Poor Law Commissioners' Report of 1834

Prepared by: Senior, Nassau
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
London: H.M. Stationery Office
Pub. Date
Additional preparers include Edwin Chadwick. Includes testimony by Richard Whately.
12 of 17

[Part I, Section 7]


ONE subject remains to be considered, which, notwithstanding its importance, we have placed at the end of this portion of our Report, as it is a branch of the Poor Laws, distinguished from the rest, both as to the principles on which it is founded, and the evils which it has produced. This comprehends the support of illegitimate children, the relief afforded to their mothers, and the attempts to obtain the repayment of the expense from their supposed fathers.


By the first Act on this subject, the 18 Eliz., c. 3, s. 2, concerning bastards begotten and born out of lawful matrimony (an offence against God's law and man's law) the said bastards being now left to be kept at the charges of the parish where they be born, to the great burden of the same parish, and in defrauding of the relief of the impotent and aged, true poor of the same parish, and to evil example and encouragement of lewd life, it is enacted, that two justices of the peace, upon examination of the cause and circumstance, shall, by their discretion, take order as well for the punishment of the mother and reputed father, as also for the better relief of every such parish in part or in all; and for the keeping of every such child, by charging such mother or reputed father with the payment of money weekly, or other sustentation, for the relief of such child in such wise as they shall think convenient: and if after the same order by them subscribed under their hands, the said persons, viz., mother or reputed father, upon notice thereof, shall not, for their part, observe and perform the said order, every such party so making default to be committed to gaol, there to remain, except he, she, or they shall put in sufficient surety to perform the said order, or else personally to appear at the next general sessions of the peace, and also to abide such order as the justices of the peace then and there shall take in that behalf.


The object of this Act was merely to force the parents to support their child—a duty which appears to have been previously performed for them by the parish. Its failure may be inferred from the next Act on the subject, the 7 Jac. I. c. 4, s. 7, which "because great charge ariseth upon many places within this realm by reason of bastardy, besides the great dishonour of Almighty God, enacts that every lewd woman which shall have any bastard which may be chargeable to the parish shall be committed to the house of correction, there to be punished and set on work, during the term of one whole year; and if she shall eftsoons offend again shall be committed to the said house of correction as aforesaid, and there remain until she can put in good sureties for her good behaviour, not to offend so again;"—a sentence which, if executed, must often have been imprisonment for life. The 50 Geo. III. c. 51, s. 2, repeals this power, and enables the justices to sentence the woman to imprisonment for any period not less than six weeks, or more than one year.


It appears, by the 13 and 14 Car. II. c. 11, s. 19, that the previous Acts were defeated by the parent's running away out of the parish, and sometimes out of the country, leaving their children on the charge of the parish where they were born. The Act, therefore, enables the churchwardens and overseers for the poor of such parish where any bastard child shall be born, to take so much of the goods and chattels, and receive so much of the annual rent or profits of the lands of such putative father or mother as shall be ordered by any two justices of the peace for or towards the discharge of the parish for the bringing up and providing for such child.


By the 6 Geo. II. c. 31, and the 49 Geo. III. c. 68 (by which the former Act is repealed, and then re-enacted with some variations,) it is enacted, That if any single woman declare herself to be pregnant, and charge any person with being the father, it shall be lawful for any justice of the division, on the application of the overseers, or of any substantial householder, to issue his warrant for the immediate apprehending such person, and he is required to commit such person to gaol, unless he shall give security to indemnify the parish, or enter into a recognizance, with sufficient surety to appear at the quarter sessions, and to perform the order to be then made:—

"It seems," says Mr. Nolan, the principal text writer on the subject, "that proceedings under this statute may be altogether ex parte. No summons need issue to bring the person accused before the justice; and it appears unnecessary that he should be present at the woman's examination. When the reputed father is brought by warrant before the justice, the magistrate has no power to examine into the merits of the case, but is bound by the express terms of the statute to commit him to the common gaol or house of correction, unless he gives security, or enters into a recognizance with sufficient surety."*21


