Northumberland and Durham Family History Society, July meeting

The Barbican of Alnwick Castle
The Barbican of Alnwick Castle

The July meeting of the Alnwick branch of the Northumberland and Durham Family History Society covered the murky area of ancestry.

Dudley George, branch chairman, entertained the meeting with a fascinating talk about how families throughout history have attempted to conceal their indiscretions behind a smoke screen.

The aim of the evening was to make the audience aware that family structures are not always what they appear to be on paper.

Researchers need to take a close look at all the evidence before them in terms of birth certificates or census returns, letters, photos etc as they may be hiding something.

Illegitimacy has played a central role in many great novels by such writers as Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens.

It has always been a problem as it threatens the respectability of the family, may challenge inheritance claims, and there might even be incest involved.

The effects of the Victorian era and its superficially strict moral values continued right up until the early 1900s.

Under the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, unmarried mothers could find themselves locked away in a mental asylum, where they could remain for the rest of their lives. This act was only repealed in 1954.

The scandal of the Magdalene homes, which existed up until the 1970s, has now been exposed in such films as Philomena.

So where does the truth lie? If you are looking pre-1837, parish records may be a vital source of information, followed by the parish union records.

You may see such Latin terms hiding the truth as ‘pater ignotus’, father unknown, or ‘filia populi’, in essence meaning that there are so many possible fathers for the little girl, who can say?

The middle names of illegitimate children were often the father’s surname so as to point the finger.

More ingeniously a baby christened in Alnwick in 1887 called Chaslesina pointed to the father being one Charles Hardy, of the famous fishing tackle family, who was later required to pay two shillings a week to the unmarried mother.

The Woodhorn archive shows 566 records of bastardy orders from Alnwick.

Pressure was placed upon unmarried mothers to divulge the name of the father so that he would take financial responsibility for the child in order not to burden the parish.

A mother could be placed in prison for withholding information. A father who refused to support his child could find himself issued with a bastardy bond, which forced him to pay up front and weekly until the child reached maturity.

Every effort was made to make him honour his responsibilities. However, some ran away to the Army or Navy to escape. When they returned, the parish was still waiting for him.

Despite large numbers of soldiers being billeted in Alnwick during the First World War, there appears to be only one record of a bastardy bond being issued to a soldier.

Ann Bell Milburn, from the desperately poor area of Pattens Yard, gave birth to a baby and refused to name the father.

She must have given in under pressure, however, as James Hynes, who turned out to be a soldier from Alnwick, was issued with a bastardy bond in November 1916. Sadly, James, a Northumberland Fusilier, died of his wounds in 1918.

Before legalised adoption in the late 1920s, it was possible to dispose of one’s indiscretions by answering advertisements in papers such as the Times from childless couples. As this was totally unregulated, false stories were given as to the child’s origins, which were happily accepted.

An amusing and imaginative example was given by an Alnwick lothario, who had been left with a baby by a dead relation, an indigo planter in the Far East.