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Ask the Expert - paternity ponderings

Our expert Stephen Rigden, pictured right, answers your questions.

From Ruth Monnier in Brisbane, Australia:

'I'm wondering if you can help me with a paternity query. I have noticed that in some baptismal registers the father's name is left blank and it sometimes may also state that the baby was illegitimate. Also, on a birth certificate the name of the father may be missing and the baby has the same surname as the mother.

I'm wondering what the laws and norms were for what surname a baby could legally be given and what had to be written on the birth certificate? Did the parents have to be married for the baby to have the father's surname? Did the parents have to be married for the baby's father's name to be written on the birth certificate? Was the father's permission needed? It's obviously different to today.'

Steve says:

'Thanks very much for your question, Ruth. I can only really speak with regard to English and Welsh birth and baptism registers. My understanding is that, in practice if not in law, the birth of a child would be registered with the names of both parents in three different circumstances.

Firstly, of course, if the parents were legally married. There are some variations on this. For example, a legally married couple in, say, their 40s may present the child as their own legitimate offspring when in fact it was the illegitimate child of their unmarried daughter: they are not the actual parents but the child is registered as if they were. Or a married couple may register the birth or baptism of a child as if it were both of theirs whereas the father may have been a different man; naturally, the husband may or may not know that he is not the father. What we family historians have to work with is the evidence of the documentary record of birth or baptism, which may not necessarily correspond to the actual biological parentage of the child in question.

Secondly, if the mother of the child or both parents purported to be legally married and the registrar (by which I mean either the civil registrar or his/her ecclesiastical equivalent) was none the wiser. In the latter regard, if the registrar suspected that the mother or the parents were not married (for example, if the woman was known to him by repute, or the community was small and the personal circumstances of its inhabitants generally known), presumably he would ask for evidence to be provided and, if not produced to his/her satisfaction, the child would be registered under the mother's name only (subject to the third circumstance below).

Thirdly, if the parents acknowledged that they were not married but the father accepted paternity and was present, with the mother, at the time of registration. You would then have the father given on the certificate as, for example, John Smith and the mother as Mary Brown. The child's forenames are given in the appropriate field in the register but there is not a separate dedicated field for the child's surname. Such children are, therefore, often indexed by the General Register Office in their birth indexes under the surnames of both parents. This is also why, when the registrar does include the surname in the child's forename field, you tend to get doubling up in the index - i.e., such names as William Smith Smith (probably also indexed as William Smith Brown).

I suspect that the norms varied at different times and with different registrars, communities and faiths. Where illegitimate children were concerned, for example, not a few Calvinist Ministers in Scotland habitually filled their baptism registers with such pitiless phrases as 'begotten in fornication'.

To summarise, if the name of the father is blank on the certificate, all you can reliably read into this is that his identity is (on the basis of this certificate) unknown to you. In reality, the identity of the father may have been unknown to the mother if there were two or more candidates, as it were; or his identity may have been known to the mother but he himself may have been unaware of his paternity; or he may have denied paternity, righteously or otherwise; or he may have been in a long-term stable or periodic relationship with the mother but was not present at registration.

As for the actual law in these matters, I only have immediately to hand a facsimile reprint of the 1901 'Suggestions For The Guidance Of The Clergy Relative To The Duties Imposed Upon Them By The Marriage And Registration Acts'. This is silent on the question of questionable paternity at birth registration. For marriages, however, it gives the following advice:

'Persons of Illegitimate Birth are sometimes unwilling or unable to state the Name and the Rank or Profession of their Fathers. If, on these Particulars being asked for, there be any hesitation or reluctance to state them, no further inquiry need be made, and Columns 7 and 8 may be left blank; lines in ink should then be drawn through the blank spaces.'

Perhaps there are some findmypast.co.uk readers willing to share details of their own experiences of finding illegitimate ancestors?'

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