Illegitimacy. It’s an age old problem. What it’s not is a modern phenomenon. I think everyone researching their family history has to be prepared for it, it’s easy to think “people didn’t do that back then”, but they most definitely did, and often more than once! Anyone I’ve ever talked to in the family history circle has had cases of illegitimacy, it really was incredibly common. If you’re lucky, you might find references to your relatives in the Bastardy Bonds of the Parish in which the event took place, as the parish was the sole provider of welfare if there were no family members to take on the task. Naturally, if the father of the child could be named then the Parish could demand welfare payment from him, so the pregnant girl would often be forced to sign the Bastardy Bonds naming the father of the child. Not all of these records have survived, but as the registrations of Births, Marriages and Deaths began in the England and Wales in 1837, I was lucky enough to find enough references in them to more than make up for the lack of Bastardy Bonds for the area I was searching in.

This is the story of my 4x Gt Grandmother, Martha Stirrup, who appeared to make a career out of illegitimacy, but unusually, it was with the same man, John Avery. It makes for fascinating reading.

Martha Stirrup was born in Burtonwood, Lancashire in 1813, the youngest child of William Stirrup and Alice Rosbotham. However, the bright lights of Lancashire held no appeal for young Martha, who at 22, turned up in Kent, where her first daughter, Mary Avery Stirrup, was baptized on October 25th, 1835. There was no father present, but Martha supported her young family by selling pots at the local markets.

Her second child, Ellen Avery Stirrup, was born in Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire in early 1837, followed by John Avery Stirrup in 1840, Jane Avery Stirrup in 1844 and William Avery Stirrup in 1845 all in Durham. Birth certificates for the three younger children confirmed they were illegitimate, and that their middle name was indeed Avery.

At this point, the assumption was that a connection would be found between the Averys and the Stirrups back in Lancashire, but a surprise was in store, as the 1841 census found Martha and her three children living in Wingate, Durham, right next door to John and Mary Avery. As a Dealer and a Hawker, it was obvious that John’s profession would have easily brought him into contact with Martha, who was still a “Dealer in Pots”. My suspicions about John and Martha were confirmed by the arrival of the wedding certificate of my 3xGt Grandparents, Jane Avery Stirrup and John Embleton. Jane helpfully pointed the finger at John Avery as being her father! Buoyed by this discovery, two more of her siblings wedding certificates were obtained, and on both their father was listed as John Avery.

The 1851 census found both families living near Lanchester in Durham. Only this time they were all in the same house, with John as the head and the Stirrup children listed as sons and daughters of the head, Martha was a “lodger”. At this juncture Mary Avery’s role in the whole affair was a mystery. Was she aware that her husband had fathered five children with another woman? Maybe she knew, and accepted the rather odd situation as she didn’t appear to have any children of her own. Either way, Mary must have decided enough was enough, as she moved out of her home between 1851 and 1861, and left John and Martha to it! She didn’t move far, and both Mary and John still listed their status as married in the 1861 census, even though they were openly living apart.

The apparent lack of respect for the conventions of the day must have shaped the lives of the young Stirrups in the household, especially the girls, as the legacy of illegitimacy continued. The oldest daughter, Mary, gave birth to her final child two years after her husband died and the middle daughter, Ellen, had a son almost 13 years before she finally married. My 3xGt Grandmother Jane, was at least married before her children arrived, but her second daughter presented her with an illegitimate granddaughter when she was barely 17.

I had decided in my own mind that Mary Avery was not aware of her husbands second life, and when she found out about it, she moved out. I was aware that the first children born to Martha and John had been christened Mary and John, but they were very common names at the time. Many months later, when perusing records for Tanfield, looking for a different branch of my family, I spotted an entry that stopped me dead in my tracks. It was the christening for the youngest son, William Avery Stirrup on 25th May 1845. He was christened as William Avery, with parents listed as John and Mary Avery, yet his birth certificate lists his mother as Martha, his last name as Stirrup and Avery as his middle name.

The only conclusion to be drawn from this, is that unable to have a family of her own, Mary agreed to allow Martha into the family, and passed the resultant children off as her own. Perhaps the deceit became too much for her, or maybe she just finally realised that her husband cared more for Martha than he did for her.

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