"The Black Lamb of the Black Sheep": Illegitimacy in the English Working Class, 1850-1939

By Frost, Ginger | Journal of Social History, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

"The Black Lamb of the Black Sheep": Illegitimacy in the English Working Class, 1850-1939


Frost, Ginger, Journal of Social History


The plight of illegitimate children was a well-known trope in Victorian fiction, and a concern to reformers of marriage law as well as those who worked for children's rights. England's bastardy laws were the harshest of Europe. An illegitimate child was literally parentless at law, and even the subsequent marriage of the parents could not legitimize their offspring. Wilkie Collins, who fathered three illegitimate children, castigated English law about this point in No Name, through his character Mr. Pendril:

   I am far from defending the law of England.... On the contrary,
   I think it a disgrace to the nation. It visits the sins of the
   parents on the children; it encourages vice by depriving fathers
   and mothers of the strongest of all motives for making the
   atonement of marriage; and it claims to produce these two
   abominable results in the names of morality and religion. (1)

Though the illegitimacy laws had many conservative defenders, even those who championed English practice admitted that the sanctions were meant to punish the parents through their children, a morally dubious action; furthermore, the laws meant that England had many children existing in a legal limbo. As a result, the issue never entirely disappeared from public discourse, though the law of illegitimacy did not see any change until 1926--and even then the reforms were mild. Through the late Victorian period to World War II and even beyond, bastardy was a serious stigma legally, socially, and emotionally.

Many historians have studied the history of childhood in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, but these studies have rarely made any distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children. (2) Studies of illegitimacy, on the other hand, have been mostly demographic in nature, charting the rise and fall of illegitimate births, or have focused on the legal and cultural discourse on illegitimacy--e.g., on middle-class attempts to reclaim "fallen" women, on the legal position of unmarried women, or on how unmarried mothers coped with their difficult situation in a harsh climate . (3) Though these are all valid approaches, I would like to focus on the children rather than their mothers, and more on their experiences than on the discourses written about them. By doing so, I hope to look at the history of childhood and the family from a different perspective from those "living outside the law." (4)

Because of the large scope of this subject, I will limit the pool by class, concentrating on the working class, particularly those who tried to be "respectable." I will also center on family relationships rather than on the experience of children in institutions, though I will include some who moved in and out of state care. (It would be impossible to identify children who ended up dealing exclusively with state or with private charities, since many poor families had to resort to a variety of institutions to survive bad times.) Finally, I am concentrating on the Victorian period and the early 20th century, ending in 1939 with the beginning of World War II. However, I recognize that many of these stories are not confined to these discrete years and so may sometimes overstep these boundaries; in addition, the experience of illegitimacy did not necessarily change due to the very limited reforms in 1926 or when the dislocations of war made the status more common between 1914-8 and after 1939.

I have used several different kinds of sources to try to explore the experience of illegitimacy. First, I have read the autobiographies and memoirs of children in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, both legitimate and illegitimate, but focusing more on those of illegitimate children. Some of the most celebrated figures of this period were born out of wedlock and into poverty, including Henry Stanley and Catherine Cookson, but several less famous illegitimates have also left thoughtful memoirs. …

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