Derbyshire Bastardy Cases


Prior to 1600, the ancient Germanic tribal custom prevailed. A man was "responsible" for his children until they became a contributing member of the tribe or village (generally age 16). Privacy in small villages was rare, and all your sins were common knowledge. Unwed pregnancies were considered a fact of life and little stigma was attached to the mother or the child. A man was expected to "step up" and provide for the child, but some men abandoned the mothers or shirked their duty. If a man abandoned his child(ren), then the local parish and the girl's family did their best to provide for the child(ren). Sometimes a woman would make an arrangement with the man and keep the details private to protect both of their public character, but records of such arrangements are rare.

In 1575 England started to formalize the process of providing for bastard and orpahaned children. "Justices of the Peace" in each county were given powers to order the mothers or putative father of illegitimate children to pay for their maintenance, either directly to the mother or through the parish officials. One reason for baptism records was to record the parents' names, although many bastards have only the mother's name listed. A mother could bring charges in Petty Session courts to require the father to pay towards the child's upkeep, but many of these matters were settled directly between the parties.

In 1834, the Poor Law Amendment Act provided that a member of the Board of Guardians could initiate a bastardy hearing at Petty Session courts. These hearings were to determine the rightful father and to impose a weekly charge on him for the infant's support until the child was employable.

In 1844, the Bastardy provisions are altered so that the mother of a bastard child could initiate a bastardy hearing at Petty Session courts. They were also supposed to supply corroborative evidence.

Many of these Petty Session events were reported in the local newspapers. After 1844, the number of cases reported declines. Presumably the women were able to make direct, private negotiations with the father for support. And, an increasing number of cases were turned away by the courts.

One should be aware that in some cases newspaper reports were quite short. "... and three bastardy cases were heard" is not uncommon, while other reports give names and amounts.

Note: An Order of Affiliation is just another term for a Bastardy Order.

Thank you, Anne Cole, for the above.

Online Resources:

There is an index of Derbyshire parish Bastardy Papers held at the DRO on the Yesterdays Journey website. Select "Bastardy Papers" on the left side, then the parish you are researching in from the list of parishes displayed.

The Books:

Joan D. MEASHAM, "Index of bastardy cases in Derbyshire Quarter Sessions order books, Easter 1682 - Easter 1784," 1994, typescript, 25 pages.