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{$text['mgr_red1']} Cottingham 2.3

Mary Ann Crane and her "misbegotten" children

by Carolyn Paisley and Alan D Craxford


"Born on the wrong side of the blanket" is a well-known phrase used to describe a child born out of wedlock. In the past, there have been many such terms: Bastard; Baseborn; Spurious; Filius Nullius; By Blow; Chance Child; Left-Handed Child; and Scape-Begotten Child to name just a few. Family historians will encounter many of these descriptions in the course of their research, and most will find that illegitimacy appears in their own families.

Set within her historical context (The Crane family of Cottingham), Mary Ann Crane is typical of many thousands of pregnant unmarried women of the past. She is also one of those who took drastic action to avoid the financial burden and social stigma of an illegitimate child.

Mary Ann Crane and the paternity of her illegitimate children

Mary Ann Crane had at least six illegitimate children: Thomas, Eli, Louisa, Charles, Elizabeth and another child who died nameless, its body tossed into the River Welland. A newspaper report suggests yet another, who died as the result of an abortion. The names of the men who fathered her children are unknown. It might have been one man (unlikely) or two or more. Mary Ann married late in life. Aged 42, she married John Sculthorpe, a local man 11 years her junior. They did not marry until 1855, and Mary Ann's known children were born between 1834 and 1852, so it is unlikely that they were all John's children, if at all. The 1861 census for Middleton shows Louisa, Charles and Elizabeth with the surname Sculthorpe, but it is possible that John unofficially adopted, rather than fathered, them. Absorbing step-children into a family and giving them the step-father's name was a common procedure at this time. To confuse matters, Louisa married under the name Sculthorpe and gave her father as John Sculthorpe, but whether this was fact or fiction is impossible to verify.

There are several ways to investigate the paternity of Mary Ann's children. Had John Sculthorpe left a will, he might have referred to his "natural children," showing that he was the biological father of at least some of Mary Ann's children. But he does not appear in the National Probate Calendar, which is perhaps not surprising considering his occupation of agricultural labourer. It would have been helpful if Mary Ann had named her children in the way that many unmarried mothers did at the time. She could have used the father's last name as a middle name, ie. Louisa Sculthorpe Crane, and then dropped the Crane when she married. She did not. Nor did she name the father in the Cottingham baptismal registers. The following information is given for her first known child, Thomas, born in 1834: Thomas Crane, mother Mary, abode Cottingham, servant, born February 24, baptized April 29, illegitimate. Similarly, no father's name appears on the birth certificates for Louisa and Charles (1846 and 1850 respectively). Finally bastardy examinations and/or bonds and affiliation orders could be sought. The chances of finding the men responsible for Mary Ann's children are probably not high, however.

Preventing pregnancy

Like most women, Mary Ann almost certainly knew about, and may have used, some form of birth control. Working class women had long used prolonged lactation and coitus interruptus, for example, to reduce the risk of an unwanted pregnancy. Such attempts were unreliable, however, and for women generally, sexual intercourse almost certainly meant pregnancy. When these rudimentary birth control methods failed, more drastic measures might be taken to avoid the shame, expense and inconvenience of an illegitimate child. Mary Ann ultimately resorted to both abortion and infanticide, on at least two occasions, perhaps more. The fact that she had six known illegitimate children, with a long gap between the 1838 child cast into the river and Louisa in 1846 suggests (although perhaps unfairly) this possibility.

The inequality of bastards

In the past, some illegitimate children have been accepted more readily than others [A1]. Most acceptable was the child of a couple who intended to marry as soon as possible, or whose father died before the wedding could take place, or who deserted at the last minute. Next came the child of a stable relationship, where the couple could not marry for a valid reason (religious differences, for example.) The child of a wealthy man and his mistress came next, followed by the children of a young girl's casual seduction and of a poor man and his mistress. At the bottom were the children of prostitutes, a married woman by another man and, finally, the product of incest. The latter included the child of a couple who had violated the rules of forbidden degrees, which originated in the biblical book of Leviticus and were defined in the Book of Common Prayer. Sexual relations and marriage with the following were prohibited: a sibling or their spouse; a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, child or grandchild or their spouse; a niece or nephew or their spouse; a spouse's child, grandchild, parent, aunt, uncle or grandparent. Forbidden degrees also prevented a man marrying his dead wife's sister and a woman marrying her dead husband's brother, but this situation was often disregarded. Surprisingly, marriage with a dead wife's sister was not legalized until 1907. Perhaps even more surprising, given the strictness of the above limitations, is the fact that marriage with cousins was allowed.