If there were no other objections to these laws, than that they place at the mercy of any abandoned woman, every man who is not rich enough to give security or find sureties, that they expose him to be dragged, without previous summons, on a charge made in his absence, before a tribunal which has no power to examine into the merits of the case; if these were their only faults, we should still feel it our duty to urge their immediate abolition. What can be conceived more revolting than a law which not only authorises but compels the oppression thus detailed by Captain Chapman:—

"At Exeter, an apprentice under eighteen years of age, was recently committed to the house of correction for want of security. It was admitted that there was no chance of his absconding, but the overseers said he had been brought for punishment. The woman stated that she was only three months gone with child; and thus the boy is taken from his work, is confined five or six months among persons of all classes, and probably ruined for ever, on the oath of a person with whom he was not confronted, and with whom he denied having had any intercourse."*22


The overseers, it seems, said, "that he had been brought for punishment." For what was he punished? For having committed the act with which he was charged? That act was an offence not punished by the English law. Whether punishable or not, he denied having committed it; and the tribunal which sentenced him, though competent to punish, was not competent even to hear his defence; he was punished simply for his youth, poverty, and friendlessness, for not being able to give security or find sureties; and his punishment was five or six months' imprisonment—a punishment severe even to hardened criminals, but absolutely ruinous to a boy of eighteen.


But these are not the only, they are not even the principal, objections to the enactments of which we have stated the substance. The mode in which they oppress the innocent, revolting as it is, is far less mischievous to society than that by which they punish the guilty. Without recurring to the proceedings which may take place during the mother's pregnancy, we will consider those which follow the birth of an illegitimate child. The mother, as a matter of course, requires the parish to support her child. The overseers apply to the magistrates, who make an order that the woman, and the man whom she swears to be the father, shall each pay to the parish a weekly sum for the child's support. The sum charged on the woman is scarcely ever exacted, as she is supposed to earn it by nursing the child. If the man, on demand, refuse to pay the sum charged on him, he may be imprisoned three months, and so, from time to time, while the order remains in force. Whatever is received from the man is paid over by the parish to the woman, and in almost every case the parish pays to the woman the sum, whatever it may be, that has been charged on the man, whether paid by him or not. The sum charged on the man varies from 7s. or 8s. a week to 1s. The average is about 3s. or 2s. 6d. in towns, and 2s. in the country; but generally higher if he is in good circumstances. In most cases the sum is as great, in many it is greater, than that for which a child can be put out to nurse, or than that which would be allowed by the parish if it were legitimate and its father dead. To the woman, therefore, a single illegitimate child is seldom any expense, and two or three are a source of positive profit. To the man, indeed, it is a burden, unless, as is frequently, perhaps we might say most frequently, the case, he avoids it by flying to some part of the country where he is unknown, or so distant from the scene of his delinquency as to make the expense of endeavouring to enforce payment a sufficient motive to leave him unmolested. Still more frequently, however, as soon as he finds that the evil of becoming the father of a bastard is otherwise inevitable, he avoids it by marrying the woman during her pregnancy—a marriage of which we may estimate the consequences, when we consider that it is founded, not on affection, not on esteem, not on the prospect of providing for a family, but on fear on one side, and vice on both.


We will support these statements and inferences by the following passages from the evidence:—


1st.—With respect to the pecuniary indemnity, and in many, and those the most aggravated cases, the pecuniary benefit offered to the woman for her incontinency.

"Colonel A'Court, J.P., Castleman's, near Maidenhead, Berks, June, 1832.

"The certainty of women obtaining care and provision for themselves during pregnancy and birth of children born in bastardy, as well as parish allowance for the maintenance of their children so born, tends to remove those checks to irregular intercourse which might otherwise operate were they in such cases left more dependent upon the honour and ability of the men to support them in such difficulties. No restraint is now imposed by necessity of circumstances to influence women to observe caution or forbearance, or even decent scruples, in their choice. Middle-aged women will sometimes unblushingly swear mere lads to be the fathers of their bastard children; lads whom they have perhaps enticed to the commission of the offence. I have seldom observed any diffidence in women in passing through the forms prescribed by the laws for the affiliation of bastards; but I have witnessed a disposition on their parts to persuade the magistrates to order the weekly payment by the men as heavy as possible, which being invariably paid by the parish to the woman, she considers as a sort of pension to herself."*23


"John Kirkham, Assistant Overseer, Louth, Lincolnshire, has had six Parishes at a time under his charge.

