Ta dooinney ny gha leaystey yn clean,
Nagh vel yn lhiannoo bentyn da hene.

(Many a man is rocking the cradle,
The child was not his own.)
Manx Proverb

Consider of what importance to society the chastity of women is. Upon that all the property in the world depends. we hang a thief for stealing a sheep, but the unchastity of a women transfers sheep, and farm, and all from the right owner.

atrib to Dr Johnson in Boswell's Life of Dr Johnson Tour of Islands 14 Sept


The quote from Dr Johnson illustrates the key foundation of much of the prevailing moral code i.e. that of safeguarding property transfer. The church had always preached against fornication and adultery, and when church discipline was available had punished transgressors. Civil law in England during the Puritan period punished such behaviour by consigning bastard bearers to one year in the house of correction - however except for a brief period in mid 17th century this punishment seems mainly to have been reserved for persistent offenders.

Church law recognised that illegitimacy was removed by any subsequent marriage of the parents - however English civil law did not. Under Manx Law, until 1929, a child born out of wedlock but within two years of marriage was considered legitimate. Those familiar with the English law generally commented favourably on this Manx Law (the following quote is from Robertson 1794),:

The generosity of the following law I admire.
" If a man get a young woman or maid with child, and, within two years after the birth of the child, marry her; that child, though born before marriage, shall possess his father's estate, according to the custom of the Island, as amply as if that child had been born in wedlock."

Though Lord Teignmouth writing of 1829 states:

The tendency which might have been imputed to the old law of the Island (as to that of Scotland, which is still in force), legitimatizing a child, if its birth be followed in a year or two by the marriage of the parties, to encourage profligate habits, is rendered perfectly nugatory by the law having grown obsolete during many years, though not repealed. The disuse of it proves the influence of opinion in superseding law, produced no doubt by intercourse with England; for, previous to the Revestment, the law was acted upon. What else but the moral feeling with regard to the offspring of vice would prevent parents from placing it by their marriage on a level, in point of law, with the children of wedlock ? And cases of this description must perpetually occur. Though there is much vice in the Island, there is comparatively little crime, as may be inferred from the return

Illegitimacy in the Island does not appear to have been studied in detail - however it could not have been that unusual judging both from researched figures for England and Scotland, and from the few printed references to it.

Possibly the first reference to illegitimacy in Manx records is a Papal dispensation dated 14th June 1349 "To William, Bishop of Sodor. For the usual privileges, dispensations and faculties; namely for licence to dispense eight persons of illegitimate birth so as to be ordained and hold a benefice apiece ...". [quoted by Barratt 1968]. Illegitimate children could not otherwise be ordained as priests - Barratt surmises that the need may have arisen due to the devestations wrought by the Black Death. Illegitimate children, not being able to inherit land may well have found the church an attractive alternative - however the need for 8 new priests in such a small island seems very high.

Earl James in a letter to his son written whilst in the Island in c.1643 is quite explicit:

It is very true, there be many bastards here in this Isle; and he is to be wondered at who wonders at it. But sure it would be very well if that law were here as in other places, that all known bastards be called after their mothers' names. And there is more reason for it here, in respect they are subject to make factions. And men of the same name will side with one another against anybody. Nor do they love or esteem less because their friends, brothers, or sisters be base born.

His statement that such children are known by their fathers' names, in contrast to the case in England is significant and is illustrated by an earlier comment re Deemster Christian "And once one, in a pleasant humour, said he thought the Deemster did not get so many bastards for lust's sake, as in policy, to make the name of the Christians flourish".

As mentioned illegitimacy confers no inheritance, Santan, the cinderella of Manx Parishes, can provide an interesting case - from Liber Vastarum 1683 (copied into register of Southside Sales)

Robt Brew writes his second son for his tenancy upon certificate of the Episcopal Register that Jane Moore the sd Robts wife owns the eldest son to be an illegitimate child and the person accused make penance whereby it debars the eldest son to make title of inheritance to the Premises.

One wonders what domestic situation caused the admission by his wife Jane!

The bearing of a child in widowhood can also deprive the widow of any widow-right as witness the following case Manx Liberal 1841.

Before the Queen in Council

Elizabeth Cain- Appellant, and Wm Cain, and Christian, his wife- Respondents

It maybe remembered that sometime ago the respondent, Wm Cain, in respect of his wife, who was heiress at law to John Cain, deceased, brought an action against the present appellant, Elizabeth Cain, widow, to recover certain Lands situate in the parish of Michael, called Barnagh, claiming her to have forfeited her widow-right in the said estate by incontinence, or the giving birth to an illegitimate Child, during her widowhood.

