Illegitimacy: once a shameful secret but now a celebration

William

UNTIL fairly recently British society placed great emphasis on the bonds of marriage, and those who deviated from this social norm faced condemnation from their community.

And having a ‘bastard’ child was a stigma too far for many families.

Such was the shame that families went to great lengths to keep their guilty secret under wraps.

“We don’t think twice about illegitimacy now; it’s really hard to get your mind around the idea that the shame was once so awful that women were prepared to kill their babies,” says Ruth Paley, author of Was Your Ancestor a Bastard?

But that awful stigma of the past has given birth to two joyous reconciliations for me, my mother, my immediate family and a new extended family.

And here lies two stories:

My aunt Betty was my father’s eldest sister, born in 1919 to my grandparents Tom and Alice Outterside in the tough mining village of Throckley, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Her sister Win was born in 1922 and dad Ray and his twin brother Geoff came eight years later in 1930.

On the back of the Depression and in search of better job opportunities, in 1933 my grandparents and their four children, moved south to an expanding manufacturing town on the outskirts of London.

It was a good move all round as my grandfather quickly gained the prestigious job as clerk to the town council and over the next 13 years the four children acquired careers in aircraft design, nursing and civil aviation.

But while my dad, Geoff and Win soon found happy domesticity in married life, Betty was left as the spinster sister living at home with my grandparents.

She had got a good secretarial job, but true love and a husband was to pass her by.

But then, in 1946 Betty enjoyed a brief and loving relationship with a man she met through work. The problem was, this man was already married.

And as fate would have it, at the age of 27, Betty found she was pregnant.

The stigma of their daughter expecting a baby out of wedlock was too much for my grandparents and they sent Betty to live 50 miles away until the time came for the birth.

And in 1947 she gave birth to a bouncing baby boy, whom she named Richard.

It should have been a joyous occasion, but my grandparents had already planned Betty and Richard’s futures. And when the baby was just two weeks old he was given away for adoption, and Betty sworn by shame to NEVER mention the birth or speak of her now lost child.

So the years rolled by. And while family whispers of Betty’s child perpetuated, they were only whispers.

And true to her promise, Betty never talked about her son. But she became an amazing aunt to five nephews and nieces and a great aunt to many more.

In 1997 she died tragically and suddenly after routine operation on an internal ulcer went wrong. She was 78 years old.

She died, never knowing her son.

Over the ensuing years I tried in vain to trace her child, but despite the growth of the internet, all I was ever able to find was confirmation of his birth.

Then two years ago something remarkable happened.

Out of the blue, a 67-year-old man got in touch with our family.

It was Richard – now called John – who had traced us!

His wife Sue explained: “John had a very happy and loving upbringing with his adoptive family and is now so happy that he has finally found his biological family.

“He didn’t feel it was right to try to find his mother while his adoptive parents were still alive and so sadly it was too late to meet Betty.”

Sadly for John the reconciliation was too late for him to know his real mother. And sadly too late to meet my father, who died in 2008.

But our family have showered John and Sue with photographs and personal treasures and he has visited and laid flowers at Betty’s grave.

Family stories are exchanged and one by one he is meeting all his long lost relations.

Most importantly he has gained a new family and we have gained a new cousin.

Love never dies.

And yesterday that truth came home again, in the most unexpected way.

My maternal great-grandmother Lucy Eastman was born in 1875 to a farming family in Hampshire, and after basic schooling began a life as a servant and seamstress, downstairs for an aristocratic family.

No-one now knows the circumstances, but she became pregnant while in service and gave birth to my grandfather Eric in 1904.

But rather than throw her into the workhouse or the streets, the family took care of her and her baby.

Then in 1907, aged 32, a stunningly attractive Lucy met and married my maternal great-grandfather Stephen, who helped her raise my grandfather like his own child.

Due to social pressures of the time, my grandfather was not told about his illegitimacy – he was given his stepfather’s surname – until preparing for his own wedding to my grandmother in 1926.

Then confronted by the minister, and his hastily obtained birth certificate, the full truth began to emerge.

He lived the rest of his life never publicly acknowledging his illegitimacy until shortly before his death in 1978 when he confided in my mother and his other children.

And so it may have remained.

But something remarkable happened at his wedding all those years earlier.

He had invited two cousins to the event in downtown Chelsea: Gwen Eastman, who was his mother’s niece from nearby Fulham, and Bill, who was his step-father’s nephew.

And romance blossomed at the wedding reception… Gwen and Bill fell in love and three years later in 1926 were married.

For the ensuing years they were always my grandfather’s closest relations, carrying the family blood of both his mother and stepfather.

I have fond memories as a child of my grandparents taking me for visits to Gwen and Bill’s wonderful smallholding on the Hampshire/Berkshire border.

And then something remarkable happened again…

After six months of working for Momentum and the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party a small personal miracle occurred.

Among hundreds of new Twitter Followers, yesterday I suddenly acquired a new Follower, a lady called Liz with a surname I recognised… a surname that like Outterside, is rare and rather unusual.

A quick exchange of Twitter messages, plus a phone call to my mum, and Liz and I both realised we are related…. twice over!

She is the grand-daughter of Gwen and Bill, and like me has similar memories of visits to their small-holding!

Now 24 hours have passed and we share the same excitement of discovering long lost family.

If it wasn’t for my great grandmother’s illegitimate child and his wedding to my grandmother; neither of us would be here now!

I attach with this blog a copy of the memorial notice of our shared great-great grandfather!

Life can be remarkable at times.

 

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Author: seagullnic

Writer, editor, lecturer and part-time musician. Passions in life: my family, Bob Dylan, music of many genres, Brighton and Hove Albion FC, cooking plus good food and wine.

3 thoughts on “Illegitimacy: once a shameful secret but now a celebration”

  1. A loving story remarkably composed. One that should be told if only to give hope to the millions who have found themselves in similar situations. I personally knew many boys who shared you sadness. I would like to think a few might be lucky enough to share your memories. Well Done

  2. I am utterly overwhelmed and delighted to read this beautiful, but at times, heartbreaking story, Nic. Thank you for your eloquence and generosity in sharing these stories of love always shining through.

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