A history of child maintenance

I am once again delighted to welcome back Melanie Barnes, who is bringing her legal brain to bear on the history of child maintenance.

Throughout history, the payment of child support has been a recurring issue, though the policies applied by either the church or government have been remarkably similar.

Early records reveal that even if the father of a child was not known, the parish would still support the mother by payment of ‘Poore Reliefe’.  This payment (typically very low) was raised from a tax upon the parish residents, and the church would then seek a contribution from the father or family member to mitigate the cost.  In medieval England, canon law placed all parents under a duty to support their legitimate children, but later, the duty to provide for ‘bastard’ children was introduced through various ‘Old Poor Laws’ which aimed to provide better relief to the mother of the child or those in need.

Throughout the 16th and 17th century, legislation was introduced to meet the costs of illegitimate children on the parish.  For example, in 1576, the Acte for Setting of the Poore on Work, and for the Avoiding of Ydleness punished both parents for having a bastard child and allowed the mother’s name and fact of pregnancy to be publicly announced, thus making her known to her neighbours who would be taxed for the support of her child.  The mere fact of publicity encouraged neighbours to pressure the mother into marriage or to filiate their children on men who could maintain them – an act that was a lot easier before DNA samples could determine paternity.

After 1609, a mother could be sent to a ‘House of Correction’ for a year unless she gave security for her bastard child.  So unpopular were women who became dependent on the parish that child infanticide became common so that mothers could avoid the shame and punishment of giving birth to an illegitimate child.  In response to this widespread issue, the 1624 Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murthering of Bastard Children was introduced to provide that a woman would face the punishment of death if she gave birth and thereafter concealed the dead body; introducing a presumption that any child buried or concealed after birth had been illegally killed.

Later Poor Acts rather harshly made provision for what became known as ‘badging up’ where a person would have to wear a badge with the first letter of their parish followed by a ‘P’ showing that they were poor.   Any ‘able-bodied’ pauper who refused to work was liable to be placed in prison, thus distinguishing between those who were unable to work, and those who were simply seen as idle, a distinction that appears to be accepted in modern politics where policy has once again reverted to the belief system that the unemployed are somehow irresponsible.

Bastardy Bonds

Legislation was also introduced to try and discourage the birth of illegitimate children.  In the Bastard Child Act of 1732, the law provided that any person charged with being the father of a bastard child should be imprisoned until he gave security to indemnify the parish from expense.  It also became the responsibility of the woman to name the father in order to deter both parties.

Published by W. Darling. The Young Repentent Brought to a Bed of Justice. 1772. Lewis Walpole Library, 772.12.15.1. © Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.
Published by W. Darling. The Young Repentent Brought to a Bed of Justice. 1772. Lewis Walpole Library, 772.12.15.1. © Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

The indemnities that a father had to provide by law were known as ‘bastardy bonds’ and were registered in parish records.  Typically, the father was required to agree to pay the parish a lump sum if he failed to maintain the costs of bringing up a bastard child.  The following is an indemnification from parish records in the year of 1747:

 “I Abraham Atkinson of Cambridge, Cambridge apothecary am held and firmly bound unto the Churchwardens of the parish of Littlebury in Essex and the Overseers of the Poor of the said parish in the sum of 50 pounds of good and lawful money.  If this man and his heirs promise to support the child and all manner of costs, charges and expenses which shall or may in any wise hereafter means of the birth maintenance or bringing up of the said Bastard Child – then his obligation to be void

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the birth of an illegitimate child was not common.  However, as the church lost their moral hold over marital affairs, prenuptial sex became more accepted to the point where approximately half of all conceptions in the 18th century were out of wedlock.  Following pregnancy, it is estimated that around one in five actual births were recorded as illegitimate, which suggests that many prenuptial pregnancies were followed by a rather hasty marriage which under church law would legitimise the children – though not for the purposes of inheritance under Common Law.

Review of the Poor Laws

In the 1833 Poor Law Commission Report on Bastardy reported that the Poor Laws encouraged illegitimacy because parish relief was so readily accessible for bastards and their mothers.  It was thought that more relief was issued to maintain illegitimate children than to support legitimate children, and costs were rising because mothers were able to avoid responsibility by moving to their home parish.  This problem arose as at that time if a child was born legitimately then he would ‘inherit’ the parish of his parents.  If he was not legitimate, then a mother could move home to her own parish and leave responsibility of the child to the parish into which he was born.  In other words, the child would be considered a ‘no-one’ with no home and the parish into which he was born would have to maintain him.  Children and those who were vulnerable were generally cared for in what was known as an ‘alms house’ which still exist today and were similar to sheltered housing though no doubt very bleak.

Courtesy of Kindred Past website
Courtesy of Kindred Past website

The recommendations of the Poor Law Commission formed the basis of the Bastardy Clause in the New Poor Law of 1834 which provided that all illegitimate children were to be the sole responsibility of their mothers until they were 16 years old.   Shifting blame to the mother appears to be a direct result of the findings of the 1833 Poor Law Report which was led by Nassau Senior, an economist who was against the allowance system.

Instead of relief being readily available, it was recommended that those in need would first have to enter workhouses that were introduced nationally.  Through the Act, mothers of bastard children were expected to support themselves and their offspring and would have to enter the workhouse if they were unable to do so which ultimately was proposed in order to reduce the costs of children on the parish.  There would no longer be any penal sanctions against either the mother or the father for non-support of their illegitimate children and for the first time, the putative father was absolved of any responsibility for his illegitimate children.

The pass room, Bridewell
The passroom, Bridewell

It was hoped that the morality of women would be effected by such draconian laws, but the reality was that it led to many more men avoiding responsibility altogether and placed even greater financial pressure on a mother who already had the burden of an illegitimate child.  It is also thought that this Act may have led to the flourish of baby-farming in the Victorian age where discrete adverts were placed in journals or newspapers for ‘care’ of children which amounted to a sort of black-market trade in children.

The injustice caused by the Bastardy Clause, led to the 1844 Poor Law Amendment Act which provided that bastardy proceedings were to be a civil matter between parents.  Under this act, a mother could apply under oath for an ‘affiliation order’ which required the putative father to pay a weekly sum to the parish, although she still received maintenance from the church if this was not received.  It is thought that this law has probably come to reflect what has always been a de facto division of parental labour: mother as parent with care, and father as financial provider.

This of course, relates mostly to those children who are maintained by unmarried parents, although families who were poor would also receive relief from the parish.  Marriage was a clear advantage when it came to finance as a spouse had full property rights and legitimate children and widow could inherit or receive a pension through the rules of legislation, common and ecclesiastical law.  Given the importance of marriage, it was therefore crucial that any ceremony or union was seen as valid and legal.

 Sources

Lawrence Stone “Uncertain Unions”

Marriage, Fertility, and Population Growth in Eighteenth-Century England (Marriage and Society 156-7, 162; E. A. Wrigley)

Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty (New York: Random House, 1983),

Bastardy and baby-farming in Victorian England, Haller, DL

The Child Support Agency and the Old Poor Law (2006), Nutt, T

Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty (New York: Random House, 1983)

Featured Image

Thomas Rowlandson, The Passroom at Bridewell