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If all your family born within wedlock, married once and stayed happily and faithfully married, you are likely to find tracing your ancestry quite easy – and probably quite boring. Events such as illegitimacy cause great problems to genealogists, but can also prove the most interesting overall.


People think of illegitimacy as a modern phenomenon, but between 1837 and 1965, some 5-7% of all children born in England and Wales were born out of wedlock and the situation was little different over the preceding centuries. But while illegitimacy no longer carries a social stigma, and we can celebrate the diverse lives of our forebears, it does pose problems for genealogists. If the mother subsequently married, her illegitimate child would often informally adopt the surname of the new husband, whether or not this was its father. This can place you in a catch-22 situation, looking for the birth of a child whose original surname was that of its mother before her marriage, but you can’t find the marriage record because you may not know what the mother’s original name was!

Another problem is that illegitimate children either makeup or does not state at all their father’s name when asked later in life, such as general Registration marriage certificates. If the father’s name is left blank, you are almost certainly dealing with an illegitimate child. In many cases, however, the illegitimate person did not wish to admit to this fact and would give inaccurate information. Sometimes they would give the name of a man with the same surname as their own but say the man was dead, or an accountant, lawyer or auctioneer-popular occupations, it seems, for our ancestors’ fictitious fathers. Alternatively, they might state the true forename and occupation of the father, but give the man their own surname. These cases offer researchers a ray of hope as other sources can then be searched for men with the right forename and occupation, and then evidence sought to prove they were the true father.


Most illegitimacies come to light from birth certificates, where the father's name is left blank, and the mother is recorded with just her maiden surname and without a married name. This may mean that the natural father’s identity will never be known, but there is always hope. For one reason or another, registrars (and before them, clergymen)would often ask the mother who the real father was, and then suggest(or insist on) giving the baby its father’s surname as a middle name. Thus, Herbert Schofield Langan, the illegitimate son of Emma Langan, was almost certainly the son of a Mr Schofield, and probably of a man called Herbert Schofield.

Parish clerks were often better able to record the truth than registrars and were more likely to record that a child was illegitimate, ‘baseborn’ or a ‘bastard’, sometimes even noting the father’s name. Parish chests may contain bastardy bonds whereby men indemnified the parish against the expense of supporting their illegitimate offspring. From 1576, Justices of the Peace could root out illegitimate children’s fathers and issue bastardy orders, which will bein the Quarter Session records, requiring them to marry the mother or pay for her child, and if he refused, they could issue maintenance orders to force him to reach into his pocket.

Sometimes arguments ensued, with women (or their enraged fathers)pointing the finger, and men-guilty or not-flatly denying any responsibility. These records provide essential information on ancestors’ paternity and, in many cases, colourful episodes of family history.


Before explaining how to trace your natural parents, it is important to state that, in most cases, a desire to find one’s biological family in no way negates or implies disloyalty towards the adoptive or foster one. Likewise, tracing the ancestry of one’s adoptive or foster family is meaningful too. Genetics aside, we inherit many things, such as your accent, social attitudes, mannerisms and so on, from the parents who brought us up and thus from their ancestors, whether or not a blood-relationship existed. But for all this, biological ancestors matter too many people as well. When a desire arises to discover who one’s biological antecedents were, nothing will suffice except to find the truth.


Before the 1926 Adoption Act, which came into effect in January 1927, children were adopted or fostered, often out of workhouses and later foster homes, on an informal basis. They were usually given new surnames under equally informal circumstances, and so their origins can be very hard to trace. Many arrangements were handled by Dr Earnardo’s. Dr Barnardo founded his first home for orphaned and destitute children in 1865 and this grew into an organisation which dealt with over 300,000 cases, especially assisting child emigration around the British Empire, until the last home closed in 1981. Records of fostered children appear in poor law and workhouse records and the records of foundling hospitals, such as Thomas Coram’s Hospital, whose records are at the London Metropolitan Archives.

Information is confidential for 100 years at Dr Barnardo’s After-CareDepartment except to the adopted people concerned. Unfortunately, Barnardo’s records are filed under the original birth surname only. If you approach them with the adopted or foster surname and ask for the original one, they will not be able to help you. Fostering continues today, but records are kept by local social services departments and are retained for 75 years. Those wishing to contact fostered children can ask social services to forward a letter on their behalf. After 1926, some children were still fostered but not adopted. Before 1969, records were poor but seldom non-existent. As with adoption, contact your local social services, who will try to trace surviving files for you.

