ESSEX-UK-L ArchivesArchiver > ESSEX-UK > 1998-10 > 0908384696
From: Eleanor Harris <>
Subject: Re: illegitimate children
Date: Wed, 14 Oct 1998 18:04:56 +0100
I would challenge the idea that "illegitimate" and "base born" were
words used as simple statement of fact. Although attitudes towards
illegitimacy vary from family to family, from place to place, and from
time to time, the authority figures in English communities have usually
been very hostile towards the birth of illegitimate children to the poor
- even if the poor lass was made pregnant by gentry.
Whether or not the lord of the manor, the clergyman & all of the
payers of poor rates in the parish objected to illegitimacy on moral
grounds is a moot point, but they would have objected to it on the basis
of money. The mother & babe were very likely to become a long-term
charge upon the parish - payable by the overseers of the poor from the
When writing up the parish register, there was really no need for
the clergyman or parish clerk to use the words "illegitimate" or "base
born". In fact, some did not. The words "John, the son of Mary Smith
was baptised" were enough to intimate the fact that the child was not
born within marriage. Sometimes, the words "John, the son of Mary Smith
single woman was baptised" were used. Any clergyman or parish clerk who
used the words "illegitimate" or "base born" was doing so from choice.
Sometimes, they added words which made clear the moral stand which was
being taken - "born out of lust", "born from fornication".
As to the attitude of the people of the parish as a whole, there is
much anecdotal evidence from the 19th & 20th centuries to show that
illegitimate children in rural parishes were frequently stigmatized &
even ostracized by at least some part of the community in which they
lived. And speaking from my own family's experience, I cite the example
of a fourteen year old girl, in a small rural community, who gave birth
to a baby as a result of being raped by a member of the family. Both
the girl & the babe suffered socially until the end of their days.
Oddly enough, even the legitimate children of the girl & of the babe
also suffered socially. People in rural communities have long memories
& sharp tongues.
Because the Christian Church & the State in England discriminated
against illegitimate children, the words "illegitimate" & "base born"
(and the words "bastard child") could never have been used, especially
by clergymen & parish clerks when writing up the church registers, in a
truly neutral way.