Keeping track of illegitimacy

Tettenhall parish went to great lengths to keep tabs on the fathers of illegitimate children. I know this because I have spent the last four or five sessions in Stafford copying out the examinations and filiation orders that the parish sought in relation to ‘bastardy’ and reading the account books they kept to ensure that money flowed in.

Bastardy examinations required the mothers of illegitimate children to ‘swear’ to the likely paternity, while filiation orders were signed when men acknowledged their children and agreed to pay towards their maintenance.  Tettenhall typically secured payments to mothers and children of between one shilling and two shillings per week, until the child reached the age of nine.  Nine was not taken as a marker of adulthood, merely of the child’s likely ability to contribute to their own upkeep.

All of this was quite normal in early-nineteenth-century parishes.  Less usual, though, was the meticulous way in which Tettenhall monitored fathers’ payments.  Filiation orders could be a blunt or ineffective legal instrument, as men either gradually ceased payment or if they left the area, but this was one parish which tracked and logged fathers’ payments effectively.  In the accounting year 1819-20, this policy yielded an additional income of £77 13s 9d (that is to say, income over and above the parish poor rate) to help defray commitments to mothers.  The ‘bastardy book’ spanning 1819 to 1828 contains information on 24 illegitimate births, while filiation orders give details of a further 21 cases 1829-34 (in a parish numbering 2618 inhabitants in 1831).

Most men and women appeared in the accounts only once.  Fathers covered a wide social sweep, though, as unskilled labourers were joined in the accounts by farmers, publicans, attorney’s clerks and clockmakers.  Perhaps most intriguing is the filation order for Richard Fowke, gentleman, in support of Sarah Coates’s son born 3 June 1828.  Fowke was the name of the parish surgeon, and Richard was quite possibly one of his sons.  Both the surgeon and the father gave their address as Wolverhampton.

This social breadth among fathers introduces an interesting possibility.  Up to now, we have been assuming that local tradesmen might have benefited from the regularity of custom and payment associated with supplying the poor law.  But some men clearly supplied it in other ways, by adding to its ‘bastardy’ work and augmenting parish income accordingly.  We will need to find out whether there was a significant minority of men who encountered the parish in multiple ways, as suppliers, ratepayers and errant fathers.