"With respect to the women, in the course of my personal acquaintance with those parishes I have had to manage, as well as from extensive inquiry, I find there are numbers in most parishes who have from two to four children, receiving different sums of money with each, according to the ability of the putative father; so that the sum the woman receives with the whole of the children, and what the mother can earn, enables them to live as comfortably, or indeed more so, than most families in the neighbourhood. It may be truly said, that the money she receives is more than sufficient to repay her for the loss her misconduct has occasioned her, and it really becomes a source of emolument, and is looked upon by others as an encouragement to vice. Many of those escape punishment of any sort, and if some of them go to the house of correction for 12 months, it appears to have very little effect either upon them or upon the morals of others."*24


"John Dodgson, Roanstrees, Parish of Bewcastle, Cumberland.

"We, at this time, in our parish, are supporting two bastard children whose mothers have landed property of their own, and would not marry the fathers of their children. The daughters of some farmers, and even land-owners, have bastard children, who keep their daughters and children with them, and regularly keep back their poor-rate to meet the parish allowance for their daughters' bastards. We have no doubt the same grievance exists in many other parishes."*25


"Edward Tregaskis, Vestry Clerk, Penryn St. Gluvias, Cornwall.

"We know, and are satisfied, from long and serious observation and facts occurring, that continued illicit intercourse has, in almost all cases, originated with the females; many of whom, under our knowledge, in this and neighbouring parishes, do resort to it as a source of support, taking advantage of the kindness of the provisions for the nurture of the offspring from their own known inability to contribute, and thus receive the fixed weekly allowances from the parish officers; and a deliberate repetition of offence gives them in this manner a right to claim the allowances, which, when added together according to the number of their children generally with them, is sufficient in many cases to afford support."*26


"At Totness," says Captain Chapman, "the sum ordered upon putative fathers varies from 1s. 3d. to 2s. 6d., according to means; the whole is given to the mother, whether paid to the parish or not, the order being considered as an order upon the parish itself; one case of a person having absconded some years ago, on whom an order was made for 2s. 6d., the parish continued to pay the full amount. In addition to the allowance, the mothers receive clothing.

"A widow, with a legitimate child, would in no instance receive more than 1s. 6d. per week.

"It was a matter of general notoriety that such persons receive money from those with whom they may have had intercourse, to induce them not to affiliate upon them, but to swear to some poor man who is frequently paid, and from whom nothing can be recovered. At Liskeard, the assistant overseer informed me, that a person of respectability had within a few days paid an allowance or composition for a bastard, and lamented that he had been such a fool as to refuse to give the mother a small sum, which she had asked for, and then would have sworn to some other person. Instances of such arrangements are said to be very common. In garrisons in particular, it is a common practice to swear the child to a soldier, from whom nothing can be recovered, and who can only be sent to the tread-wheel for a short time. Indeed, so general is the system of compromise, that it was the opinion of the most experienced parochial officers, that, from ignorance and wilful perjury combined, nine bastards in ten are falsely sworn in towns. But I heard of no instance of punishment for perjury, and believe that they are of very rare occurrence."*27


"In some districts," says Mr. Majendie, "the custom prevails of overseers paying over to the mother of a bastard the sum directed by the order of maintenance, whether it be recovered from the father or not, and this comes under the denomination of 'Pay' in pauper language. The sum allowed to the mother of a bastard is generally greater than that given to the mother of a legitimate child; indeed, the whole treatment of the former is a direct encouragement to vice. If a young woman gets into trouble, she is probably taken into a workhouse, where she is better lodged and fed than at any period of her former life, and maintained perhaps for a year in perfect idleness; it is not wonderful, then, that she comes back under the same circumstances; hence the bastardy debt sometimes amounts to 500l. or 600l. in agricultural parishes; not more than one-fifth of the expense is recovered from the fathers, and that subject to the deduction of heavy law expenses.