After the declaration at law had been filed, the cause came on to heard at Ramsey on the 16th of February 1836, when the action was dismissed which verdict Wm Cain traversed [appealed] to the House of Keys. and on the 18th of March 1836, on which the traversal or appeal was heard, the House reversed the verdict appealed from and awarded the respondents entitled to the said lands of Barnagh ; from which judgement Elizabeth Cain appealed to her Majesty in Council, before whom it has been pending for a considerable time, until the present month, when her Majesty, with the advice of her Privy Council, was pleased to dismiss the appeal with costs.

The customary Law under which the respondents have become entitled to the estate of Barnagh is not inserted in any of the publications of the statute Law of this Island ; it was published at Tynwald, in June, 1687, and is very curiously worded, particularly the following clause under which the appelant has lost her dower viz:-

"That any widow that either married or miscarried by having a bastard or an illegitimate child in the time of her widowhood, is to lose or be deprived of her widow-right in the estate wherein she was married.."

The counsel employed in this Island were Messrs. Llewwellyn and Quayle for the appellant, and G.W. Dumbell, Esq. for the respondents.

[see also report of case in The Advocates Notebook]

Church Discipline

Bishop Wilson, for all his blessed memory, was a great believer in church discipline - one unfortunate victim of this was Catherine Kinrade, a women of limited intelligence, who produced four illegitimate children and for her sins was dragged twice behind a boat in Peel Harbour as an example to others. T.E.Brown was agast at this aspect of Bishop Wilson as seen in his Catherine Kinrade. The men were also punished as in 1716, Patrick Crellin of Kirk German, a notorious offender, found guilty of adultery and fornication four several times, and excommunication itself having had no effect upon him, it was thought necessary to treat him in an uncommon manner.-" He was therefore to stand duely in penitential habit at the parish church door every Lord's day during the time of morning service for three years."

Sometimes the two parties came to an agreement as noted in Liber Causarum, Kirk Braddan, April 21st 1735

Thomas Corlet, Carpenter of Douglas and Isabel Goldsmith were in dispute over their illegitimate child but came to an agreement." Isabel Goldsmith obliges herself to maintain the child with all necessaries til he arrives at the age of fourteen years", and "Thomas Corlet doth bind himself to pay Isabel Goldsmith the just sum of ten shillings a year" until that same time. Thomas also agreed to "teach the child his own trade, gratis, when he comes to age".
[quote from FHS Journal
vol 11 n2 p54]

A somewhat backhanded compliment is paid by Woods in 1811, when writing of the character of the Manx:

Some of the women of the higher classes are well informed and accomplished: most of the lower classes, civil and industrious. To these may be applied the character which one of the author's of King's Cheshire gives to the women of that country: they are usually, says he, very prolific after marriage, and sometimes before.

An honest and industrious servant girl is not ruined by becoming a mother, though for the sake of decency her place is lost. To this laxity of morals is attributed the absence, even in Douglas, of those women which so frequently swarm in towns. I was informed that their trade had been tried, but found not to answer....

One suspects his final statement was somewhat tongue in cheek - certainly in the mid 19th century there would to be a number of houses of ill-repute in the back streets of Douglas above North Quay if Katherine Forrest's Manx Recollections are at all correct. Assuming the Irish community living among the Manx behaved similarly as those in all British cities then the reputation of 'Little Ireland' in Douglas was not based on any moral laxity amongst them.

The story of a single mother and her child are told by T.E.Brown in Bella Gorrey - in it the Parson rebukes the tenant farmer for calling the child a bastard.

Age at marriage, marriage customs etc are covered elsewhere.

Church Wardens continued to present women for fornication well into the 19th Century - the church court also saw some mothers sue the father for maintenance

Illegitimacy in the British Isles

English Context

The volume edited by P Laslett offers many detailed studies of bastardy both in England and other countries. The figure below (redrawn from his published tables) shows the average illegitimacy ratio for some 98 English parishes, and after 1840 from published official statistics (such statistics were not available for IoM until 1877).

graph illegitimacy 1500-1900

Before 1570 data is difficult to obtain; data for c.1835-1840 is also defective as this was the transitional period from parish registers to civil registration in England. (In the figure the data is labelled with the first year of a five year period over which figures have been averaged.)

