“Some fa­thers are recorded as de­sert­ing to the Cape, France or the East Indies to avoid pay­ing main­te­nance”

New re­search has re­vealed how un­mar­ried moth­ers in 18th and 19th-cen­tury Lon­don were sup­ported by an early ver­sion of to­day’s Child Sup­port Agency. Dr Sa­man­tha Wil­liams (left), who con­ducted the study, ex­plains the fi­nan­cial obli­ga­tions ex­pected from fat

BBC History Magazine - - History Now / News - Dr Sa­man­tha Wil­liams is se­nior lec­turer in his­tory at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge’s In­sti­tute of Con­tin­u­ing Ed­u­ca­tion, and au­thor of Un­mar­ried Moth­er­hood in the Me­trop­o­lis, 1700–1850 (Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2018)

When were fa­thers legally re­quired to pro­vide fi­nan­cial sup­port for their il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren? Leg­is­la­tion passed be­tween 1576 and 1810 es­tab­lished and strength­ened the le­gal links be­tween chil­dren and their re­puted fa­thers.

An act of 1576 spec­i­fied that par­ents of ‘Bas­tards now be­ing left to be kept at the Charge of the Parish where they be born’ were fi­nan­cially re­spon­si­ble rather than the parish ratepay­ers. This changed in 1733 to say that “any Sin­gle woman [who] shall be de­liv­ered of a Bas­tard Child which shall be charge­able or likely to be­come charge­able” was to be brought by the parish to be ex­am­ined on oath be­fore two mag­is­trates in or­der to prove the child’s pa­ter­nity. She would then be re­quired to “charge any per­son with hav­ing got­ten her with child” and the pu­ta­tive fa­ther was then asked to pay to­wards the up­keep of his off­spring. What ex­penses were fa­thers li­able for? There were a va­ri­ety of ex­penses and dif­fer­ent ways to pay. All fa­thers were ex­pected to re­coup the parish of the costs of child­birth and the mother’s ly­ing-in for a month (mid­wife, childbed linen, nurs­ing etc) as well as any le­gal fees as­so­ci­ated with get­ting him to court and the or­der of fil­i­a­tion (to link the child and par­ent) be­ing made. He might then pay a lump sum, some­times in in­stal­ments, and dis­charge any fur­ther re­spon­si­bil­ity. Some men were or­dered to pay a weekly main­te­nance sum. The age when ‘nur­ture’ from a mother might be ex­pected to stop was seven years old and many men paid main­te­nance for seven years. How­ever, some men paid for up to 15 years.

So-called bas­tardy books were used to record fi­nan­cial de­tails, such as sums or­dered and ac­tu­ally paid and the du­ra­tion of main­te­nance. How did parishes en­sure fa­thers paid? Fa­thers were asked to en­ter into a bond of £80 to £200 – a very sub­stan­tial sum at the time. This could be called in if the fa­ther de­faulted or died. They could also be im­pris­oned in a house of cor­rec­tion for up to three months for fail­ure to pay, and re­ceive time on the tread­mill.

I found that one-fifth of fa­thers is­sued with fil­i­a­tion or­ders in St Ge­orge the Mar­tyr, South­wark be­tween 1822 and 1832, were sent to houses of cor­rec­tion ei­ther for want of sureties or for re­fusal to pay ly­ing-in costs and/or weekly main­te­nance sums. Such sen­tences were of­ten ef­fec­tive in ei­ther get­ting the men to pay up or to marry the moth­ers of their chil­dren. Some men might also de­cide to raise the child them­selves.

Re­cov­er­ing costs was not an easy task. Bas­tardy books re­veal the con­stant dif­fi­culty of re­coup­ing money from men over many years. Some fa­thers are even recorded as de­sert­ing to the Cape, France, the East Indies, Ire­land or Scot­land or sim­ply ‘abroad’ to avoid pay­ing.

Poor chil­dren are put up for elec­tion in or­der to gain en­trance to a char­i­ta­ble in­sti­tu­tion in this 1865 paint­ing by Ge­orge El­gar Hicks. Fa­thers were legally obliged to sup­port their il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren but not all did

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