Sexual exploitation

Cruikshank cartoon

Out for an airing (1)

Where Mary Ann and her children fit into this scale is uncertain. Caution must always be exercised when interpreting historical data. The clustering of three of her children between 1846 and 1852 and her late age at marriage might indicate that she was in a stable relationship and expecting to get married, yet for some reason, the marriage did not take place. If this was the case, however, it might be expected that the father would be named on the children's birth certificates, or have his name used as a middle name, neither of which happened. On the other hand, it could also indicate that she was Middleton's "bad girl". Not knowing the father's name(s) makes it impossible to draw conclusions. However, in the case of the first child, Thomas, the Cottingham registers state that Mary Ann was a servant, a class of young women who often gave birth to illegitimate children. This might, but not necessarily, place her in the casual seduction category.

Domestic service made many young girls victims of sexual exploitation. Although rape was illegal, male attitudes to female sexuality and chastity created problems in that the line between seduction and rape became blurred for most men; male juries were almost certain to acquit those who went to trial [B1]. Often isolated from family, forbidden to have 'followers' and, ironically, subject to many rules designed to protect them from unsuitable connections, especially with the 'scarlet fever' (soldiers), servants were considered fair game in many households.

Many a young servant gave in, afraid to refuse her employer, his sons or her employer's friends for fear of losing her position without a "character." Others, lonely and far from home, yielded in the desire for some affection, or naively thought that a liaison with someone of a superior social standing might lead her out of domestic drudgery. Some traded sex for other advantages. Not surprisingly, when pregnancy resulted, the girl was thrown out. In Mary Ann's case, she could go home to family, but others had no alternative but the workhouse or, if in a large city like London, a private or charity Home for Fallen Women. Unfortunately, many of these were recruiting grounds for prostitutes, so it was impossible for some poor girls to escape a downward spiral.

Illegitimacy and the law

Mary Ann's first three children appear in the Cottingham baptismal registers under the name of Crane, and they are described as "illegitimate." There is no mention of a father, reputed (father accepted responsibility) or imputed (the accused man denied paternity.) Common law said that a child was legitimate if it was conceived and born in a valid marriage; if it was conceived before marriage but its parents subsequently married before its birth; or if it was conceived during a valid marriage but born after the marriage ended. A child was illegitimate if its parents were not in a valid marriage or if it was proven that the father was not the mother's husband. Common law assumed that a woman's husband was the father of her child, even if the marriage occurred after the birth [B2]. A man could challenge paternity, but he had to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that he could not be the father (out of the country in the army, for example, or medically incapable). The only option a man had was to seek a costly Private Act of Parliament to bastardize the child, an option unavailable to men in the lower classes to which Mary Ann belonged.

Illegitimacy in its historical context

The regulations surrounding the custom and practice of marriage, sexual activity and pregnancy had been defined by the Church and written into Canon Law as early as the 13th century. Policing of violations was an important function of the ecclesiastical courts. They were very active in 17th century England prosecuting cases of fornication, adultery, incest, and illicit cohabitation. Offenders were summoned to the court by the means of a Presentment Bill. The archives of the Archdeanery of Nottingham (2) contain the details of 21,556 bills issued between 1587 and 1756. Of interest, 1702 concerned 'Bastardy' and 164, 'harbouring a pregnant woman'.

