“A secret’s worth depends on the people from whom it must be kept.”

― Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind

Whispered by elder relatives or discussed in small town gatherings. Family secrets excite genealogists and agitate family members in equal measure. If someone stepped outside of society’s norms or was considered shameful, the person was airbrushed from official history unless a paper trail was created by authorities or institutions such as asylums, prisons or orphanages.

In this article we will explore the stories of black sheep and outcasts and the evidence we can use solve our family’s puzzles. I will also tell you some of my own family’s private affairs. Be aware, though, it’s impossible to predict what you’ll find, and some secrets are better left at that!

Unearthing our Ancestor's Family Secrets. Illegitimacy, Bigamy and Crime
A Mother Depositing Her Child at the Foundling Hospital in Paris by Henry Nelson O'Neil (1817–1880). Photo credit: The Foundling Museum

My Family's Not-so-European Secret

When we start writing our family history, we’re usually unaware of shame and scandal. A comment here and there, perhaps, a rumour. This all tends to change – and fairly quickly – as soon as we start revealing the stories of our ancestors and shaking the carpet under which the darkest episodes were swept. I can almost guarantee it.

It took me about a week to run into the first skeleton in my family chronicle. “We’ve all come from Northern Italy“, my four grandparents, first generation born in South America, had said full of Lombardian pride. Except that as soon as I opened the 1895 census, there was my great-great-grandmother, Maria Silva.

The Census and the documents I soon after tracked down quickly uncovered three facts that contradicted what my relatives had said about our origins. One, Maria was born in Brazil and was a mulata, a person of mixed white and black ancestry. Two, she was only fourteen when she had had her first child – and to this day there’s no trace of any marriage. And three, perhaps because she still had trouble with the language, the Census person had been registered as idiota, or intellectually disabled. Her whole presence had been completely erased from my family’s history, so there’s very little I know about this woman. They had tried to make her disappear, but I found her, and I can proudly say I come from Maria even if all I know about her is her name.

A page from the 1851 census.
A page from the 1851 census. Courtesy of The National Archives.


If we do a search for the word “bastard” in the 1901 census, the results will show 443 people with it as a surname. This number would have been larger in the 1801 one, but we find practically no appearances of it nowadays. 

In the era before civil registration, illegitimacy was marked with a horizontal black line on a birth certificate, or the word unknown where the father should be. While this occurrence was high yet not teeth-gnashing among ordinary folk, if the woman was from a higher social stratum the crime was particularly aggravating, especially if the father came from a lower class. The woman would be hastily married, cast out or sent on a nine-month holiday, with the child put up for adoption. It’s estimated that between 1618 and 1967, some 150,000 unfortunate children were dispatched to the British colonies. A lot of babies were also abandoned by their mothers as soon as they were born, if they were lucky in a place where they could be found. In response to dead or dying babies in the gutters of Georgian streets, the philantropist Thomas Coram founded hospitals that gave home and care to thousands od unwanted children. 

After 1837 (with the advent of civil records), an illegitimate birth was recorded with the naming of the mother but not the father. Of course people have always lied a little, and some couples registered as married even though they were not. That’s why we shouldn’t believe everything we read, especially when we see information in documents that don’t seem to match. For example, it was common for the woman’s parents to register a baby as their own, and for some women who had been registered as mothers to appear as ‘sisters’ in the census.

Adoption Records

From 1927-31, national registers of adoptions were introduced in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. You can find more information here:


Official Registration Documents

  • FreeREG aims to provide free access to baptism, marriage, and burial records, extracted from parish registers, non-conformist records and other relevant sources in the UK.
  • FreeBMD is a project that aims to transcribe the Civil Registration index of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales – and providing them for free online.
  • FreeCEN is a project that aims to provide free Internet searches of the 19th century UK census returns.
Page 43 of London Town (1883).
Page 43 of London Town (1883). "The Foundling Hospital". Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Bigamy and Divorce

For most people in the 19th and 20th century, divorce was out of reach for married couples who wished to be separated or live apart. And if they wanted to remarry, such unions would become bigamous – which was a fellony in English law. In 1600, divorce was permited but costed £1,000.

The lower classes, unable to afford such inmense sums, had to restort to more creative solutions. While some chose to cohabit in sin, may risked a second ceremony. And of course some were deceived into bigamous partnerships unknowingly. 

People’s understanding of what marriage and divorce meant began to change in the 19th century. In 1845 the law began to express sympathy for those convicted of bigamy, as the situation had become fairly intolerable. The 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act took the jurisdiction of marriages out of ecclesiastical courts and made it a civil procedure. Now people could be divorced if ther was adultery, because marriage was a contract as opposed to an indissoluble eclesiastical ideal. Divorced wives could inherit and bequath property, get maintainance payments and protect their own earnings from a husband.

