I have been transcribing two databases recently, the Register of births at Sion Baptist 1811-1837 (unusual for a baptist denomination to record births - thank you Rev Heyworth, for doing so and including both parents' names and their abode) and the baptism registers for Newchurh St Nicholas starting at the 16th century (extracting for entries for Bridge and variant). In both cases I was struck by the number of references to illegitimacy in the registers. Only the registers have been considered, I haven't looked at parish chest or poor law records.

illegitimacy can be assessed with reference to the illegitimacy rate (with reference to the number of women of child-bearing age) or the illegitimacy ratio (with reference to the total number of births in the population in question). As I have no indication of the number of potentially fecund females in the two congregations I have and to go with the illegitimacy ratios.

The ratios are:
  • Newchurch St Nicholas 1616-52: 17 illegitimates from 579 births i.e. 29/1000 births. This refers to all births, not just those from the Bridge family. Of interest, of the 122 baptisms of a child of a parent named Bridge between 1606 and 1738, 11 were illegitimate - 90/1000 births. Put it about a bit, the Bridges.
  • Sion Baptist 1811-1837: 38 illegitimates from 526 births i.e. 72/1000 births. The minister annotated where a baby had died but did not distinguish live births from stillbirths. Two women appear to have had two illegitimate births and one had three, two of these with the same man (or at least a man of the same name!)

This presupposes that a birth can be identified as illegitimate. According to Adair, a child is regarded as being illegitimate if:
  • he is identified as such in the registers
  • the father is described as 'reputed' or equivalent
  • the mother is described as 'concubine', single woman' or similar. For the Sion registers this includes the term 'aliter'.
  • the parents have different surnames
  • the child is given a surname other than that of the mother.

Illegitimacy in the first half of the C17 has been assessed by Price as being at 7/1000 births, but the evidence for this is not stated. If so Newchurch was somewhat above this figure. Braddock postulates that low illegitimacy rates in the early C17 were encouraged in part by a strong system of local officeholders. It may be that the relatively sparse population of Newchurch at this time mitigated against this.

Apparently illegitimacy was first assessed in 1842 at 66/1000 live births. It is said that illegitimacy rose almost threefold across C18, peaked at 1820s, declined then rose from the 1830s to peak in the middle of the century then declined until mid C20. It is said that socioeconomic rather than sexual factors drove the changes (Goose, 2006). Data from Vision of Britain suggests that, with a blip at the end of both world wars, illegitimacy remained pretty stable as about 5% between about 1910 and 1955, after which it gradually began to increase.

It is interesting that the illegitimacy ratio was at least equivalent if not higher than national data for the C19 congregation of Particular Baptists. I have no data regarding the local ratios compared to national ones. That confounded my theory that this relatively strict congregation would be more chaste.

Royle has suggested using the 1831 Clergyman's returns to assess illegitimacy at the parish level. He cites the 1831 census controller, John Rickman, as giving four reasons for under-recording of bastards:
  • neglect of incumbents to document that a particular entry referred to an illegitimate child
  • dissenters 'baptising after their own fashion, or not at all'
  • irreligious negligence
  • children dying before baptism.

And in Jan 1621/2, three consecutive baptisms were of bastards:

1621 illegitimates

Wonder if there was anything special about the previous April?

McFarlane has published an interesting paper on the social situation of illegitimates in pre-registration times, with an emphasis on the Essex village of Earls Colne.

Adair R, (1996) Courtship, Illegitimacy and Marriage in Early Modern England.