Social mores governing a couple's sexual behaviour have varied considerably from time to time and region to region, so statistics should be viewed cautiously. Nevertheless, it has been estimated that 7 % of children born in the 19th century were illegitimate and about 20-30% of brides were pregnant when they married. The fact that illegitimacy rates were at 6.5% in the 1860s is surprising, because at this time it might be expected that repressive Victorian values would have the opposite effect [B3]. The cause of these rates is complex and controversial. Over the last few decades, some historians have argued that the late age at marriage led to sexual frustration, pre-marital sex and illegitimacy. Yet, others have denied this, saying that the increase in illegitimacy rates in the late 18th and early 19th centuries took place when the age at marriage was falling and rates of marriage were increasing (3). Another debate has centred on the idea that committed couples might engage in pre-marital sex but delay marriage (which in some cases never took place), the man waiting to save enough money to set up a home and support a family or inherit a business. Nevertheless, two things are clear. First, baptismal registers show an increase in births (generally) at certain times of the year. Casual sex was particularly common at harvest-time or Christmas, for example, when feasting, ale and jollity were in abundance. A local couple who became pregnant might marry, but only a foolhardy single girl would marry a labourer who was in the village temporarily, with legal settlement many miles away, even assuming he could be found. Second, as already stated, 20-30% of brides were pregnant when they married. Some were in the early stages of pregnancy. Others were close to delivery, and it is not unusual to see a child baptized on the same day as its parents' wedding or very shortly after. Mary Ann's daughter, Louisa, died in childbirth three months after her marriage in 1865. Of course, many pregnant women did not marry straightaway, sometimes never. They became long-term single mothers dependent on relief, if there was no other source of support. Mary Ann was a single mother for 21 years, from the birth of her first child in 1834 to her marriage in 1855.

Mary Ann's first two known children (Thomas in 1834 and a nameless child in 1838) were born at the time the New Poor Law of 1834 replaced the old one. This transition brought changes in the way poor relief was administered, including the treatment of unmarried mothers and child maintenance. In short, before 1834, bastardy was thought a serious problem, not from the moral point of view, but because illegitimate children and their mothers were likely to become a drain on parish coffers. Parish officers adopted a two-pronged approach to ensure that their parish had as few local-born bastards as possible. First, pregnant women with no settlement in a parish, had to leave, although after an Act of 1732, they could not be marched to the parish boundaries during pregnancy and for a month after birth. Second, the father had to accept responsibility. When most people lived in small villages and everyone knew each other's business, villagers knew with whom a pregnant girl had been associating and who the likely father was. Ideally, the couple were persuaded to marry, perhaps with a financial bribe or a threat. If marriage was not possible, the man responsible had to sign a bastardy bond, which compelled him to pay for the lying-in and to make regular payments to support the child. A pregnant single girl, who refused to reveal the name of the father, would receive no help in delivery of the child. Little evidence was needed to support her claim, and some innocent men, thought the most likely to to be able to make regular maintenance payments, found themselves the victims of blackmail. If the man was poor but had a reasonably well-off father, the father could be compelled to sign the bastardy bond and make the payments instead. In some cases, when a man absconded, a warrant for his arrest might be issued and the man brought back and dragged to the altar, made to marry the pregnant woman. A man who denied paternity was taken before the magistrates, with witnesses supporting the case against him. If he still refused to sign the bastardy bond, he could be committed to the Court of Assizes. One course of action for a man accused of paternity was to run away and enlist in the army, since service in the forces was a bar to prosecution.

Poor mother and child

Victorian mother and child (4)

The New Poor Law of 1834 brought changes in the way paupers received help, including single mothers. Implemented at a time of poor harvests, economic depression and high unemployment, the new legislation reflected concerns about people becoming dependent on, or exploiting, parish relief. Deterrence became the order of the day. In-relief in deliberately harsh workhouses now replaced out-relief, whereby a pauper had stayed at home and had been given help in the way of money, fuel, clothing and food. Parishes were grouped into Unions, big enough to make the building of a large workhouse possible. Boards of Guardians ran these Unions, administering the relief instead of local parish overseers. (Nevertheless, some areas continued the practice of out-relief for many decades.)

This new legislation had many ramifications for unmarried mothers, who found their bargaining power severely curtailed. Legislators believed that the old poor law had encouraged bastardy and claimed that child maintenance paid directly to the mother could be used for other purposes. An unmarried mother should not be more financially independent than a respectable widow, they argued, also expressing concerns that forced marriage could lead to failed marriage and more pauper children. Bastardy was a threat to society, it insisted; it must be discouraged. From now on, mothers only were liable for support of their child. (In all likelihood, the man would be impossible to track down anyway, now that society was becoming increasingly urban and transportation was improving.) Only if a child became chargeable, might the father be sought and sued at Quarter Sessions. Corroboration of a mother's testimony became essential, and any payments the father made were not paid directly to the mother.