"In Croydon the number of bastards in the house is 12, out of the house 88=100; the vicinity of London is considered a cause of this large number. The total annual expense is, on an average, 500l., of which about one-fifth is recovered from the fathers; the order of maintenance is from 2s. to 3s. per week, according to the circumstances of the father, and is paid to the mother whether received from the father or not; to the mother of a legitimate child, if in distress, the weekly allowance is 2s.: thus the mother of a bastard is, at all events, as well provided for, and it may be better."*28


"The administration of the laws on bastards," says Captain Pringle, "are the cause of great evils, without appearing to have almost any redeeming quality.

"The allowance made to the mother for the support of her child, and secured to her by the parish in case of the putative father failing to pay the amount awarded, is an encouragement to the offence; it places such women in a better situation than many married women, whatever may be the number of children.

"The system of making the allowance vary from 1s. up to 5s. per week, according to the circumstances of the putative father, is an inducement to false swearing. It appears even to be a cause of leading the parish officer to encourage the woman to pick out a 'good man,' for the latter can easily be made to pay; whilst servants, labourers, and mechanics often escape; so that from one-half to one-third is never recovered from the father, and, consequently, comes as a charge on the parish.

"Parish aid has a tendency to remove all shame: thus, in Cumberland, the daughters of farmers sometimes claim such allowance, or it is claimed by their fathers, and deducted out of their payment of poor-rates."*29


Mr. Tweedy:—

"Snaith, Yorkshire.—The usual order on the father has been 2s. per week, and the same on a second or third child; but now the magistrates seem determined to allow no more than 1s. 6d. If a woman has 2s. a week allowed for each child, she may save something on having a third child. There is one instance in Carleton of a woman who is now receiving 4s. for two children, and is about to have a third; and she said, if she had a third, she could live as well as any-body."*30


Mr. Cowell:—

"Swaffham, Norfolk.—A woman in a neighbouring parish had five illegitimate children, for which she was allowed 10s. per week, and 6s. for herself. She is now in the receipt of 18s. per week, the produce of successful bastardy adventures.

"My informant in this and the following instance was Mr. Sewell, clerk to the magistrates at Swaffham.

"A woman of Swaffham was reproached by the magistrate, Mr. Young, with the burdens she had brought upon the parish, upon the occasion of her appearing before him to present the parish with her seventh bastard. She replied, 'I am not going to be disappointed in my company with men to save the parish.' This women now receives 14s. a week for her seven bastards, being 2s. a head for each. Mr. Sewell informed me, that had she been a widow with seven legitimate children, she would not have received so much by 4s. or 5s. a week, according to their scale of allowance to widows. A bastard child is thus about 25 per cent. more valuable to a parent than a legitimate one. The premium upon want of chastity, perjury, and extortion, is here very obvious; and Mr. Sewell informed me that it is considered a good speculation to marry a woman who can bring a fortune of one or two bastards to her husband.

"Holbeach, Lincolnshire.—Informants, the overseer and master of the workhouse.

"Many illegitimate children—ten or twelve every year; bastards increasing; order from 1s. to 2s. 6d., and above—depends on the circumstances of the father.

"An unmarried girl, upon leaving the workhouse after her fourth confinement, said to the master, 'Well, if I have the good luck to have another child, I shall draw a good sum from the parish; and with what I can earn myself, shall be better off than any married woman in the parish;' and the master added, that she had met with the good luck she hoped for, as she told him, a short time before I was at Holbeach, that she was five months gone with child.

"I asked him what she had for each child?—He answered, 2s.; and that women, in that neighbourhood, could easily earn 5s. a week all the year through. Thus she will have 15s. a week.*31"


Mr. W. Sefton, Collector of the Poor Rates of Lambeth.—"I have had the care of the bastardy accounts of the parish for seven years; and I am of opinion, that the crime has greatly increased in our parish within that period, far more than in the proportion in which the population has increased.

