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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Poor Law and Parish Chest Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


To the genealogist the discovery of the christening of a baseborn child with only the mother’s name given in the parish register is frustrating. This, however, is an area in which the Poor Law records can really provide answers. The overseers records were not concerned with pedigrees and inheritance as many other records were, but with the pragmatic solution to the problem of paying for the child’s upkeep.

The law required that the mother provide the name of the father to the overseers, (but there must surely have been a few cases where there was more than one likely suspect!) The process involved the overseers and churchwardens receiving intelligence from either the mother or someone else that she was pregnant, or had already been delivered of a bastard. They then arranged an interview for her with a Justice of the Peace who would determine the particulars, especially the name, parish and occupation of the father. The overseers then had to find the man and extract payment, or, if he was not already married, to ‘persuade’ him to marry the young woman, either way exonerating the parish from the support of both mother and child. The marriage of such a couple was known as a knobstick wedding after the staves of office of the churchwardens who attended to see that the ceremony took place.

Maintenance orders from the Justices of the Peace might be applied for by the woman, her parents or the overseers, and these records are frequently found in Petty Sessions, and early ones of these are particularly detailed, as well as Quarter Sessions.

Illegitimacy rates rarely rose above 3% before the early 19th century thus bastardy was not a huge problem before then. The current sad rate in Britain is 30%.

A rather large number of unmarried mothers were domestic servants (Hey), and in such cases countless family stories have been passed down about philandering sons of the gentry, which are more easily accepted, perhaps, than saying that the footman, coachman or butler did it! It is probable, too, that many such pregnancies were the result of delayed or abandoned wedding plans (Hey). If a more affluent rascal admitted blame, then a quiet family lump sum or continuing payment may have sufficed, and no record would appear in the parish chest. If the payment was made to the parish officials, however, then it would be duly recorded.

There is a great variety of documents to be found in the parish chest relating to provision for illegitimate children. There are also variations in terminology of these documents over time, in different parts of the country, and in genealogy texts! Eve McLaughlin claims in Illegitimacy, that there were 20 different forms for use in differing circumstances. I have divided the forms into three groups:

  • Examinations are records of facts ascertained by interviews.
  • Bonds are an agreement made by the father and the officials.
  • Orders and warrants are documents from the JPs requiring something to be done.

Sometimes they will be found amongst overseers’ records, in other instances in the churchwardens’ records, but they could also have been stored separately.

After 1834 the Minutes of the Boards of Guardians are a useful source about fathers of bastards.

Bastardy Examinations

There were slightly different forms for examinations before or after the birth of a child, and in the latter case the child’s birth date and place is usually given, which may not be found elsewhere. A typical example is shown below, with a more unusual case following. Some examinations were carried out by midwives during the birth, and their depositions may be found in the Quarter or Petty Sessions.

Bastardy Examination 1775
Cheshunt, Hertfordshire

Hertfordshire, to Wit: The Examination of Ann Lowin of the Parish of Cheshunt in the County of Hertford single Woman, taken upon Oath before Me, Francis Morland Esq. one of his Majesty’s Justices of the Peace, in and for the said County this 28th Dai of April in the Year of our Lord 1775.

Who saith That on the twentieth Day of May now last past at the House of Richard Lowen in the Parish of Cheshunt in the County aforesaid, she the said Ann Lowen was delivered of a male Bastard Child, and that the said Bastard Child is likely to become chargeable to the said Parish of Cheshunt; and that Joseph Marshall late of Dorking in the County of Surrey did get her with Child of the said Bastard Child.

Taken and signed the Day and Year above-written, before me.
Fras Morland Ann Lowen

[Form] Sold by J. COLES and Son, Stationers, [No.21.] Fleet Street

The following is both a Bastardy and a Settlement Examination:

Bastardy Examination 1789
Eling, Hampshire

The Examination of Sarah Major now residing in the Parish of Eling in the said County, the wife of John Major, who hath lately ran away and left her, taken on Oath before us two of his Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the said County this 11th Day of July 1789 touching the place of the last legal Settlement of her Bastard Child.

Who saith that about six Month ago when she was a widow and unmarried and called by the Name of Sarah Moody she was delivered of a female Bastard Child in the Parish of Portsea in the said County of Southampton, since baptized by the Name of Christian, which Child is now with her in the said Parish of Eling, and that her said husband John Major is the Father of the said Child.
The mark of Sarah Major X
Sworn before us Willm Heathcote, W. Fletcher.

Bastardy Bonds

These were also known as Bonds of Indemnification or Indemnity Orders, and were made by the father promising money for upkeep. The one below is probably from the father’s employer; this was quite common because when hiring a man for the requisite twelve months he would automatically gain a settlement in this new parish after forty days.

Bastardy Bond 1789
Eling, Hampshire

Know all Men by these Presents That I Fredk Breton, Gentleman on the part and behalf of John Fearly, serving man, of the Town and County of Southampton am held and firmly bound to the Church-wardens and Overseers for the time being, of the Poor of the Parish of Eling in the County of Hants, in trust, for the Parishioners of the said Parish in fifty Pounds of good and lawful Money of Great Britain To be paid to the said Church Wardens and Overseers to their certain Attorney, Executors, Administrators or Assigns For which Payment to be well and faithfully made I bind myself, my Heirs, Executors and administrators firmly by these Presents Sealed with my Seal, Dated this eighteenth day of July in the 29th year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord George the third by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith and so forth, And in the Year of our Lord One Thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.

The condition of this obligation is such that whereas Ann Collins single woman, appears to be now pregnant with a Child or Children and that the said Child or Children may become chargeable to the said Parish of Eling. If therefore the said Frederick Breton, his Heirs, Administrators or Executors do and shall from time to time and at all times hereafter, fully and clearly indemnify and save harmless as well the above Church Wardens and Overseers of the Poor of the said Parish of Eling, and their successors for the time being, and also all and singular the other Parishioners and Inhabitants of the said Parish of Eling, which now are or hereafter shall be for the time being from all manner of Costs, taxes, Rates, Assessments and Charges whatsoever, for or by reason of the Birth, Education and Maintenance of the said Child or Children and from all Actions, Suits, Troubles and other Charges and demands whatsoever, touching and concerning the same, this Obligation to be void, otherwise of full force and virtue
Fredk Breton
Signed, Sealed and delivered in presence of us
Sarah Jones, Joseph Jones

I have come across one example of a note of indemnification from the father’s parish in the christening register of the mother’s parish, as follows:

Indemnification Note in Parish Register 1755
Coldwaltham, Sussex

Coldwaltham, Sussex Baptisms FHL film 0919112
1755 March 16th Mary Till, illegitimate D. of Elizabeth Till by Richd Budd, from the maintenance of which child the Parish of West Dean has indemniy’d this Parish.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Poor Law and Parish Chest Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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