Henrietta Craxford about 1895

Henrietta Craxford

The repressive legislation of 1834 regarding unmarried mothers was short-lived, and in the mid 1840s, the mother regained some control. With the passing of the Bastardy Act in 1845, the financing of a bastard child became a civil matter conducted at petty sessions between the mother and accused man. In addition to child maintenance payments of up to five shillings for 13 years, an unmarried mother could also apply for costs resulting from solicitor's and midwives' fees and burial fees if necessary. To appease those who believed that maintenance payments paid directly to the mother encouraged bastardy, the misuse of child maintenance payments became an offence, carrying a fine of up to 10 pounds. In addition, petty sessions had to send full details of each bastardy case to the local clerk of the peace, who, in turn, had to send the information to the Home Office.

There was no guarantee that a girl would be successful in her application, however. In 1900, Henrietta Craxford (half-sister to the murder victim of Henry Crane, Mary Ann's brother) applied for an affiliation order (5) against Peter Reynolds, a Leicester shoehand, but had her case dismissed (6). Presumably, there was insufficient corroborative evidence. The basic framework introduced in the mid 1840s endured, with just a few changes, until the 1990s and the creation of the Child Support Agency.

Continued in column 2...

Attitudes to illegitimacy

In pre-Victorian times, there was little social stigma attached to some degrees of illegitimacy, except in the upper classes. The main concern of parochial officers and rate payers was financial; an unwed mother was a drain on the parish. Whilst the clergy were supposed to chastise a couple who produced a bastard child, and churchwardens were supposed to let the Bishop know by making an entry in the Bishop's Transcripts, most turned a blind eye, except in the case of prostitutes, rape and incest. However, there were times when blame was cast, and, in a double standard of morality, the girl took the blame. She had to prove she was seduced and was not a threat to 'stable' families in the village.

The Outcast by Richard Redgrave (1851)

The Outcast (7)

As the nineteenth century unfolded, illegitimacy became shameful, and concealment commonplace among all classes. "Thou shall not be found out" was an important commandment in Victorian times [A2]. A mother might send her pregnant daughter away (acting the role of a pregnant widow), on the pretext that she had gone to look after an aged aunt. The mother would then pad herself up and pass the child off as her own. An illegitimate child might be told his father's identity when he reached adulthood, to ensure that he did not form a relationship with someone within the prohibited degrees, but often this information was never revealed.

Many unmarried mothers found themselves turned out of the family home, however, and after 1834, girls lacking family support frequently ended up in the workhouse. In prudish Victorian manner, workhouse masters could treat these girls cruelly. Segregated from other women and forced to wear clothing signifying their 'crime,' these unmarried mothers bore the brunt of the shame and the hardship of illegitimacy. Desperation might prompt a girl to take drastic measures: an herbal concoction to induce abortion, infanticide, a hasty marriage to anyone who offered, suitable or otherwise, or even suicide.

Mary Ann's family support

At this point, it is unknown whether Mary Ann ever entered the workhouse, but what is known of her living arrangements may have precluded this. Mary Ann was fortunate, for she appears to have had some family support whilst she raised her illegitimate children. The 1841 census shows her living with her mother, Elizabeth, her brothers Henry and Amos, and her 7 year old son, Thomas. This situation likely arose out of economic necessity. Elizabeth had been widowed for 20 years and was receiving parish relief. By living with her mother whilst Thomas was small, Mary Ann would be free to take casual work. Living costs such as fuel and rent could be reduced by sharing a home and might even have been insisted upon by the authorities.

'Hope' painting by Frank Holl (1883)

'Hope' (8)

She may still have been living at home when Elizabeth became seriously ill with "uterine disease" (? cancer) and, if so, she would have been a source of support and nursing care for her mother. On January 27th 1845, Elizabeth died, leaving Mary Ann to raise sons Thomas and Eli, the latter born in 1842, alone. This must have been a dreadful time for Mary Ann, for over the next three weeks, scarlet fever struck the Crane family, killing her 15 month old niece, Elizabeth, her four year old nephew, Henry, and her own son, Eli, aged two and a half years. Mercifully other children in the extended Crane family, and her own son, Thomas, were spared.

