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Mother or reputed father
parent abodes or document place

Illegitimacy index, 1559-1923

Illegitimacy: important note regarding use of terminology

Historically, the term “bastardy” was in day-to-day use to refer to illegitimacy and the term “bastard” to refer to a person born out of wedlock. Again historically, there were legal disabilities attached to the state of illegitimacy, for example, an illegitimate man could not legally be ordained a priest. These terms were therefore legal terms, although they could still be used as pejorative terms of abuse, as they are today.


Genealogists’ trails often end with the discovery of an illegitimate child, as the father’s name was excluded from a baptism entry or a General Register Office birth or marriage certificate. However, there are many other sources that can be used to identify the father.

When an unmarried woman was found to be pregnant, or after the birth of her child, it was in the interests of the parish to identify the putative father. This was because it was highly likely that the woman would be unable to support her child. The child’s maintenance costs would then become the responsibility of the parish.

The Bastardy Act of 1575/76 gave parish officers powers to investigate the paternity of illegitimate children, in order to place responsibility for their maintenance where it belonged, with the putative father, and relieve parish ratepayers of the financial burden.

This process led to a range of documentation created by parish officials and, where cases were more complex, local magistrates’ courts. These sources can provide valuable information for the researcher. Specific types of document are described below.

What the Index includes

When the index was initially created all surviving bastardy and settlement documents found in the Staffordshire Parish Poor Law lists (deposited before January 2020) at Staffordshire Record Office in Stafford were searched, including:

  • Bond “to save the parish harmless” (“bastardy bond” or recognizance) – a legal undertaking by the putative father or another paternal relative to maintain an illegitimate child
  • Examinations of mothers regarding their child’s paternity (“bastardy examinations”)
  • Summonses of putative fathers to attend court (“bastardy summonses”)
  • Warrants to apprehend putative fathers (“bastardy warrants”) – warrants issued to parish constables, empowering them to apprehend a putative father and ensure that they attended court
  • Filiation orders (“bastardy orders”) – court orders settling responsibility for the maintenance of an illegitimate child, usually on the putative father. Orders were issued by the magistrates following an application by the parish officers. In the mid-nineteenth century the responsibility for seeking a court order was placed on the mother of the child.
  • Removal orders – an order of the justices that a pauper be removed to their place of legal settlement, which might also include information about the paternity of a child.
  • Settlement certificates – certificates issued to people moving district by parish officers, certifying their place of legal settlement
  • Settlement examinations – examinations of paupers by parish officers to determine their place of legal settlement
  • Correspondence
  • Miscellaneous papers

At the end of this process, the index was enlarged by searching other sources that could contain useful information about parents of illegitimate children. The task was too great to search through the complete series of all the additional records, so a selection of entries from each source was chosen to give some idea of the information that they held:

  • Church courts, such as the Consistory Court of Lichfield
  • Magistrates Courts: Quarter Sessions, Petty Sessions
  • Assize Courts
  • Parish account books
  • Parish registers
  • Poor Law Union guardians’ minute books
  • Probate records

Most of the documents searched are held by the Staffordshire Record Office, although some are held elsewhere, for example, The National Archives (TNA).


When searching the index, look for all possible spelling variants of surnames.

If an entry is found in this index, do check the original document as it might well include extra information. For example, in bastardy bonds, always check to see the names of other bondsmen or women, as they are often related to the family. In a bastardy bond, if the putative father was not specifically named, the names of all the bondsmen and women were noted.

Place names

Where places are in Staffordshire, the county name is not included. Where a place is not a parish, and the parish name is not given in the document, we have provided the parish name in square brackets wherever possible to aid searching. Where a place is outside Staffordshire, and the county name is not given in the document, we have provided the county name in square brackets.


We are able to supply images from the Quarter Sessions rolls, such as the indictments, unless the document is in poor condition.

In the vast majority of cases the cost will range from £8 to £16, depending upon whether scanning or photography is required.


We are grateful to Sue Gill for her time and hard work, without which this online index would not have been possible.