"In cases where the children are affiliated, we pay over to the mothers all the sums we receive from the fathers under the order of the magistrates; and they vary from 2s. to 7s. a week; indeed, I know one case in which 8s. was awarded by the magistrates, and that sum has been paying for several years, and is still paid to the mother, who is now married and living respectably.*32"


Mr. George Chadwin, Vestry Clerk, and Mr. James Unwin, Overseer, of St. Mary, Battersea.—"We have many illegitimate children; and we think that the numbers have increased of late years. If a young woman has two or three bastard children, and receives 2s. 6d. a week for each, it is a little fortune to them. As soon as the children can run about, they can be taken into infant schools for 2d. a week, and kept from nine in the morning till five in the evening; so that the mothers can get their living by work, or waste their time in idleness.*33"


"In Sunderland," says Mr. Wilson, "the witnesses dwelt on the shocking inequality established in the bastard's favour over the legitimate child. A respectable widow would actually receive less for her children, than a prostitute for the offspring of promiscuous concubinage; and when the overseers endeavour to correct this sort of regimen, the first question asked them by the magistrates when summoned before them, without allowing them time to explain the reasons of their conduct, is, 'Why don't you pay the sum named in the order?' and this in the girl's presence, who is thus encouraged to claim her rights. Witness mentioned a case within his own personal cognizance, of a young woman of four-and-twenty, with four bastard children; she is receiving 1s. 6d. weekly for each of them. She told him herself, that if she had one more, she should be very comfortable. Witness added, 'They don't in reality keep the children; they let them run wild, and enjoy themselves with the money.'"*34


Secondly, as to its tendency to promote her marriage,—

"Charles Sawyer, Esq., J.P., Bray, Berks.

"In the case of poor people, the magistrates of the Maidenhead division of the county of Berks order the father of the bastard to pay 2s. a week for the maintenance of the child; and it sometimes happens, that if a woman has two or more bastard children, she is considered a good object of marriage on account of these weekly payments; and thus marriages are contracted which are in the end productive of misery to the parties and of injury to the community, by becoming the source of a disorderly and profligate population."*35


"The charge of bastardies," says Mr. Power, "is accompanied by a very large share of mischievous and immoral consequences. The disgrace, such as it is, is the only punishment which awaits the mother; the other difficulties affect neither her nor her relations. The usual allowance of 2s. guaranteed by the parish, makes an illegitimate child a less incumbrance, almost by half, than a legitimate one. But the most active inducement to incontinence in the female, is the prospect of all being cured by a forced marriage, the usual consequence of a state of pregnancy in country parishes. Accordingly, it is found, and the fact is so flagrant as to make a part of all testimony on this subject, that the female in very many cases becomes the corruptor; and boys, much under the age of twenty, are continually converted by this process into husbands. At Girton, a small village about four miles from Cambridge (population 330 in 1831), I was told that twelve marriages had taken place within the parish during the last year, and that all the parties were very young. It is difficult to say whether the Bastardy Laws, or the system of relief, have the greatest effect in the promotion of those early marriages."*36


"Bastardy," says Mr. Villiers, "leads to marriage. At Bulkington, in Warwickshire, Mr. Warner stated, that he had lately questioned the clergymen of the parish, as to the proportion of pregnant women among the poor whom he married, and his reply was, 'not less than nineteen out of every twenty.' Having repeated this statement to the clergyman at Beckenhill, in the same county, he said that it precisely corresponded with his experience in his own parish.

