A Real Bastard of a Relative – an introduction to one useful source of parish records

Genealogical research can be so frustrating when a baptism record gives only the mother’s name and does not mention a father.   This usually suggests that the child was illegitimate.  In these circumstances bastardy records can be useful in finding out who the father was.  The Bastardy Books are one of a number of early parish records and if they survive and the little bastard was born 1601-1839, you may be able to trace your man.


If a young woman was of legal settlement in a parish and became pregnant prior to marriage, she could potentially become a burden on that parish for her maintenance during her pregnancy, the birth and for her and her child afterwards.  A bastardy examination would be held with her to try to determine the father of the child. This could be done by the churchwarden, the Overseer of the Poor or at court sessions.  If the name of the father was revealed, he could be called in and encouraged to marry the young woman or ordered to sign a bastardy bond and forced to pay for the maintenance of the mother and later the child. Quite often the churchwarden would offer a financial bribe to the father to encourage him to marry the girl who claimed he was her child’s father.  If the marriage did not occur, a bastardy maintenance order would be issued for the child’s maintenance during his or her growing up years.


If the father of the child fled the area prior to his being confronted or before signing a maintenance bond then a bastardy warrant could be issued for his return to the officials of the parish. If returned, he would face an examination or be ordered to appear in the quarter session court for a hearing, the posting of the bond and maintenance order.  Discussion of these kinds of cases are generally noted in the vestry minutes as well and mention of a warrant may be found in the Constables Accounts. These documents, if they survive, may be found at the local record office of the relevant parish.   The National Archives hold a number of the bastardy records.  Just type ‘bastard’ into the search engine.

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