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Historian uncovers new evidence of 18th century London’s ‘Child Support Agency’

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The way in which 18th-and 19th-century London supported its unmarried mothers and illegitimate children – essentially establishing an earlier version of today’s Child Support Agency – is the subject of newly-published research by a Cambridge historian.

Dr Samantha Williams’ Unmarried Motherhood in the Metropolis: 1700-1850 reveals, using London’s few surviving ‘bastardy books’, how the parishes of Lambeth, Southwark and Chelsea chased the fathers of illegitimate babies – and the lengths some errant fathers went to in order to escape not only their moral and financial obligations, but the clutches of parish constables and the feared houses of correction.

 

Dr Williams’ research also reveals how inefficient London’s parishes were at extracting payment from the fathers of bastard children compared to other areas of the United Kingdom. Surviving records indicate that only 20 percent of unmarried fathers paid for their illegitimate children in Britain and Europe’s largest city – compared with around 80 percent in the West Riding of Yorkshire, for example.

However, even where fathers did not pay, metropolitan parishes continued to support illegitimate children, at times until they were 15 years old and at a relatively high weekly amount.

Supporting 'fallen women'

Dr Williams, who spent ten years researching the history of bastardy and poor law provision for the capital’s ‘fallen women’, also discovered that in Lambeth, a fifth of all fathers of illegitimate children were listed as ‘Titled/Gentlemen’ – despite making up only 7 percent of that parish’s population at the time. Other fathers were generally fellow servants or in working-class occupations.

Her research has also uncovered evidence of deep gender inequality in the law in the severity of punishments handed out to unmarried mothers and fathers with women sentenced, on average, to a year’s hard labour beating hemp for having children out of wedlock, compared to only three months’ imprisonment for men. However, the proportion of unmarried mothers and fathers sent to jail fell significantly until punishment was relatively rare.

Did fathers pay for their offspring?

“We already know a lot about what women’s sex lives were like during this period of history: who the fathers of their children were, how many times they had sex – but what we didn’t really know was did the fathers pay for their offspring?” said Dr Williams. “Did these women end up in the workhouse? What the archives show is that there was a very early version of the Child Support Agency in place in all towns and villages.

“Bastardy books must have existed in many parishes but very few now survive from the hundreds of parishes in and around London – at a time when illegitimacy was very high. The numbers of illegitimate children goes up and up after the Restoration from 1650-1850. Of all first births, half were pregnant brides and a quarter were illegitimate.

“It has always been the case that women were left holding the baby and we know women and children went into the workhouses, but without looking at the bastardy examination records, you don’t know if those children were illegitimate or not.”

The 1576 Poor Law

The Poor Law of 1576 formed the basis of English bastardy laws. Its purpose was to punish a bastard child's mother and putative father, and to relieve the parish from the cost of supporting the child. The poor, unlike the rich, sometimes ended up in prison for having children out of wedlock – with babies ending up in houses of correction alongside their mothers to avoid the parish having to pay for a wet or dry nurse.

Whether they went to the house of correction or not, illegitimate children were even more at risk from the fearful rates of infant mortality. Children born outside of marriage were around twice as likely to die as those born to married parents – a trend that continued until at least the early 20th century.

“The records show that although parish constables were actually quite skilled at finding fathers in the first place, they were really pretty bad at getting the money out of fathers in London,” added Williams. “Men could disappear easily, they could join the navy – I even came across one case where one man fathered five illegitimate children - then disappeared off to America and left them all.

“Lots of men defaulted on payments and ran away, but for those who remained, arrest warrants were issued and many were sent to prison to see if they could be squeezed. Many were literally put on the treadmill, most infamously at Brixton’s House of Correction.”

 

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