“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
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