Life did return to normal, and Mary Ann continued to produce more illegitimate children: Louisa and Charles. The 1851 census shows her as the head of the household on George Street. She is working as a lace maker, an occupation she could pursue at home. Significantly, her home is flanked on each side by family: brother Amos, wife and children on one side and brother Henry, unmarried, but with a lodger, Mary Sculthorpe (his future wife?) and her illegitimate child on the other. Four years later, she married at last, providing herself with a husband and breadwinner and her children with a father, biological or otherwise. This marriage was long-lived, ending only with her death in 1895. For forty years, Mary Ann finally had a degree of stability.

Concealment of birth

River bank

Found on the riverbank (11)

It is important to view Mary Ann's illegitimate children within the context of the old and new poor laws, and tempting to speculate whether the actions she took four years after Thomas's birth were the consequence of changes in legislation. In 1838, Mary Ann found herself pregnant again, but this time she took drastic steps to avoid being saddled with another child. The desperate actions that led to her appearance in court were described in The Northampton Mercury (9) which also suggested the possibility of two separate pregnancies: "Mary Ann Crane pleaded guilty to a charge of concealing the birth of her illegitimate child, by casting the body into the River Welland. - One Month's Imprisonment to Hard Labour. A true bill (10) was found in the case alluded to at the close of the Chief Justices charge, an attempt to procure an abortion, but the Learned Counsel who had the conduct of the case for the prosecution, opened by stating that he had no evidence of the pregnancy of the party, indeed, she herself positively swore that she was not in that state. Under these circumstances he agreed with his lordship that it would be quite useless to go into the case, and the prisoner was acquitted."

Infanticide was an option many were forced to choose. Assize records suggest that infanticide was the largest single murder category [B4], (12). Most cases involved unmarried mothers, but others could be involved too. Until 1803, most were prosecuted under a statute of 1624, which had stated that if a mother tried to conceal the death of her baby, she was presumed guilty of infanticide, unless she had proof that the baby was stillborn. For most of the 18th century, however, if a woman could show she had prepared for the baby's birth, she was acquitted. From 1803, proof of murder was required for conviction. Of course, there were many occasions when it was impossible to prove murder; juries were dealing largely with circumstantial evidence.

To get around this problem, the 1803 statute also empowered juries to return a lesser verdict of concealment of birth, punishable by a maximum of two years imprisonment, but often considerably less. Women must have been aware of this. Concealment of birth was a common occurrence, as the abundance of contemporary newspaper reports show. Not surprisingly, many of these reports relate to servants, who disguised their condition and gave birth in secret with no help. Some girls were fortunate in that their motherhood was brief. Illegitimate children were more vulnerable than legitimate children in many respects (underweight, impoverished background, health issues often arising from failed abortions and a higher death rate). Miscarriage and still-birth, which could happen to any mother, was also common. But other girls gave birth to live babies, which they could not support alone.

Mary Ann could simply have said that the baby was still-born and in her panic, she disposed of the body before she had really thought about what to do. How could the jury prove otherwise, unless several witnesses testified that they saw her kill the baby or throw it whilst still alive into the water? As hard as her month's imprisonment with hard labour must have been, the alternative could have been far worse, but Mary Ann probably had some idea of what the outcome would be when she tossed the body into the river.

Baby Farming

Little Buttercup

Little Buttercup

"A many years ago when I was young and charming, As some of you may know, I practis'd baby-farming" (13). So sang Little Buttercup to the crew of HMS Pinafore to explain the nature of the paradox (the mix-up in infancy between the ship's captain and a member of the crew) which had enveloped the company. W.S. Gilbert was using the words of his operetta to parody a whole industry which had grown up as the nineteenth century had drawn on.

