations, we learn that her children are all fathered by William Jacks, also of Bromfield, who is described as a servant or labourer. As the bastardy examinations also give the name of the parish or place where the child was born, they interestingly reveal that her last child was born in the House of Correction in Shrewsbury.
The settlement examinations then begin to flesh out the picture; as a pauper’s legal settlement was usually deemed to be where they were born, they provide a back-story to Mary Weale, naming her father and providing information on her life up until that point. Born in Bettws to Jeremiah Weale, she was initially hired in around 1801 as a servant by the year to William Jacks. The first examination took place in 1803, by which point she had already had her first two bastard children, named in the document as George and John.
So far then, the documents have provided us with the names of Mary’s father, two children and partner to further trace the family. Additionally, they have provided us with birth years for the two children not named.
As the majority of Poor Law documents are catalogued by name, my next step in the search for Mary Weale’s family was to try the names (including variations) of each person so far mentioned. A search for Mary Weale (also spelling it Weal) brought up two additional results. The first of these was a letter Mary had written to the parish while in Shrewsbury prison with her last child, begging for money, food and material for clothes. The second was a series of extracts from the Bettws parish registers, also in the Poor Law collection, concerning Mary Weale, her parents and grandparents. Thus we have the names of three generations of the family.
I next tried searching for William Jacks, the father of Mary Weale’s bastard children. In addition to the earlier bastardy examinations, this also brought up a removal order from 1828 for ‘William Jacks, otherwise William Weale’ to the parish of Brompton Briar.
A note on the reverse of the removal order reveals that William was judged too sick to make the journey and actually died a little over a month later still in Bromfield. Although I initially assumed this to be the William Jacks who was the father of Mary Weale’s children, a cross-check with the burial register shows that the William buried in 1828 was only 21, so is likely to actually have been Mary Weale and William Jacks’ last child born while Mary was in prison. As the parents had never married, I found it illuminating how one surname could so easily be swapped for another in this document, the bastard child effectively having two possible identities by which they could be traced.
Moving the focus of the search to the other three Weale children, a name search for John brought up an apprenticeship indenture from 1814, when aged 11, he was bound to Timothy Bird in husbandry.
As is often the case, I was unable to find further Poor Law documents relating to the eldest child George. The third child however, who I knew was female from the bastardy examination, I was able to trace to a baptism record on Find My Past as Jane Weale.
Taking this information back to the Poor Law records, fast forward twenty-five years from her birth in 1804, and Jane Weale herself appears as the mother of a bastard child in 1829. Rather than from a bastardy examination, this time we learn the information from an order of filiation, with warrant, on George Davenport, father of said child.
Again, I was able to trace the child’s baptism, where she is named as ‘Ellen base Daughter of Jane Wheale alias Jacks’.
The Poor Law records have therefore led me to four generations of one family. If you are tracing your own ancestor in these sources and come across a bastard child, although they tend to go by the mother’s surname, it is worth searching for them under their father’s surname (if you know it) as well, as they were clearly inter-changeable. This is again shown in the 1841 census, as while John is recorded John Weale, his brother George is recorded as George Jacks…
A further bastardy example highlighting the inter-changeability of names is the case of Elizabeth Wellings and Rowland Gallory, and their two children Hannah and Rowland. The first document concerning them is an account of money spent by the parish of Cardington between 1761 and 1762 on Rowland Gallory’s two children ‘begotten on the body of Elizabeth Wellings and born within the parish of Condover’.
As well as money spent on things like mending shoes and cloth, there are two entries which stand out in 1762; one is ‘a warrant for Elizabeth Gallories examination’, the other ‘for apprehending and taking Elizabeth Gallory’. This not only points us to additional records that may survive, but also refers to Elizabeth by two separate surnames in the same document.
The next document relating to Elizabeth Gallory was a removal order for her two children who ‘she hath voluntarily deserted’ and left in the said parish of Cardington to be conveyed back to Condover, which had been deemed their legal settlement. As the names of Hannah and Rowland and their ages are given, it was fairly easy to trace their baptisms, with Hannah born in 1757 and Rowland in 1759. Despite the children being described in the Poor Law documents as bastard children, on both entries the parents are named as Rowland and Elizabeth Gallory. If I had not known they were bastard children from Poor Law records, the only evidence would have been a mysterious lack of marriage. Going back to the removal order for the two children, I found it a particularly interesting source because of the note added onto the end by the overseers of Cardington, which states that the officers of Condover were issued with the order at the beginning of April and that as the next Quarter Sessions was to be held on the 12th April, there was time enough in between to give notice of an appeal. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any evidence of an appeal in the Quarter Sessions, but this clearly shows it was a used and recognised way to dispute a pauper’s settlement or removal.
As parishes sometimes put pressure on the parents of illegitimate children to marry, thus ensuring the father took responsibility and effectively indemnifying the parish, I wondered if this was the case for Elizabeth Wellings and Rowland Gallory. Bearing in mind she is first referred to as Elizabeth Gallory in the accounts in 1762, my search for a marriage brought up the entry below in 1760 in Condover. I was only able to find this by searching just for Elizabeth Wellings and the place, as Rowland is entered in the register as Rowland Gallears. However, the end of his surname is crossed out and looks to me as though it could initially have said Gallory, the coincidence otherwise being too great… This would mean their children Hannah and Rowland were bastards at birth, yet when the later documents were created they were in fact married. Why they pretended to be married when their children were baptised and why Rowland’s name appears to have been changed slightly in the marriage register I cannot however answer.
The last document which relates to the Gallery family is an apprenticeship indenture for Hannah Gallory in housewifery in 1769. Other than telling us the family were still in receipt of poor relief by 1769, this does not tell us much new information, but does add to the overall picture.
Drawing together these examples, I hope to have shown how Old Poor Law records can be used alongside records more commonly used by family historians. If you suspect you have a bastard ancestor they can be surprisingly informative!