Illegitimi Non Carborundum

“I am a bastard, too. I love bastards! I am bastard begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in valor, in everything illegitimate.” William Shakespeare, Troilus & Cressida

Today I began my long-term volunteer position at Gwent Archives, based on the old Steelworks site in Ebbw Vale. The regeneration of this vast area of land continues apace, and it currently hosts a brand new FE college and sports centre. The Archive, based in the impressive Grade II listed former General Office, are a lovely juxtaposition of old and new. My positive experience was no doubt greatly enhanced by the fact they’re not stingy in turning the heating up, which was particularly welcome on such a cold day, but seriously: it’s a great place, and the staff are really friendly.

The Archives, formerly the Monmouthshire Record Office and the Gwent County Record Office, have been running since 1938 and today serve the five unitary authorities encompassed within the modern-day Blaenau Gwent. They have a dedicated conservation department and a broad collection that holds, amongst many other things, lists of applications for exemption from military service (given 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1, this alone is a potentially interesting item).

My task today was to assist in transcribing some old Court ledgers, listing petty crimes committed in the Tredegar, Blackwood and Ebbw Vale areas throughout June and July of 1933. Some of the entries were quite mundane: a whole page dedicated to persons who had fallen foul of “Bye Law” [sic], for example, but there were some really stand-out entries in the ledger: a gentleman fined for “being in possession of two cigarettes”, and another for not keeping his lamp maintained (these were probably important issues down a mine, and warranted some form of punishment). Maintenance of wife and child(ren) was another common feature, but the most interesting to me were the cases involving bastardy.

The status of a bastard (or whoreson) was different in Wales before conquest: a bastard child, so long as they were acknowledged by the father, was still equal to a legitimate child insofar as the law was concerned, but after Wales was incorporated into England the status of the bastard changed considerably: some parishes in England, like Edgmond in Salop, even had a special register for them. The blame was placed, rather predictably, on alcohol:

It is suggested the increase in illegitimacy in the 18th century was caused by the rapid growth in ale houses 1730s to 1780’s. Peter Laslett in The World We Have Lost (1965) states “Our ancestors, by this test of bastards born and registered as such, were rather more moral sexually than are we ourselves.”

Fathers of illegitimate children were required by the parish to support their children financially: in one entry in the record, a fine in the sum of £44 was laid against the child’s father – given that the average weekly salary at the time was £3.60 a week, and the average house would have set you back £60, this was a phenomenal sum.

This isn’t an advertisement for the Archive per se, but it is fascinating what you can find amongst its records. Past lives rendered in a simple line, distant relatives perhaps forgotten even by their families; their inclusion in the public record their last remaining link to the living. The fines were rather sad little entries in the record, and I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to them all: the little bastards of Blaenau Gwent, stigmatised from birth in both blood and ink.

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