There is no indication that Mary Ann ever placed a child with a baby farmer, or that there were any baby farmers operating within the Cottingham area. But, for some women (and workhouses), placing an unwanted child with a baby farmer was the answer. Such a case is told from our own extended tree in Auntie Nellie's Story in the TEAL pages. Unwanted or illegitimate infants were offloaded to a willing woman for a single lump-sum payment. The payment was meant to cover all needs, including, if necessary wet-nursing and would last until the child was grown. The mother would go away relieved that her own "problem" had vanished and she could probably salve her conscience with the thought that her infant would potentially grow up in more promising circumstances.

It was not long however before the unscrupulous realised that there were large profits to be made especially if the child died young. The full amount had already been paid. There was little likelihood of comeback from the mother. Some baby farmers adopted a large number of children at the same time who were then neglected, mistreated or even murdered. There were several high-profile and notorious cases of women who were tried and hanged for killing the infants in their care. The most infamous in London were Margaret Waters, executed in 1870, and Amelia Dyer, who was said to have killed up to 400 children and was executed in 1896. (11)

Further Reading

Many family historians will find a Mary Ann Crane in their family tree. With luck, her story will emerge in the extensive range of records available to researchers: newspaper reports, Quarter Sessions or Poor Law records, census returns and parish registers, for example. It is a sad fact, however, that most of the women who found themselves in this frightening and impossible situation, especially before Victorian times, will stay hidden for ever.

Inspiration for this article was gained from two sources. These are offered as a suggested but by no means exhaustive list of reference material on this fascinating subject. They discuss the historical, legal and social background to illegitimacy, and provide a comprehensive guide to the resources available to aid research into illegitimate ancestors.

[A:] McLaughlin, Eve: Illegitimacy (Guides for Family Historians): Federation of Family History Societies (Publications) (1985)
Our references: 1: pg 1; 2: pg 13

[B:] Paley, Ruth: My Ancestor was a Bastard (A guide to sources for illegitimacy in Endland and Wales: Society of Genealogists Enterprises Ltd, London (2004) ISBM: 978-1-903462-78-2
Our references: 1: pg 19; 2: pgs 4-5; 3: pgs 6-7; 4: pg 22


1. "The Greatest Plague of Life No. 9. Out for an airing": A cartoon in Four hundred humorous illustrations (2nd ed) by George Cruikshank: Published Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent. London (1900) at Internet Archive The Robarts Library of Humanities & Social Sciences, The University of Toronto, Canada
2. Archdeanary Resources: Presentment Bills: Examples of Offences: Manuscripts and Special Collections The University of Nottingham
3. Tranter, N.L.: Population and Society 1750-1940: Contrasts in Population Growth. Longmans Group (1985)
4. "Working Class Mother and child" in : Hardships of Working-Class Mothers in Victorian England Nicole Lemieux
5. Affilliation (family law) in Affiliation procedures in England wikipedia
6. Report from the Kettering Police Court: Northampton Evening Telegraph; Wednesday 26th September 1902: The British Newspaper Archive; © The British Library Board.
7. "The Outcast": An oil on canvas by Richard Redgrave (1851). This photographic reproduction of an original two-dimensional work of art is held at Wikimedia Commons. The original is held at The Victorian Web: literature, history & culture in the age of Victoria.
8 Frank Holl: "Hope": (1883) oil on canvas at wikigallery. Reproduction licenced by WikiGallery for non commercial use.
9. Report from the Crown Court, Northamptonshire Summer Assizes: Northampton Mercury; Saturday 21st July 1838: The British Newspaper Archive; © The British Library Board.
10. "True Bill" - a definition in: Grand Juries in England NOTE: Grand Juries were abolished in England in 1933 although they have been retained in many parts of the world. In the UK, their function was taken over by the Crown Prosecution Service - Ed
11. Baby Farming: History by the Yard. A history of London Policing. The illustration 'Infant retrieved from the river' © Alan Moss: reproduced with permission
12 . Infanticide; Concealment of Birth: Explanations of Types and Categories of Indictable Offences: Proceedings of the OLD BAILEY London's Central Criminal Court, 1674 to 1913
13. "A Many Years Ago": Mrs Cripps (Little Buttercup) and Chorus: Act II: 'HMS Pinafore': W.S. Gilbert & Sir Arthur Sullivan (1878)

Page added: March 3rd 2012

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