Although divorce remained a weahty privilege and the woman had to prove adultery plus one charge of incest, bigamy, cruelty or desertion, it helped prepare things for the 1937 introduction of legal aid for divorce cases. This put an end to bigamy, a common practise that had previously been punished with execution (in the 1600s), transportation (1840s) or jail (1860s). 

Divorce Records

Records of divorce proceedings are available at the National Archives:


Bigamy Prosecutions

Bigamous mariages were often tried in assize courts, available at the National Archives or National Library of Wales:

Joséphine, first wife of Napoleon, obtained the civil dissolution of her marriage under the Napoleonic Code of 1804.
Joséphine, first wife of Napoleon, obtained the civil dissolution of her marriage under the Napoleonic Code of 1804. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots

It’s not uncommon to find ancestors with mental health problems – or what people at the time considered they were, as these were not applied scientifically or even with rigour. For example, women with post-natal depression were considered maniacs or lunatics. As I mentioned, my great-great grandmother Maria was registered as idiot. Idiots were people who, in theory, suffered from congenital mental problems. According to this classification, lunatics were prone to losing their reason, and imbeciles had fallen into a state of insanity in later life. 

Lack of knowledge and medical study led to disorders being lumped together uner one label, and those suffering from them were gathered together in asylums and offered similar treatments. Prior to the Victorian era there were few of them, the alternative being the workhouse

By the mid-19th century, counties were required to build and run asylums, which turned it into a growing industry. Because there was no ‘cure’, very few people ever left an asylum, so numbers piled up. Many of them had just been unable to fit in their time, and women in particularly were generally seen as weak and prone to madness. In this case, both poor and rich suffered. Wealthy people deemed insane were considered unable to manage their affairs, so the state was eager to get their hands on that person’s money. 

It wasn’t uncommon for women who had had illegitimate children to be seem as morally insane and sent away to an asylum. It wasn’t until the 20th century that treatment and drugs were introduced, with the development of psychiatry. 

Hospital and Asylum Records

Most historic records are closed for 100 years and in the relevat county record offices. Some are available at the National Archives:


Lunatic Records in Chancery

The State kept records of people considered ‘lunatics’ or ‘idiots’ which can be found at the National Archives in the court of Chancery:

Dr. Philippe Pinel at the Salpêtrière, 1795 by Tony Robert-Fleury. Pinel ordering the removal of chains from patients at the Paris Asylum for insane women.
Dr. Philippe Pinel at the Salpêtrière, 1795 by Tony Robert-Fleury. Pinel ordering the removal of chains from patients at the Paris Asylum for insane women. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


A lot of our ancestors had found themselves in trouble with the law. Criminal and prison records are, luckily to us, a great source of genealogical information. 

These type of records normally include a physical description of the person, something you might not find anywhere else, as well as mugshot even in Victorian times. They were particularly keen to cut the crime rate, so punishment was usually severe.

Hanging was the ultimate punishment, usually reserved for serious offences such as murder and rape but sometimes utilized for lesser ones as well. For example, in 1803 John Moses was hanged for stealing drapery goods from a shop.

From 1868, hangings took place inside prison walls, although newspaper reporters were allowed in. Victorians thought public executions were too popular; they created an almost festive atmosphere that, rather than discourage crime, increased its rates. The numbers were reduced, and between 1840 and 1899 there were only 22 executions. From 1861 on, only murderers could be hanged, and in 1969 Parliament confirmed the abolition of capital punishment for murder.

Another popular way of dealing with criminals was transportation. It was cheap to dispatch a prisoner overseas, and there was no worrying about them re-offending. Out-of-sight, out-of-mind! Around 50,000 men and women were transported to the Caribbean and America between 1615 and 1776, and later to Australia. Terms of transportation were usually 7 or 14 years, and the conditions of the ships were so poor that many people died on route. Transportation was used to serious as well as petty crimes, such as sheep-stealing or pick-pocketing. The Victorian era cut back on transportation, as it had very little effect on crime rates – plus the colonies were not too happy about this ‘solution’. 

The most common punishment, however, was prison. Before the 19th century, prisons were overcrowded and disease-filled, with people of different sex and with different conditions all locked together. You also had to pay when your sentence was over, so if someone had no money they would have to stay despite serving their term. Sanitary conditions improved in the late 18th and early 19th century, and hard labor was abolished in 1898.

Criminal Trial Proceedings

Criminal ancestors can be researched through court records, which can be found at the National Archives (England) or the National Library of Wales (Wales):

The Millbank prison's burial ground, with the Houses of Parliament in the background.
The Millbank prison's burial ground, with the Houses of Parliament in the background. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Final Thoughts

The secrets in our family can give us rich genealogical information that we might not be able to find anywhere else.

A mugshot, a little word written in a census column, these are invaluable pieces of the puzzle that is the story of our ancestors. 

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