Kate Gibson

Illegitimacy, Family and Stigma in England, 1660-1834 is a book about the lives of white and mixed-race illegitimate individuals growing up in England over the long eighteenth century – that is, people who were born to parents who were not married to each other. The book traces illegitimate experiences from across the social-economic scale, from agricultural labourers to professionals and royalty. It looks at how illegitimacy affected relationships with family, care during childhood, marriage and occupation opportunities as they grew up, and stigma within local communities and wider national culture.

NOTCHES: Your study covers the period 1660-1834. Were there any significant changes in attitudes or practice during this period?

Kate Gibson: I chose those two dates because they represent two distinct phases in the policing of illegitimacy. Before the English civil war, most unmarried parents were prosecuted for sex outside marriage by the church courts, but when the courts resumed in 1660, prosecutions declined considerably. Throughout this period illegitimacy was primarily regulated by the Old Poor Law; parish officials identified poor unmarried parents, forced mothers to name the father of their child and forced fathers to pay maintenance. All this changed under the 1834 New Poor Law, which shifted responsibility solely onto mothers and made it much more difficult to claim paternal maintenance.

I looked at a wide range of sources – novels, periodicals, tracts, diaries, correspondence, poor law documents – to see if there were common attitudes to illegitimacy in this period. I found significant change. Early in the period illegitimacy was strongly linked to sin, with stigma justified as a punishment from God. This stigma was applied to all illegitimate children, across the social scale. By the later eighteenth century there was far more nuance in the way illegitimate individuals were described. They were increasingly seen as ultimately innocent but tragic victims, and as objects of pity for legitimate society to demonstrate their charitable virtue and kindness. This was not equalising, though; overt stigma was seen as rude, but illegitimate individuals were still treated with a condescending, othering pity, and were often expected to be grateful. This nuance was also heavily dependent on class. It was easier for middling and elite illegitimate individuals to conform to the image of tragic illegitimacy. Illegitimate children of the poor continued to be seen as a destabilising section of society that demonstrated their parents’ irresponsible lack of morality. These cultural changes affected how illegitimate individuals were treated in practice. Early in the period, a family who openly acknowledged an illegitimate relative risked being seen as condoning sin, but by the later eighteenth century a family’s support for an illegitimate relative could be seen as a positive act of charity and virtue that reflected well on them.

NOTCHES: How did gender and social status shape the experiences of unmarried parents?

KG: Unmarried parenthood was in conflict with some of the lynchpins of gender identity for men and women; financial and sexual credit, household authority, and chastity, for example. However, I found that unmarried parenthood could also be incorporated into gender ideals, given the right circumstances. Women depicted themselves as good mothers to illegitimate children; they were anxious, tender parents who took on full responsibility for their children’s welfare and happiness, echoing tropes used by married parents about legitimate children. Fathers used the language of sentimental fatherhood, describing themselves as caring for their children during illnesses, cuddling and kissing them, as well as providing for them financially.

Parents’ ability to take on these positive aspects of parenthood was heavily restricted by socio-economic status, though. Poorer mothers were usually most able to parent, because they were supported by a mixture of poor law support, paternal maintenance payments and family help. The vast majority of poor mothers married other men after their children’s birth, providing a stable step-parental household. Elite and middling women found it much more difficult, primarily because they were less able to earn their own living, and due to the greater importance of chastity to elite and middling femininity. Wealthy men, in contrast, were much more able to weather the storm associated with unmarried fatherhood. They could afford to maintain children, and this maintenance was not associated with a loss of control or credit, as they could maintain children on their own terms without the interference of the poor law. Lower middling and poorer men were more likely to try to evade their paternity, because for them, unmarried fatherhood involved being named by the parish and forced to pay maintenance. It was therefore associated with a loss of control and public humiliation, as well as considerable financial costs which many could not afford.

NOTCHES: How far did illegitimacy limit life choices?

KG: The fundamental disadvantage of illegitimacy in a patrilineal society like eighteenth-century England was that it excluded children from inheriting paternal social status and property. This had the most negative effect on middling and elite boys, who were much more likely to go into occupations like the army and navy, where they had a chance of earning prize money and status of their own. Middling illegitimate girls became schoolteachers and milliners rather than going straight into marriage, because they were less likely to have a dowry. In general, illegitimate individuals followed occupations that put them at a slightly lower socio-economic level than their legitimate family. This lack of family financial support also impacted on marriage. Illegitimate individuals, especially boys, on average married at a later age, and the rates of singlehood were higher. This suggests that marrying an illegitimate individual was seen as a risk; a person who did not know their father’s identity, or who were not acknowledged by their father, was at a disadvantage in a society in which social status, name and property all depended on paternity.

NOTCHES: Did parents treat their legitimate and illegitimate offspring differently? Is it fair to say that parents (perhaps especially fathers) were often motivated more by a sense of responsibility than by love?

KG: All the parents I found in my research treated their legitimate and illegitimate offspring differently, even parents who were otherwise devoted to their children. This reflects the realities of illegitimate disadvantage: illegitimate children were going to have different life trajectories because they couldn’t inherit property, they had different rights to support under the poor law, and they were going to face stigma. Parents treated illegitimate children differently, in a way to prepare them for this life of difference. For example, Erasmus Darwin (a physician, scientist and the grandfather of Charles Darwin) made sure that his illegitimate daughters were educated to a higher standard than their legitimate half-sisters because he wanted to make sure they could earn their own living as schoolteachers.

Parents were definitely motivated by a sense of responsibility. Legally, parents were required to maintain their illegitimate offspring, and there was also a strong cultural belief that fathers should not abandon their children. Middling and elite masculinity in particular idealised financial responsibility towards dependents of all kinds, not just illegitimate children, and so shirking these responsibilities was considered shameful. This responsibility could be the bare minimum of maintenance payments with no further contact. In many cases, though, responsibility and love were not separated. We have letters from poor women asserting that they were fully capable of financially and physically caring for their illegitimate children, and using this as evidence that they were good, loving mothers. Fathers often showed their love by openly accepting responsibility for their children. And, responsibility – things like financial provision, concern for a child’s welfare and education – was a primary ideal of legitimate parenthood too.

NOTCHES: Was the stigma of illegitimacy solely due to concerns about illicit sex, or were there other factors at play?  Do we know how parents and/ or children felt about it?

KG: The rationale of stigma was meant to be to deter and punish illicit sex by making the consequences so unpleasant, and this rationale is repeated across the eighteenth century in a variety of sources. Deterrence of illicit sex was valuable for religious reasons, but there was also a concern that if illegitimacy wasn’t stigmatised, marriage rates would fall. This would cause political and economic chaos, because all property inheritance was based on marriage and legitimacy. Illegitimate children, especially of the poor, were also often considered to be damaged by their illegitimacy. In parliamentary debates MPs worried that illegitimate children would be badly raised by idle and immoral parents, and inevitably turn to crime. This kind of ‘broken homes’ rhetoric was re-used throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and meant that communities often stigmatised illegitimate individuals out of suspicion and fear.

Parents worried about stigma and tried to mitigate it, sometimes by keeping their children’s illegitimacy secret. Many families encouraged children to keep their head down and accept their disadvantage, out of fear that they would alienate people if they campaigned for equality. Letters and diaries written by illegitimate individuals indicate that they did strongly feel the negative impact of illegitimacy. Many of them felt that they had been held back from fulfilling their potential, and that it had damaged their relationships with parents and family. Significantly, though, most illegitimate individuals were not ashamed of their illegitimacy, and did not feel that it damaged their sense of self worth. Even when parents, families and communities acknowledged that it was unfair to stigmatise children for their parents’ actions, no one advocated a complete abolition of the illegitimacy laws. This shows how central legitimate paternity and marriage were to the functioning of English society at this time.

NOTCHES: What does the history of illegitimacy tell us about attitudes to sexuality in the long eighteenth century, and about the priorities and prejudices of eighteenth-century society more generally?