"At Nuneaton, the solicitor to the parish, Mr. Greenaway, stated, that his house looked into the churchyard; that he was in the habit purposely of watching the persons resorting to the church for marriage, and that he could confidently say, that seventeen out of every twenty of the female poor who went there to be married were far advanced in pregnancy."*37


"Where early marriages are complained of," says Mr. Richardson, "that is every where, I have also been told that the women, as they feel no disgrace, either in their own eyes, or in those of others, at becoming the mothers of bastards, have still less reluctance in allowing the claims of a husband to anticipate the marriage ceremony, in fact they are almost always with child when they come to the church. I heard from the brother of a clergyman living at a parish which I had not time to visit, that his brother being anxious to reform the morals of his parish, had preached for some years with great vigour and plainness of speech against this custom, and had offered rewards to any woman whose first child was not born within a given time. It was only given once, and even then it turned out that the clergyman had been deceived. This parish, I believe, was a very bad one, for the corruption had extended there to rather a higher grade of society than the common labourers; but so far as they are concerned, the experiment might be repeated with the same ill success in all the pauperized villages in the country."*38


"In the parish of Midhurst," says Mr. Maclean, "there has been no increase of chargeable bastards, but a great increase of marriages to prevent it; and these, though not compulsory on the part of the parish, take place under the impression, that it is better for them to receive an allowance for a legitimate, than to be liable to a weekly payment for an illegitimate child.*39

"In the parish of Cranley, with a population of 1350, the number of bastards chargeable does not average one in the year, as the man marries the woman as soon as she is with child, in the expectation of being better off. The order is generally 2s. on the father, and nothing on the mother.*40

"Several clergymen told me that four-fifths of the women are with child, and frequently near their confinement at the time of their marriage, and that this want of chastity may be attributed in a great measure to the law of bastardy, which secures to the woman either a husband or a weekly allowance for the support of the child."*41


"Bastardy," says Mr. Walcott, "is a growing evil in Wales. The laws on this subject were universally condemned, not only as inefficient to indemnify the parish and repress the mischief, but as operating directly to cause its increase. I found, that in practice, so far from punishing the female, they intercept one of the punishments naturally consequential on the offence, the burthen of supporting a child; they hold out to her, if not a pecuniary reward, in many instances, the powerful aid of parish officers in obtaining a husband; they effect, and often by the most shameful practices, marriages which ought to have been discountenanced; they encourage perjury on the woman's part, to the injury and disgrace of innocent persons; they convert into vagrants and dissolute characters, many of the industrious; and worse than all, they tend to induce the crime of abortion, from the interest they give the man in preventing a birth, which presents the alternative of a prison, or (to him) a heavy weekly expense. Instances were mentioned to me of applications to medical practitioners, by males, for drugs for this purpose.

"A detail of all the instances adduced to exemplify the operation of these laws would be tedious, but on the subject of improper marriages it may be observed, that where the female is of a different parish to the male, the officers of her parish, upon default in payment under the order of maintenance (to use the expression of one of my informants) sometimes, 'takes the woman in one hand and a warrant in the other, and gives the man the option of going to church, or to gaol.' An aggravated case of this sort was related to me by a clergyman, where a man to whom a child had been affiliated by a woman of loose character, in order to avoid the imprisonment with which he was threatened, consented to marry her; but lest he should change his mind and abscond before a special license was obtained, he was kept under lock and key, and ultimately led handcuffed to the churchdoor. As soon as the ceremony was over he quitted the neighbourhood. The object, however, was gained in the transfer of the female's settlement to another parish.

"One gentleman stated that in forty-nine out of every fifty marriages that he had been called on to perform in his parish amongst the lower orders, the female was either with child, or had had one and many affirmed this of nineteen out of twenty cases.

"The remedy which the majority of witnesses thought would meet most, if not all, of the present evils, would be to repeal the bastardy laws, and to make it unnecessary for parishes to interfere with illegitimate children, except they were orphans or deserted.

"The application of such a remedy to a first offence in North Wales, may perhaps seem too harsh, from the appearance of hardship in punishing one, whose fall a national custom may have greatly contributed to effect. But for a second or subsequent offence this could not be urged; and on the whole, I think the plan might be beneficially adopted. The natural consequences of misconduct would then be its punishment, and the motives for prudence, on the woman's part, rendered as powerful as they could now be made.

