Our resident expert Stephen Rigden, pictured below, answers your queries.
From Ben Bassett:
‘I am currently researching my family tree but there’s a family secret and we want to find out if it’s true. My great-grandfather was Robert Francis Bassett, born in 1918 in Cornwall. We know his mother was Millie Bassett, born in 1888 in Mevagissey, Cornwall. Why was the son’s surname the same as his mother’s? What’s more, there is a child before him and a child after with the surname ‘Champion’. Champion was the surname of the man Millie later married.
The family story is that in 1918, James Champion, the father of the first son, could have been at war. During this time, Millie became pregnant by another man – maybe a German prisoner of war? Or could it be that the first two children were illegitimate and James Champion adopted the first one and not the second one? We were going to buy Robert Bassett’s birth certificate to see who the father was but we don’t want to waste money on it if it does not show the father on it. Is there a way to do this for free? Is there another way to do this?’
‘Thanks for sharing this family secret with the world wide web! Seriously, it’s an interesting but perhaps not too unusual predicament in family history research. Generally speaking, at that date, illegitimate children were meant to have been registered under the surname of the mother, unless the father was also present at registration or otherwise acknowledged paternity and consented to his name being in the birth register. As the birth of your great-grandfather Robert was registered under his mother Millie’s maiden surname Bassett, it seems to me highly unlikely that the birth register, or the certificate which would be extracted for you upon application, would give the name or occupation of the father – probably there would be a line through these two fields on the certificate.
We do not know that James Champion was not the birth father. I can see that he married Millie Bassett in 1920 and had two children by her registered under the surname Champion in 1921 and 1923. I can also see in the index what was probably Millie’s first child, in 1915, registered as Bassett. It would, therefore, seem that that child too was registered solely under the mother’s name.
Formal registration of adoption did not commence until 1927 and all earlier adoptions are legally regarded as fosterings. It is possible that the first child was acknowledged by James Champion and took his name, whereas perhaps the second child, Robert, could not conceivably have been his (for example, if he was at the front or otherwise away from home for an extended period).
It may be the case that you cannot establish the true situation one way or the other; however, you could take a look at local baptism registers. For this, you need to know the family’s confession. Mevagissey’s Anglican parish church registers are lodged at Cornwall Record Office in Truro (under their archival ref P147/1/10). Locally there were also Non-Conformist congregations (Wesleyan Methodists and Bible Christians, for example). You could try the Anglican registers first. Note that it is quite possible that, even if you find the baptism, it will also be silent as to paternity and just bear the name of the mother.’
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