Tracing your illegitimate ancestors in the newspapers

King Street, Cambridge

King Street, Cambridge, where Eliza Hull lived with Frederick Charles and their children

Whether you refer to them as illegitimate, natural children, base-born, born out of wedlock, or bastards, everyone has some in their family tree. I’m talking about children born to unmarried mothers.

They can present a seemingly unbreakable brick wall, as their fathers’ names are seldom recorded on birth certificates and rarely in parish registers. If you are lucky you might find some details in workhouse records, but what about in the newspapers? It might seem unlikely but it is possible.

Here is an example published in the Cambridge Independent Press in 1864, found via the British Newspaper Archive website:

“BASTARDY EXTRAORDINARY! Eliza Hull appeared to affiliate four illegitimate children upon Frederick Charles. The woman, who lives in King-street, has had four children, as she states, by the defendant, the eldest being nine years of age, he giving her money for their support. Last week the defendant married another female, and now Eliza Hull brings her case before the Magistrates.

“The man is a gentleman’s coachman, and has £25 a year, and after a good deal of obstinacy on his part, he agreed to compromise the matter by paying 4s. a week; although he protested that he was not the father of the two elder children, and that he could produce evidence against the complainant, showing that her antecedents were of a most unsatisfactory character.”

What a fascinating article! It throws up so many questions. Why did Eliza keep up her… acquaintance with Frederick over such a long period? Why hadn’t they married? If only the last two children were his (according to him), whose were the others?

Clearly they had an informal arrangement for her to receive some money towards the children’s upkeep, but was Frederick’s marriage to someone else the final straw? Being an unmarried mother was frowned upon – to say the least – so Eliza must have felt very strongly about the situation to have brought an affiliation case to make the situation official. She must have feared the loss of Frederick’s payments after he married another woman. (What a bounder!)

While this article is fascinating, it doesn’t really provide any hard proof for any possible descendants of Eliza Hull. But it would give a strong lead to follow if they had taken a DNA test. They might want to look out for any matches who had the surname Charles in their family tree.

My own great-great grandmother, Lucy Howard, gave birth to three children in three different workhouses. I can only assume she must have been very fertile. Lucy had a hard life – born to a poor Norfolk family, she was a workhouse inmate by the age of nine. Two of her children were brought up by her brother. She did eventually settle down and marry, but then died in the flu epidemic of 1918.

I learned from the Northampton Mercury (again, thanks to the British Newspaper Archive) that in 1889 Lucy brought an affiliation case shortly after the birth of her third child, Harry:

“AFFILIATION. Lucy Howard, 4, Althorp-Terrace, v. William Scott Lightfoot, 36, Drapery. – Mr. C.C. Becke appeared for the defendant. – The case was dismissed.”

Again, she must have felt strongly enough about her predicament that she was prepared to stand in court to say “this man is the father of my baby – and he should pay” and have her name (and his) published in the local newspaper for all to read. William Scott Lightfoot was a member of a respectable middle-class Baptist family. With no way for the court to know whether Lucy – a laundress – was telling the truth, perhaps it’s not surprising that the case was thrown out.

Newspapers can help fill so many gaps in our knowledge of our ancestors’ lives. Even if the papers cannot solve the whole puzzle, they might just give you a few more pieces to slot into place.

  • The British Newspaper Archive is a subscription website. A year’s access costs £80. You can also access the same material via FindMyPast if you take out their ‘Pro’ subscription at £44.84 for 3 months, or £156 for a year (at time of publishing). Both sites have special offers and introductory discounts, so it’s worth looking out for those.

Guest post by Katie Fuller, Associate Researcher

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