The stigma of illegitimacy

"Migrant mother"

Illegitimate children abound in every family; if you haven’t found any yet, then you just haven’t searched enough. In our modern age we tend to think of the past generations as being prim and proper, ultra-respectable, morally conservative and social-conscious. Well, I don’t think it’s like that. Obviously, the different moral rules which dictated societies in the past tended to be less progressive than those we have today, but that doesn’t mean everyone followed them. Although these days hardly anyone raises an eye-brow when an unmarried woman has a child and doesn’t decide to marry the father, in the past it is true that a woman could be socially stigmatised if she had what was called an “illegitimate child”. Even worse was the stigma which overshadowed the child throughout its life simply because it had been born out of wedlock.

Illegitimate children were simply the result of a “more than hands-off” relationship between an unmarried couple. Of course, if you find an illegitimate child in your family tree you might want to ask yourself any of the following questions: were the child’s parents romantically involved, or on the other hand did the girl/woman become “accidentally” pregnant? Did the father recognise the child as his? Did the mother eventually marry the child’s father? If she did, then the child or children born out of wedlock automatically became legitimate, although there might still have been a few hurdles to make them eligible to inherit their father’s possessions, if he had any.

There are many cases of illegitimate children in my family tree (and by that I don’t want to sound as if my tree if plagued by them, it’s just a big tree!) which to some extent reflect the relationship going on between their parents.

Some fathers eventually recognised their illegitimate babies...

The first case to consider in the family is that of Mary Ann Vickress, a young Herefordshire woman born in 1813 and raised just before the dawn of Victorian England and its tight moralistic values. In 1834 Mary Ann (then aged 21) became pregnant and, for whatever reason, did not marry the father. As she was over age, one can only presume that the child’s father (also of age) did not wish to marry her; perhaps there was some sort of legal impediment to the marriage; maybe the bans would have to be read, although in the case of a pregnant single woman I would imagine they would have got a bit of a move on. The boy was born in March 1835 and recorded in the baptism registry as illegitimate and with the mother’s surname. But the relationship between Mary Ann and the boy’s father did not end there. By early 1837 she was again pregnant, only this time she did marry Joseph Caldwell, the man she was obviously in love with. The baby, William Caldwell, was born later that year. Later census records have proved that young Edward Vickress did become Edward Caldwell, and his parents seem to have been content with each other, at least enough to sire another four children together.

Sadly, not all cases of illegitimacy had such happy endings. Mary Ann’s niece, Mercy Vickress, was born in 1863 into a poverty-stricken family who had earlier left the Herefordshire countryside in order to move to Wolverhampton. Four of Mercy’s six siblings died before the age of 4, and when she was 12 her own father died. Mercy went into service, as many girls of the time did, but by 1881 she was unemployed, living with her mother, who was a washerwoman. By early 1885 Mercy became pregnant by an unknown father. Whoever he was, he was not there or did not wish to be recorded as the child’s father when Mercy gave birth to a son in October. The child lived only 48 hours. Grief-stricken, Mercy herself was by then dying of pulmonary tuberculosis, and passed away the following February aged only 22.

Cases of illegitimacy can sometimes prove much more surprising than we think. Despite living in an intensely Catholic country, my Spanish relatives also sired their own lot of illegitimate babies. One case on my grandfather’s side is that of Rosa Cerviño (herself an illegitimate daughter), who dutifully married a man who made her a mother -of legitimate children may I add- five times over. Of her surviving three daughters, however, at least two of them had illegitimate children (the eldest had two, the second one had three) and neither of them married the father, whoever he was. As they obviously remained living in the same place and carried on with their lives in the community, I can surmise that their children did not pose such a big problem to them (and society) as I thought initially.

... others just didn't, and got on with life apparently as if nothing had happened.

Yet another case on my grandmother’s side leaves no room for doubt. Dolores Agra had been born in the Spanish town of Noya in 1833. Some time after her father died when Dolores was just 12 years old, her mother had a daughter by another man (the baby died within a year). Doubtless, Dolores would have been aware of the story, and may have been brought up to believe that having an illegitimate baby was not as sinful as society made her believe; soon she too became an unmarried mother, giving birth to a total of six children between 1855 and 1870. We don’t know if they were all fathered by the same person or not, but clearly Dolores did not mind or did not avoid having children even if she had no man at her side to take care of them. And that in the 19th century was probably something very brave to do. By the way, at least three of her children reached adulthood and had children of their own.

My Spanish great-great-grandparents, Miguel and Manuela also got better acquainted before they were actually married. When they were just 18 years old, my great-great-grandmother Manuela became pregnant, but the baby girl was actually registered motherless, not fatherless. Miguel stated that he recognised the child as his natural daughter, but gave no hint as to the identity of the mother. It took Manuela almost two years to sign a formal declaration recognising the little girl, called Dalmacia, as her own, but shortly thereafter the little one died of tuberculosis. Her untimely death may have been decisive for my great-great-grandparents, who got married on 31st December 1884, and enjoyed a long-lasting marriage which produced… no less than eleven more children.

Now it’s your turn to spill the beans. Are there any cases of illegitimacy in your family tree? Do you think they posed any problems at the time? Were your relatives accepting? What became of the child?

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About Dawsr

Citizen of the world, but born a century too late.
This entry was posted in Birth, Death, Galicia, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Illegitimacy, Marriage, Spain. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The stigma of illegitimacy

  1. IvanPetrovich says:

    6 illegitimate during the XIXth century…That is what would call a brave woman.

  2. Anne says:

    Recently working on my family tree I discovered that my grandmother was four months pregnant with my mom when she and my grandfather married in 1927, all three are now deceased. Although the parents did marry my mother was, inexplicably, while a child sent to live with and raised by her grandparents. Until her dying day, and although she never disclosed the facts if indeed she even knew, she felt unwanted by her parents and in the way. They went on to have five other children but she always felt like an outcast. Perhaps her exsistance prompted a marriage that should not have been as it was rife with domestic abuse against my grandmother and her children and infidelity by my grandfather. From what I remember the extended family, generally speaking, was judgmental and narrow minded. I can’t help but think that she was silently blamed for the problems of the adults involved and that was what she felt even as an adult. Even though secrets were kept the stigma remained.

  3. LA says:

    I’m the illegitimate child.

    Known as the black sheep from birth. Vanished from my family.
    I was raised by a step father, and had no idea my mom had two children, one from her first marriage, and me, assumed to be from some extra marital affair. I didn’t find out until i was 12 yrs old. I grew up being a secret, and as a kid i always could feel something was off, wrong.
    I found out later, before my mom died, that she slept with her husband, with the gestational due date, from that date, one day after i was born. I since asked my brother, and my moms first husband to do a paternity test, they both refuse.

    I guess everyone likes things they way they are, it’s comfortable for them. Being illegitimate makes me the scape goat.
    I was never accepted by anyone in my family. Tossed onto the street at 15 years old. My mom changed my name when i was 12 yrs. old, so im going through life having to prove my name was changed.
    But, there is good news, i have done well. educated myself, own a business, etc. but, its been lonely with respect to family. I graduated grade 12, no one came. I graduated college, no one came. I got married, no one came. i had one son, no one came.

    its been lonely.

    As far as my mom, shes deceased (12 yrs ago), and her sister still calls her a tramp. I have been humiliated, and abused over all this. My moms family didn’t accept much of anything in this area.

    My grandmother told my mom, “if you were back in Scotland, you would be stoned”

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