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 1837and 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
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
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
Parish clerks were often better able to record the truth than registrars and
were more likely to record that a child was illegitimate, baseborn
, 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.
Adoption And Fostering
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-Care Department
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
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.
Finding Out More
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
Seeking An Adopted Person
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 General Registration 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!
Change Of Name
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
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
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
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
- Navin Kumar Jaggi
- Gurmeet Singh Jaggi