"I met with a striking instance, which proves that the female in these cases is generally the party most to blame; and that any remedy, to be effectual, must act chiefly with reference to her. In 1823, the then overseer of the parish of Machynlleth, who was represented to be of a strict and resolute character, made known his determination to punish every single woman offending in this way, and he kept his word; the consequence was, that in the two years succeeding his year of office, not one case of bastardy occurred in the parish; but in the third year, when the terror of his reign had somewhat abated, the evil recommenced with one case, and no punishment following, gradually increased to its former level.

"Desertion of children, with infanticide, were objections sometimes urged against the plan; but the great majority of clergymen, magistrates, and others, whom I examined on the subject, thought that the former would not be more frequent than at present; and that abortion and infanticide would be less frequent, not only from there being fewer cases to give rise to them, but because the man who in most instances is now the first to suggest these crimes, especially that of abortion, and to assist in their execution, would no longer have an interest in doing so; and the female left to herself, from maternal feelings, and natural timidity, would seldom attempt the destruction of her offspring. The repeal of the present laws would likewise deprive the man of a plea of great weight with the female, namely, that if she is likely to become a mother, he shall be compelled to marry her, or go to prison."*42


We will conclude this picture by the following extract from the evidence delivered by Mr. Simeon before the House of Lords' Committee on Poor Laws in 1831, p. 361, 362.

"The bastardy laws proceed upon the principle of indemnifying the parish, by throwing the onus of the bastard upon the father. Now I rather believe that we shall never be able to check the birth of bastard children by throwing the onus upon the man; and I feel strongly convinced, that until the law of this country is assimilated to the law of nature, and to the law of every other country, by throwing the onus more upon the females, the getting of bastard children will never be checked. Your Lordships are aware, that when a man has the misfortune to have a bastard child sworn to him, he is brought before a magistrate. The magistrates are placed in this predicament; they say to the man, 'Will you marry this woman, will you support the child, or will you go to prison?' The man very naturally says, 'I cannot support the child, for I have not got the means; out of 3s. 6d. a week, it is impossible to give 2s. a week, and I am exceedingly unwilling to go to Oxford gaol, and, therefore, of the three evils I will choose the least, and marry the woman, although it is probable that the child is not mine.' Your Lordships are aware, that when a bastard child is sworn to a man, the magistrates will not go into the question, whether the woman has had any connexion with any other man. The consequence is, that a woman of dissolute character may pitch upon any unfortunate young man whom she has inveigled into her net, and swear that child to him; and the effect of the law, as it now stands, will be to oblige the man to marry her. The consequence is, that the parish, instead of keeping one bastard child, has to keep half a dozen legitimate children, the result of the marriage. As far as regards the females the case is infinitely worse. You say to a woman—'As long as you continue virtuous and modest you have no chance of getting a husband, because, in the present state of things, the men are cautious about marrying; but if you will be intimate with any person you please, the law will oblige him to marry you.' You thus secure to her what every woman looks upon as the greatest prize—a husband. You thus make the vice of the woman the means of getting that which she is anxious to get; and I feel convinced that three-fourths of the women that now have bastard children would not be seduced, if it were not for the certainty that the law would oblige the man to marry.

"Is it not an unlawful act on the part of the magistrates?—The magistrates do not put it in so many words; but the man comes before the magistrate knowing perfectly well that such and such will be the case; and the magistrate would never venture to say to the man 'if you do not marry the girl I will send you to prison;' but the man knows that will be the case. For myself I am so convinced of the iniquity of the Bastardy Laws, that I have always refrained from acting upon them in my own house, and send the cases to the petty sessions.

"What alterations can you suggest in the Bastardy Laws?—By refusing to give any order upon the father for support, or upon the parish even. I would throw the onus entirely upon the woman. I know of many instances in which the mothers have themselves been instrumental in having their daughters seduced, for the express purpose of getting rid of the onus of supporting them, and saddling them upon any unfortunate young man of the neighbourhood whom they could get to the house. Now as long as their consent can meet with that result it will invariably be continued, and the population must go on increasing.