There is significant variation between parishes - some being somewhat higher and and others lower but all showed the same trend of a rise during the Elizabethan period, followed by a sharp drop during the Puritan period then rising slowly before taking off in the 1760's followed by a high peak 1830-1860 after which it declined for the rest of the Victorian period. Analysis of these regional variations over time indicated that they were explained by a combination of a common underlying temporal change and a specific regional factor.

It is possible that in the early 19th century upto 30% of all births were not recorded in Parish Registers and in some places, especially in some large London parishes, non-registration was even higher at around some 70%. As it was likely that many of these unregistered biths were illegitimate, the above figures should be treated as an underestimate. However contrary to most expectations the illegitimacy ratios were consistently higher in rural parishes than for town parishes.

Scottish and Irish Context

The Scottish figures, especially the Islands, may have more similarity to the Isle of Man. C. Smout's article "Aspects of sexual behaviour in nineteenth century Scotland" (in Laslett 1980) provides a good introduction.

The Irish had an exceptionally low illegitimacy ratio both in Ireland and also within migrant communities where for example 'they were seen to behave totally different from the Scots' - this has been attributed both to the strong Marian devotion (the 'Virgin Mary') and the influence of their parish priests. Irish males, uprooted from their communities (e.g. Railway navies) had a very different reputation.

Different areas in Scotland show very different ratios - as Smout notes this was commented on in most official statistics but no generally acceptable explanation was forthcoming. In the mid 19th century, Banff (Aberdeen area) and the lowlands showed the highest ratios (11% or higher) whereas the Highlands and Islands were much lower (4-6%) and more like Ireland than the rest of Scotland. One explanation for the Islands is that they were a community where everyone knew everyone else and young men could not easily escape their responsibilities. If they did run away then their family would not live it down. The more rural the area the lower the illegitimacy ratio.

The lowland regions had a much higher migration of families. However Smout points to evidence that in both the Lowlands and Banff popular social attitude towards illegitimacy was not critical of the practice

Manx Considerations

The Island did not see the Puritan influence felt in much of southern England - the reformation proceeded slowly and even as late as the1640's the Manx troops who came over with Earl James were described as catholics. Earl James's statement would imply that Manx illegitimacy rate was considerably higher than Lancashire where his major estates were. Neither was it easy for women to run away to have their children elsewhere.

Bishop Wilson, 1698-1755, however operated a stern and strongly enforced church discipline which would have served to reduce illegitimacy - likewise easy marriage may have removed some of the temptations. Such church discipline continued under his successor, Bishop Hildesly, but church discipline was failing from 1765 onwards.

Stone includes a few generalised comments on the 19th century:

There is good reason to believe that it was only those of the poor who became attracted to Methodism who got caught up in this Victorian reaction towards erotic and emotional repression and paternal authority within the home. The continued rise of illegitimacy, pre-nuptial conceptions, prostitution and consensual unions during the first two-thirds of the nineteeth century suggest that more and more of the poor were being removed from parental and communal restraints on pre-marital relations by the twin actions of increasing poverty and geographical mobility....

As can be seen in my pages on Methodism it was of considerable importance in the Island during much of the 19th century with around 1 in 7 adults a member of some chapel.

However even Methodist Local Preachers could fall, for in the 1843 Primitive Methodist report to District Meeting [MM MD717/100] we read "Thomas Collister, LP, expelled society on account of his wife being in a state of pregnancy to him prior to their marriage".

Moore quotes, under his heading of 'crime', figures of illegitimate to legitimate births for 1879-98 :

1879-83, 6·2 per cent. ;
1884-88, 5·7 per cent. ;
1889-93, 5·9 per cent. ;
1894-96, 5·7 per cent. ;
1897-98, 6·0 per cent.
Maximum, in 1879, 7·2 per cent. ; minimum, in 1894, 4·4 per cent

Some later figures (and the concomitant moral disapproval ) can be seen the Registrar-General's report for 1909.

Discussion on the Figures

Illegitimacy can be classified (see Laslett) as

The children of unmarried parents and those of adultery between a married man and an unmarried woman are those generally indicated as illegitimate in the Parish registers - children born to married mothers would normally be impugned to their husband unless there was good evidence that he could not be the father. The other categories are of no numerical significance (though Man was much later than England in legitimising the offspring of Priests).

For such a birth to be registered there must first be intercourse, of which any random act has a 4-5% chance of successful pregancy; a child carried to term (abortificants based on herbal infusions as well as mechanical means were well known, as was the practice of infanticide); the birth recorded and the entry recognised as that of an illegitimate child. Not all records are explicit as to legitimacy - possibly in some town parishes the ministers may not be fully aware of the legal status of the couple's marriage especially following the confusion during the commonwealth period.