KG: I think it shows us that attitudes were far more flexible than they first seem. There was a big gap between ideals and practice; individuals and communities were able to condemn sex outside marriage as a concept, whilst fully engaging in it. People clearly did not practice what they preached, and the punitive laws often hid considerable tolerance at an interpersonal level. I found that most families and communities reacted to illegitimacy with pragmatism; complete abandonment of children was rare, and although most families did not see it as an ideal situation, they usually worked together to ensure children were looked after and valued them as family members, particularly later in the period.

I think attitudes towards illegitimacy reflect a deep-seated anxiety about female sexuality in particular, which other historians such as Lisa Forman Cody and Laura Gowing have written about. At its heart, illegitimacy is about the uncertainty of paternity, and the fear of women’s power to name a father, damage their reputation and force them to pay maintenance. The control of female sexual power was a major priority in eighteenth-century society, and one way this was achieved was through the illegitimacy laws.

NOTCHES: What challenges did you face in writing this book, particularly in terms of source material? Were there any questions that you were unable to answer, or anything that you had to leave out?

KG: From the beginning I tried to prioritise the voices of illegitimate individuals themselves. This was partly a historiographical decision; most books about illegitimacy focused on the experiences of parents, with the children appearing mainly as infants. In many sources they are not even named. I wanted to investigate the impact of illegitimacy across their entire lifetimes, to get a better sense of its significance in the past, but also to highlight illegitimate individuals’ agency. This was difficult, partly because the survival of life-writing and correspondence by illegitimate individuals is very patchy. I ended up with relatively more material from elite and middling individuals than I would have liked because material from illegitimate labouring authors doesn’t survive in large enough numbers before the nineteenth century boom in working-class writing.

With a phrase familiar to historians of crime, there will always be this ‘dark figure’ of illegitimacy, the thousands of children who we just don’t know about. It’s probable that I only uncovered the family secrets that were badly kept, and it’s frustrating that so much material about illegitimate experience will have been destroyed out of this desire for secrecy.

NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?

KG: Illegitimacy was still a legal category until 1987. Until that point illegitimate children had far more limited rights to inheritance, as well as things like citizenship inherited through parents. Illegitimacy was severely stigmatised throughout the twentieth century; unmarried mothers in particular were restricted from many types of state support, including council housing, and many families worked very hard to keep illegitimacy secret. We know from the work of sociologists like Ashley Barnwell that secrecy on this scale can cause considerable trauma, which can be inherited down the generations. The policing of illegitimacy and any family type considered ‘deviant’ was used to justify atrocities against children and their families, including the Irish Mother and Baby Homes scandal, forced adoptions, or the institutionalisation of children throughout the British empire. We are still living with these legacies. Research into illegitimacy in any time period can help to combat a culture of secrecy, by amplifying the experiences of the families affected and continuing to question any social or legal construct that stigmatises and restricts opportunity.

NOTCHES: What are you working on now that your book is published?

KG: I have just started a new three-year project, funded by the Leverhulme foundation, looking at the history of fostering and adoption in Britain between 1700 and 1839. Before the adoption laws of the twentieth century, fostering and adoption were largely unregulated, informal means of caring for children. I’m going to be exploring the motives behind fostering and adoption, including as a way of distributing the costs of childcare, of cementing family bonds of affection and obligation, as a way of coping with biological childlessness, or of moving children across the British Empire and inculcating particular racial or religious identities. The project investigates whether fostered or adopted children were seen as part of the household and kinship families, and its effect on children’s sense of identity. Research into fostering and adoption has implications for our understanding of central issues in British history in this period, including the significance of parenthood to gendered identities, the labour of women and children, the ‘family business’, and the inheritance of status and property.

Kate Gibson is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Manchester. She is a historian of the family and inequality in eighteenth-century Britain, and has published in the Historical Journal, Past and Present and Cultural and Social HistoryIllegitimacy, Family, and Stigma in England, 1660-1834 is her first book, and was published by Oxford University Press in 2022. She tweets from @KateGibson22


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