My ancestor was illegitimate, how do I trace them?

At our local carnival recently I held my first trade stand. I spoke to many people who had started conducting their own family history research using one of the commercial websites only to come up against a brick wall because on one or more of their ancestral lines an ancestor was illegitimate.

When I started researching my family history I came across this very problem on my maternal line. It had in fact always been said that my maternal great grandfather (my grandmother’s father) never knew who his father was, so it was no surprise when I researched that side of my family to find no father was named on either his birth or marriage certificate.

My great grandfather was born Fred Sheard Oldfield in 1892. His mother was Mary Ann Oldfield. HIs birth register entry gave his mother’s maiden name as Turner, thus his mother had been married. So why was his father not on the birth certificate?

Fred Sheard Oldfield baptism
Baptism register entry
Marriage Certificate (Parish register copy)

Searching for a marriage register entry for Mary Ann found she had married Tom Oldfield in 1876. They had one child together, Joseph Oldfield born the same year. Joseph sadly died at the age of three in 1880. Tom and Mary Ann were found in the 1881 and 1891 census returns together. The 1891 census return suggested they had had no further children, at least none that were listed with them.

Marriage Certificate for Tom and Mary Ann (parish register copy)

By 1901 I found Mary Ann was listed as a widow, housekeeper to Fred Sheard with my great grandfather, Fred Sheard Oldfield listed as “son” to the head of the household, Fred Sheard. As it was often the case that an illegitimate child was given the name or surname of the father and no other connection to the name “Sheard” had been found it seemed likley this answered the question as to who my great grandfather’s father was.

Searching the wider family of Mary Ann, I also found Fred Sheard boarding with her brother in the 1891 census. So this explains how they met!

But when was Mary Ann made a widow? After all my great grandfather was given the surname Oldfield, his mother’s married name. Had he been given the middle name “Sheard” because of his biological father or for some other reason? Had Fred Sheard simply been a support for her after her husband died and therefore the name had been given to my great grandfather as a gesture of that kindness or similar?

She was listed with her husband Tom in the 1891 census was had been taken on the night of 5th April 1891 and my great grandfather was born on the 12th May 1892. Assuming he was not premature, and there are no records to suggest he was, my great grandfather was conceived in August 1891.

Searching for death record for her husband Tom, found that he died on the 30th November 1895 in the Union Workhouse. This proved that Tom was still living when my great grandfather was born.

Going back to the records, Mary Ann was originally from Kellington near Pontefract in West Yorkshire. Tom was from Huddersfield and West Yorkshire. They married and lived their married life in and around Huddersfield. Mary Ann’s siblings remained in the Kellington area and this is in fact where my great grandfather was born and baptised.

My theory therefore at this stage was that perhaps Tom had become ill and entered the workhouse and Mary Ann had gone to stay with her brother and his family and met Fred Sheard then. Checking the workhouse records, neither Mary Ann or my great grandfather were in the workhouse with Tom in the workhouse however Tom was only admitted a few weeks before his death. There were no entries for him having been admitted in 1892.

So was Tom the father? It would explain why my great grandfather always said he never knew his father as he would have only been three years old when he did and could not remember him. But why would a married father not be named on the birth certificate or baptism register?

All the clues were pointing to Fred Sheard being the father. Mary Ann must have had an affair? I therefore turned to DNA testing.

My grandmother was one of ten children, but by 2019 when I had decided DNA testing was the way forward, only the youngest sibling was still living. My great aunt was very happy to take the test.

The test results found cousin matches to the maternal side of Fred Sheard and through traditional family history research I was able to confirm Fred Sheard was the father of Fred Sheard Oldfield my great grandfather. I was also able to identify the father of Fred Sheard thus taking this line baack a further two generations.

Unfortunately there were no cousin matches in the Sheard side of the family and thus that line has now hit a further brick wall. Using traditional online records, there are several possible families with the same names in the same area and my research really needs to move itno the local archives in West Yorkshire to try and confirm the next genertions but living in Surrey that is not an easy task!

I have however anaged to trace the maternal line of Fred Sheard (the Goldthorpe family) back a further three generations using a combination of the DNA matches and traditional records research. Again a visit to West Yorkshire archives may assist this line further!

Tracing your Illegitimate ancestors

You will probably have found some hints and tips in reading my experience of tracing illegitimate ancestors including:

  • Names – particularly middle names – could it also be a surname?
  • Where was the mother living?
  • Who was she living with in the census returns before and after the birth?
  • Had the mother been working and who for? In particular, had the mother been in domestic service?
  • If there is a suspected father, check if they left a will any any inheritance to the mother or child
  • Who were the neighbours?
  • Are there any connections with the childs name? If so it may be worth research those individuals in earlier census returns, did they have any other connection with the family?
  • Did the mother later marry?
  • Was the mother a widow? If so, when and who did she marry? What happened to the husband?
  • Did the mother have any other children? If so who was their father?
  • Did the illegitimate anestor marry? If so, was a father named on the marriage certificate and can you find any other conenction to that name?
  • Baptism records may include a father not registered
  • Newspapers

In addition, for pre civil registration ancestors, go “off-line” into the archives:

  • Parish records
  • Bastardy records
  • Settlement records
  • Apprenticeship records
  • Ecclesiastical court records
  • Poor Law/workhouse records

If you have a theory as to who the father of your illegitimate ancestors is, as in my case, a DNA test may help confirm your theory. See my next blog about DNA testing, cousin matches and your family history research.

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2 thoughts on “My ancestor was illegitimate, how do I trace them?

  1. Teresa (fhtess65) – I'm a writer, historian, and library technician, living on the Sunshine Coast, British Columbia with my husband, Sean, and our two cats. Originally from Ottawa, I studied history and then library and information technology, and now work as a library technician at the Sechelt Public Library. For more than 20 years I have been working on my family tree and now want to both document my genealogical research adventures and tell the family stories I have gathered.
    Teresa (fhtess65) says:

    Great advice…thanks 🙂 I have a line where three of my several great-grandmothers had their first (and in one case, all) their children before they married. I’ve tried following a couple of leads with no success … will try some of your tips as well!

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