From 1927 onwards, adoption was sanctioned by court order, resulting in the original birth entry at the GRO being annotated with the word ‘adopted’, and a new birth certificate is issued to the child under their new name(s). The procedure was repeated for re-adoption.


Some people are content once they have found their original birth certificate. But for many, this is just the start of the quest to find out more about family origins or even to locate living parents or relatives. Before starting to do this, bear in mind that the process may be costly and, ultimately, unsuccessful. Equally, you might patiently trace biological parents who may not want to know you. However, in many cases, the outcome is worthwhile and positive.

Also, if your aim is to find your biological parents, remember that they might now have their own partners and even other children, who probably will not know you exist. Your natural parents will probably know that, since 1974, adopted children have had the right to know their biological parents’ names, but your re-appearance in their lives may still be a great shock, so a sensitive approach is important.


Technically, this should be impossible because the privacy of the adoptee and their adoptive family are paramount. There is, however, a way by which it is sometimes possible to trace the identity of an adopted child. The FRC holds the Adopted Children Register, to which access is open, and birth certificates can be bought by any who choose. The register states that the child’s adopted name but not the original name. It does, however, state the date of birth, the names and address of the adoptive parents, the date of the adoption order and the name of the court that issued it. Therefore, if you are trying to find out what happened to a child who was adopted, and knows their date of birth, you can pay to have every possible entry for the appropriate gender checked for a child with the right birth date. This could cost you a great deal of money but, hopefully, you will only find one, or perhaps a small number of possibilities, to follow up on. A considerable amount of detective work would then be required to determine which, if any, really is the right person-and frankly anybody wanting to do this should think very long and hard about the distress it would very likely cause to the adopted persons and their adoptive families-but that, at any rate, is the method.


Attempting to trace a missing person is almost impossible without knowing their name. If this is not known, searches in the GeneralRegistration indexes may help or, alternatively, if you are adopted, follow the procedure described overleaf. It also helps to have some idea of how old they were. This section applies equally to seeking birth parents if you are adopted, a distant relation, an old friend or even an old flame!


Except during the Second World War, British subjects have always been able to call themselves anything they want, and change their names as often as their socks, provided there is no intent to commit fraud. However, most people who change their name need proof they have done so and create a deed poll, enrolled in the High Court ofJustice and recorded in class J 18 at the NA. Those made before 1903are in the Close Rolls at the NA. From 1914 it was obligatory to publish deed polls in the London Gazette. Many notices were published in newspapers, particularly The Times. It is also worth consulting W.P. Phillimore and E.A.Fry’s An Index to changes of Name under Authority of Act of Parliament or Royal Licence and Including Irregular Changes from 1760 to 1901 (GPC, 1968).


Until 1858, divorce could only be obtained by a private act of Parliament. Records of the 318 successful cases prior to 1858 are the House of Lords Record Office and NA. The process was way beyond most people, but quarrelling couples could go to church courts to seek an annulment on the grounds that one party was a bigamist or (from 1754)had married below 21 years of age without parental consent, They could also grant a decree of separation a mensa et thoro, which released a spouse from the obligation to live with a violent or adulterous partner. Usually, a couple wishing to separate simply did so unofficially, and if one of them wished to remarry, they went elsewhere and hoped their bigamous union would not be found out.

Wife selling, whereby a cuckolded husband sold his wife to her lover at the local market, was without legal basis, but because it was done so publicly it had the effect of protecting the first husband from his wife’s debts, and the new ‘husband’ from any further action from the original one. There are only a few hundred recorded cases but newspapers can provide a useful source for any such shenanigans.

In Scotland, church courts could dissolve marriages as in England and Wales, but divorces were much easier to obtain, on grounds of adultery or desertion, through the Commissary Court of Edinburgh from 1536 to 1830 and thereafter from the Court of Sessions.


It is impossible to tell how widespread bigamy, the illegal marriage of a person while their spouse is still alive, ever was. It is, however, something that may crop up from time to time in your research. When discovered, bigamy was punished in ecclesiastical and, latterly, civil courts, and may appear in local newspapers.

Navin Kumar Jaggi

Gurmeet Singh Jaggi

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