The presence of a trend common across all English parishes cries out for explanation.

Illegitimacy does not vary with the age of marriage in an expected way; over the period 1600-1850 the mean age at marriage for men and women has varied by 2 years and showed (though not in all parishes) an inverse correlation with illegitimacy - the younger the age at marriage the more bastards!
However illegitimacy and prenuptial pregnancies (child born less that 8.5 months after marriage) show the same trend which would seem to argue that such births are the results of courtship activities that did not successfully result in marriage - this is somewhat confirmed by the woman's mean age for illegitimate children closely matching that of first born within marriage.

There are some arguments that some of the apparent decline during the Puritan period are artefacts of the records - some ministers were vigorous in the prosecution of offenders (as well as following the Puritan attitude of refusing bapism) and it would appear that many went for baptism to less censorious ministers who avoided recording the illegitimacy.

The poorer classes were responsible for most of the illegitimacy recorded - Laslett has tried to argue for a bastardy-prone sub-society in which some women had multiple bastards as well as marrying or producing offspring that married other illegitimate children. Catherine Kinrade with her four children would clearly fall into this class though here it was probably due to low intelligence as Laslett points out for the English parishes many such women were often recorded as bearing multiple illegitimate children.
Certainly towards the end of the 18th century repeaters became more common though they were unusual in the 17th century. One example of a handicapped woman, Isabella Callister, having a child is recorded in 1785.

All illegitimate births from German Parish Register, 1714-1782 have been extracted - they average about 1/year less than 3% of the total.

Family Histories

As several family historians have pointed out, illegitimate children are relatively common thus one should search for earlier baptisms than the marriage date.

Statistics from Lezayre Parish Registers

Thanks to Malcolm Lord who transcribed these from the Lezayre Parish records for 1800-1849 .

These statistics would appear to be have been gathered by the Rev William Bell Christian, vicar 1845-1861 , and later MHK for Ramsey; quite why he gathered them is not known. Over the half century, 1800-1849, illegitimate births would appear to have averaged 8% of all births - however for a period centred on 1835 they would be nearer 15%!

graph Illegitimacy Lezayre 1800-1849

Raw Data

Number of Baptisms of Legitimate and Illegitimate Children
From the Years 1800 - 1849 with Average of Each Seven Years
1800 - 1806:-
Date Legitimate Illegitimate
1800 38 1
1801 37 0
1802 47 2
1803 54 5
1804 85 3
1805 57 6
1806 68 5
Total 386 22
Avg 55 3
Proportion   1 in 18
1807 - 1813:-
1807 65 2
1808 66 9*
1809 59 2
1810 58 1
1811 70 7
1812 57 3
1813 66 4
Total 441 28
Avg 63 4
Proportion   1 in 16
1814 - 1820:-
1814 67 7
1815 57 7
1816 69 7
1817 60 7
1818 51 1
1819 75 4
1820 51 6
Total 430 39
Avg 61.5 5.5
Proportion   1 in 12
1821 - 1827:-
1821 54 5
1822 61 4
1823 75 13
1824 50 4
1825 57 6
1826 73 8
1827 49 7
Total 419 47
Avg 59.75 6.75
Proportion   1 in 10
1828 - 1834
1828 70 5
1829 63 11
1830 58 4
1831 67 10
1832 61 7*
1833 72 9
1834 62 10
Total 453 56
Avg 65 8
Proportion   1 in 8
1835 - 1841
1835 82 12*
1836 71 9
1837 69 10
1838 67 6
1839 65 8
1840 66 5
1841 72 8
Total 492 58
Avg 70.3 8.3
Proportion   1 in 8.5
1842 - 1848
1842 72 6
1843 69 6
1844 65 3
1845 68 2
1846 79 5
1847 68 3
1848 68 5
Total 489 30
Avg 69.75 4.3
Proportion   1 in 17

* signifies twins born that year.

Proportion of the whole = 1 in 12.5


J.K.Barratt Bishop William Russell (1349 to 1374) and the Popes of Avignon
Proc IoMNHAS vol VII no 2 pp 137/163 1968.

Lawrence Stone The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1600-1800, London: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson 1977

Peter Laslett et al (editors) Bastardy and its Comparative History London: Edward Arnold 1980 (ISBN 0-7131-6229-5)

 [Genealogy Index]


Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
© F.Coakley , 2001