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Deviant Maternity: Illegitimacy in Wales, c. 1680-1800, by Dr Angela Joy Muir


In 1721 in the parish of Llangollen, a ‘base’ infant named William was baptised. His parents were Simon Rogers and Elizabeth Roberts. Two years later, Elizabeth bore a second child fathered by Simon. The child was named Robert, and like his older brother was listed as illegitimate in the baptism register. In Llansilin in 1743, Matthew and Elizabeth Morris bore a son named Richard, and despite having the same surname, their son was identified as illegitimate. In the short period between December 1750 and January 1751, Richard Francis, a yeoman farmer of Maesmawr and his two sons, were each listed in legally-binding documents that held them financially accountable for the support of the illegitimate children they fathered with three different, unmarried women. In 1746, John Griffiths, a gentleman from the parish of Ceri was similarly bound for the financial support of Ursula Jones’ unborn child. Evidence such as this, which reveals children born to parents who were not married to each other is often drawn from parish baptism registers and poor law documents, and is far from rare.

Indeed, illegitimacy in eighteenth-century England was relatively common, and became increasingly so as the century progressed, but until recently no studies have considered evidence from Wales.[1] Many of the large-scale quantitative analyses of illegitimacy in England have framed its causes in terms of premarital sex between young lovers who fully intended on marrying but found their courtships thwarted, often by dire economic circumstances, and most historians have accepted this, including myself, to a degree. But plausible and seemingly straight forward hypotheses like this become hard to accept when records relating to illegitimacy are interrogated a little bit further. My new book, Deviant Maternity: Illegitimacy in Wales, c. 1680-1800 argues that focusing on broader trends and seeking single-leading causes can be misleading, as illegitimacy was ultimately a complex phenomenon influenced by a range of cultural and socioeconomic factors and individual circumstances, some of which clearly do not fit into the ‘thwarted courtship’ model.

Consider those listed above: Simon Rogers and Elizabeth Robert’s two children were identified as illegitimate not only because Simon and Elizabeth were unmarried, but because their relationship was deemed to be ‘incestuous’. This could mean they were closely related by marriage rather than blood, but the very real possibility exists that they were not a courting couple. This possibility is made abundantly clear in the case of Matthew and Elizabeth Morris, as Matthew was both the father of Elizabeth’s son, and Elizabeth herself. For the Francis men, it is difficult to imagine a scenario that resulted in three members of the same immediate family fathering children around the same with time three women they were not married to without that scenario involving some form of exploitation or abuse. At the very least, their sexual encounters were likely not courtship. For Ursla Jones and John Griffiths, Ursula was John’s servant, so their relationship was also likely not one of genuine courtship.

Details like these fall firmly into the ‘once seen, cannot be unseen’ category of evidence, and make quantitative analysis of illegitimacy levels seem deeply inappropriate. Lumping the sexual encounters that resulted in these children being born and baptised in with innocuous ‘thwarted courtships’ seems inaccurate, if not unethical.

This is one of the main issues Deviant Maternity grapples with. The book, which was published without ceremony right before the first lockdown in 2020, emerged from PhD and postdoctoral research, and includes evidence from over 140,000 baptisms along with hundreds of bastardy bonds, filiation orders, poor law accounts and criminal records. The initial aim of the book was to fill a clear gap in the research: few previous studies of illegitimacy had ever considered evidence from Wales, and yet historians had written about phenomenon in Wales directly related to illegitimacy, such as infanticide, with little evidence of the broader context.[2] However, during the initial stages of research it became increasingly apparent that a considerable number of relationships between unmarried mothers and fathers were not courtship, and more often than not, it was simply impossible to tell what the nature of relationships were, often because only one parent was identified. So, in addition to counting baptisms, calculating illegitimacy ratios and hypothesising about causes, the book explores the experiences of illegitimacy for unmarried mothers, and the consequences of it for them and their infants.

One of the ways the book attempts to understand the experiences and consequences of illegitimacy is to examine different forms of ‘mortality penalty’ to determine if unmarried mothers were more likely to die in childbirth than their married counterparts. But, as with grouping all baptisms into the same category, it also became apparent how problematic counting and quantifying ‘deviance’ in the past can be, especially when that deviance is perhaps arbitrarily linked to death. Not only can analyses of mortality be both dehumanising and stigmatising when the object of analysis is an already-marginalised group, quantifying what are essentially moral judgements from the past, and using that as evidence not of the attitudes that informed those judgements, but of sexual activity seems even more problematic. Thus, the book makes limited and cautious use of quantitative methodologies and focuses on detailed narratives from rich, textual sources like court records that yield evidence of individual women’s lived experiences. This includes the ways in which their pregnant bodies could become the objects of suspicion, surveillance and sometimes violence, as well as single women’s varied experiences of labour and lying in.

By focusing on narratives accounts, the book reveals the diversity of eighteenth-century Welsh women’s experiences. In cases that resonate with issues today, for some eighteenth-century Welsh women, pregnancy outside of marriage led to their violent deaths at the hands of their lovers. This is an alarming problem many pregnant women around the world face today.[3] However, not all unmarried mothers faced stigmatisation and violence. Many others were provided for and supported during labour, delivery and lying-in in similar ways to their married counterparts. Ultimately, the central theme that runs through the book is that when trying to access and understand the lives of women in the past who left few records of their own, individual experiences are as significant to our understanding as the broader demographic trends, because the former sheds light on what the latter obscures.

Biography: Angela Muir is a Lecturer in British Social and Cultural History based in the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester. Her research focuses on sex, gender, the body, crime and deviance in eighteenth-century Britain. She is the author of Deviant Maternity: Illegitimacy in Wales, c. 1680-1800 (Routledge, 2020), the research for which was funded by the Wellcome Trust, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and Economic History Society. Deviant Maternity was awarded the 2020 Francis Jones Prize in Welsh History by Jesus College Oxford. She tweets as @DrAngelaMuir. Link to book on Publisher’s website:

[1] For example, see Peter Laslett et al, Bastardy and its Comparative History (Cambridge University Press, 1977) and Richard Adair, Courtship, Illegitimacy and Marriage in Early Modern England (Manchester University Press, 1996)

[2] Nick Woodward, ‘Infanticide in Wales, 1730-1830’, Welsh History Review, 23 (2007), pp. 94-125.

[3] Christina C Pallitto, Jacquelyn C. Campbell and Patricia O’Campo, ‘Is Intimate Partner Violence Associated with Unintended Pregnancy? A Review of the Literature’, Trauma, Abuse and Violence, 6 (2005), 217-235.