Father Unknown

This page began by including the life stories of my illegitimate ancestors, but some of their stories have become rather long, so they have been given individual pages.

This page describes the difficulties encountered in geneaological research when the father is unknown or not documented.

Family historians get a great sense of satisfaction when they discover the parents of an ancestor, pushing the geneaological line back another generation. Unfortunately this is short lived in the case of ancestors, where no father is given.

In most of these cases, discovering who the father was, will prove impossible, leaving a gap in the ancestry, which gets bigger, as each generation is pushed further back.

Virtually everyone will discover an illegitimate ancestor at some point in their research.

Today, DNA can be used to prove paternity, by comparing and checking against other relatives. But the further back we go in our ancestry the less likely DNA evidence can be in finding our ancestors, due to distance of time, the way it is inherited, and in finding other relatives that the DNA can be checked against.

On this page, I will attempt to uncover the identity of the fathers of my illegitimate ancestors, although it is unlikely to be possible. I will describe the steps or sources which could be used.

I will also include non direct ancestral relatives who do not have documented father’s.

Suggestions for identifying a father

  • Birth Certificate in normal circumstances, the father’s name would be entered on the birth certificate. In the case of unmarried parents, the father can only be included with his permission.
  • Baptismal entry – Before birth certificates were introduced, these were the ‘official’ records of a person’s existence. The father was usually entered in the baptism book. Unfortunately not often in the case of illegitimate children, although sometimes both parents were included if unmarried. This was the case of my ancestor Joseph Lovell Raine, born to Joseph Lovell and Elizabeth Raine, in Kensington. At other times, the Vicar may include ‘reputed father’ or similar.
  • Marriage certificate – The father’s name is given on the marriage certificate (if it is known), however this should be treated with caution, as the information could be false, or may perhaps be of a step father, as in the case of my ancestor, Mary Ann Hinchcliffe (and her step father, Alfred Corker).
  • Census records – The individual may have lived with or near, the birth father, or perhaps, (step) siblings, may have lived with him. There may be siblings with different surnames in one home to research.
  • Bastardy Bonds – Parish Overseers of the poor, would do their best, to get payment for the support of illegitimate children and the mother, from the father of the child, and this information would be recorded in the parish records, as ‘Bastardy Bonds’.
  • Wills – A will might describe family relationships, and include illegitimate or distant relations. For example the will of Joshua Hartley of 1803, which included his step-son Joseph ‘Helliwell’ Sanderson’, born before his parents marriage.

Sanderson Intrigue

Joseph and Sarah (Helliwell) Sanderson, had eight children between 1794 and 1815. The oldest child Joseph was born before their marriage, and was always known as Joseph ‘Helliwell’. The will of the step father to Joseph snr. – Joshua Hartley in 1803, confirmed Joseph Helliwell as a full sibling to the others. Joseph Sanderson married Sarah Helliwell in 1797.

Three of the children died in infancy, two (George and John), married and had large families.

The three other children, Joseph Helliwell b.1794, Zacharius b.1812 and Mary b.1815, did not marry, and continued to live together, probably in the family home, until their deaths.

Mother, Sarah died in 1828, and father, Joseph in 1832.

The 1841 census wasn’t easy to decipher, and at first, we presumed that Zacharius Sanderson had married a Mary, and they had a son Charles, and were living in the house of Joseph Helliwell. We did not realise that Joseph Helliwell, was actually brother to Zacharius and Mary, as we hadn’t got that far with our researches. (We were more interested in finding out about George Sanderson and family two households away, who was a direct ancestor). We later discovered that George was brother to Joseph Helliwell, Zacharius and Mary.

1841 census Low Bradfield.

However the 1851 census, certainly began to raise questions. Joseph Helliwell was head, Zacharius Sanderson was listed as brother, and Mary Sanderson, sister. All three were unmarried. By this time, there was not only 15 year old nephew Charles, but also 3 year old nephew Henry.

Who were the parents to Charles and Henry?

  • Zacharius or Mary?
  • Or perhaps children of their brothers, George and John. George’s wife Martha had died 1847, so perhaps George had required help caring for his large family. But neither of these children seemed to fit into his family. John had died in 1845, so perhaps his wife Annis needed help. She went on to have three further children after the death of John, but again, these children do not fit into that family.
  • Searching the parish records, the baptism and subsequent burial of Sarah Sanderson to Mary Sanderson of Low Bradfield in 1843 stood out. Until then, we hadn’t been able to place this baptism and burial. The fact that the child was named ‘Sarah’, after Mary’s mother, helped to identify.
1851 census Low Bradfield.

The 1861 census, only added more questions. Joseph Helliwell was described as ‘Head’, with Zacharius as ‘brother in law,’ and Mary as ‘ditto’. Charles and Henry still in the household as nephews.

This made us consider that perhaps Zacharius had married a sister of Joseph Helliwell’s – ‘Mary Helliwell’.

However, we came to understand that, brother or sister ‘in law’ was an old way of describing step brother or sister.

1861 census Low Bradfield.

Charles married Hannah Maria Dronfield in 1863, but no father was entered on the marriage certificate for him. They had six children, four of whom died as infants or young children.

Joseph Helliwell died on February 18th 1869. He was buried in Bradfield Churchyard.

The 1871 census shows Zacharius Sanderson living next door to Charles and his family. Mary is stated to be his sister, and Henry his son. All UNMARRIED. So could this be true; or an oversight by Zacharius; or the enumerator; or did the enumerator know something that wasn’t spoken of.

1871 Census.

In 1879 Charles died.

(It appears that Henry married Elizabeth Hudson in 1880, but Elizabeth died several months later, leaving a Will.) This may not be the same Henry

1881 Census

In 1881 Zacharius was still living next door to Charles’ wife and sons.

Mary Sanderson stated to be sister, and Henry Sanderson nephew. In each census, Mary’s occupation is given as female servant, domestic servant or housekeeper.

On February 18th 1882, Zacharius died, and Mary died September 21st 1883. All three siblings were buried in Bradfield Churchyard. Their headstone appears to have been added later, as the deaths were not recorded in date or order of birth.

Headstone to Joseph Helliwell, Zacharius Sanderson and Mary Sanderson in Bradfield Churchyard.

I applied for Henry Sandersons birth certificate, which stated he was born 25th August 1847, to Mary Sanderson at Low Bradfield. No father’s name given

To be continued….