"Do you then attribute the rapid increase of the population very much to the effect of the Bastardy Laws in forcing early marriages?—Almost entirely."*43


The objects of these laws appear to be two: the diminution of the crime; and the indemnity of the parish when it has occurred. Of these the first is, of course, the most important. Unhappily both the attention of the legislature and the efforts of those who administer the law have been principally directed to the second; and with the usual fate of pauper legislation and pauper administration, the indemnity of the parish has not been effected, though every other object has been sacrificed to it. The guidance of nature has been neglected, the task of resistance has been thrown upon the man instead of the woman; marriages in which the least fault is improvidence, have been not only promoted but compelled; every possible inducement has been held out to perjury and profligacy, simply to save parishes from expense, and the direct effect has been, in all probability, to double or quadruple that expense,—the indirect effect to augment it still more. As far as we can judge from our returns, it appears that not one-half of the money paid by parishes to the mothers of bastards is recovered from the putative fathers, and that the portion so recovered is generally recovered at an enormous expense; on the other hand, whenever an unmarried female becomes pregnant in a parish of which she is not a parishioner, a new and artificial expense is created by her removal to her place of legal settlement. Captain Pringle states, that in a Cumberland parish the clergyman told him that in one year to seven legitimate children he had baptised nine bastards, almost all of them the children of women who had been out at service out of the parish, and removed thither to lie in; one from Suffolk at great expense.*44 It may be added, that in many, perhaps the majority of these cases, the women, if allowed to remain unremoved, would have earned their own and their children's support.

"There are many cases," says Mr. Wilson, in his report from Durham, "of mothers of bastard children, who would struggle on for years without applying for parish relief. So soon, however, (as my informant, Mr. Hall, of Wickham, expressed it) as the ice is once broken, so soon as the overseer has once spoken to the female, all shame and reluctance are at an end, and she ever after comes to demand the allowance, which she regards as her right. In evidence of the expediency of the parish abstaining from interference, and leaving the offence to be attended with its natural consequences, witness mentioned three cases in which relief had never been asked. In two of these the women had secreted themselves before birth of the child, in order to avoid removal; in the third, she had clandestinely returned after removal; in all three, the mothers had struggled on without aid from the parish."*45


When we add to these sources of expense the profuseness of the allowances to the mothers in compliance with the order on the father, not half of which is, as we have seen, recovered, the tendency to vice which the hope of those allowances creates, and the number of illegitimate births, and the still greater number of legitimate births which are the consequence, it is impossible to doubt that even the saving, for which all these evils have been let loose has not been effected. Even among the laws which we have had to examine, those which respect bastardy appear to be pre-eminently unwise.


Before we quit this subject we must advert to one class of illegitimate births mentioned in the evidence as productive of great and growing inconvenience. It appears that the Irish in the capital and in large towns, either with a view to effect the consequences which we are going to state, or from ignorance or negligence, are frequently married by Roman Catholic priests alone. These marriages satisfy the conscience of the wife, and while the family requires no relief, their invalidity is unknown or unattended to. But as soon as the man becomes chargeable, and the parish proceeds to remove him and his family, he shows that he is not legally married, and his children claim settlements on the parishes in which they were born. A magistrate who has sat for only a very few months, informs us, that as many as a dozen of these cases have come under his notice in a single day.

Notes for this chapter

Nolan's Poor Laws, vol. ii. p. 288, 289.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 452.
App. (C.) p. 214.
App. (C.) p. 216.
App. (C.) p. 218.
App. (C.) p. 220.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 453.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 165.
App. (A) Part I. p. 330.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 828.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 647, 648.
Mr. Chadwick, App. (A.) Part II.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 136.
App. (C.) p. 222.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 261.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 9.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 399.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 539.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 540.
Mr. Maclean, App. (A.) Part I. p. 541.
Mr. Walcott, App. (A.) Part II.
Minutes of Evidence taken before the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Poor Laws, in 1831, p. 284, 285.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 323.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 133.

Part I, Section 8

End of Notes

12 of 17

Return to top