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Did English Women Take Advantage of Anonymous Birth Laws in France?

Mother and baby

Around the world, today has been about women, so we have decided to write of a conundrum about women that has puzzled us for some time. For most of the nineteenth century and up until 1922, it was possible for a birth to be registered in France without naming one or even both of the parents. The registration usually would be made by a midwife, sage femme, or more rarely by a doctor. The child's sex and name would be given. The father would be identified as simply "unknown father", père inconnu. Alternatively, the father and possibly also the mother could have been "not named", père non dénomé or mère non dénommée. This was usually done when a child was illegitimate and the mother or both parents wanted no record with their names linked to such a child. 

In French law, even if the child stayed with one or both parents, if they did not formally recognise the child, reconnaissance, he or she had no rights of family relationship, such as inheritance. If a woman wanted to abandon a child at birth without breaking the law, there was later a procedure to give birth completely anonymously, informally known as Accouchement sous X. (We recently noted a facebook group of such children trying to find their birth parents.)

Our conundrum comes from a pattern we have begun to notice. Rather a lot of people have told us of an ancestor who appears, seemingly out of nowhere, on a British census as a small child, living with his or her mother. The mother and the child have the same surname, but there is no father in the household. The census shows that the mother married in France and that the child was born in France, often in Paris. Yet, while the birth, with parents unnamed, at times may be found, a search for the marriage will be fruitless, when it should not be so. 

We begin to wonder if anonymous parents on a birth registration were not possible in Britain? (We know nothing of British genealogical research.) Is it possible that, for women who could afford to do so, coming to France to give birth anonymously and then returning with a new name, was actually a practice at one time? Dear Readers, have any of you come across this? Do, please share your tales.

UPDATE: Madame R. has sent this informative message:

In Britain, once birth registration began, in I think 1837ish, an unmarried mother usually gave her own name, and the baby's surname would be the same, with just a gap where the father should be. I have a grandmother and a great grandmother both of whom have missing fathers on their birth certificates. Before that in the early 19th century, 'natural born' children are very common in the parish baptism registers. The country was somewhat relaxed in its morals and less keen on church going. It took the vigour and renewal of the Oxford Movement to rebuild the dilapidated churches and change the devotional and 'moral' sensibility of the nation.

In the early years of the century, quite often working class or trades families might have the baby first and then get marred when they could afford to. By the time my grandmother was born in 1895 illegitimacy was such a disgrace that through her entire life she never admitted it, and was told that both her parents had died by the grandparents who brought her up.It was only later that she discovered the truth, but burned the letter and never told her children who her father was. So in the mid to late century, I wouldn't be surprised if inventing marriages in Paris was a desirable option, but I am not sure whether it would have been practical. Isn't it more likely that the marriage records are simply difficult to find, especially if they were before the Siege of Paris and the Franco Prussian War? If they just made up the marriage to cover the case, the mother would have to stay abroad a long time to be convincing. Perhaps they married at sea, which would be a different set of records. Incidentally the census returns do not ask where one was married only where born. Most likely the confinement was in Paris but there never was a marriage.

Many Thanks!

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy