The plight of illegitimate children was a well-known trope in Victorian fiction, and a concern to reformers of marriage law as well as those who worked for children's rights.
Many historians have studied the history of childhood in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, but these studies have rarely made any distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children.
First, I have read the autobiographies and memoirs of children in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, both legitimate and illegitimate, but focusing more on those of illegitimate children.
Illegitimate children were a minority of infants, but not a negligible group.
How the lives of illegitimate children progressed depended on many factors, including the family's class, the level of secrecy about their status, and the success or failure of the relationship between the parents.
As Yeames pessimistically summed up the story, "The future of children who have known such a childhood may easily be imagined." (13) In these cases, the illegitimate children did not experience tremendously different lives from those of their legitimate peers.
All the same, illegitimate children faced serious disadvantages, although the problems varied depending on the class and structure of the family.
Even if the illegitimate child survived infancy, mothers sometimes saw them as obstacles to forming permanent unions, especially if the new man made it clear he did not wish to support children from previous liaisons.
Cecil Chapman, who was a magistrate of the police courts in Southwark between 1901-1908, reported in his memoirs about cases of cruelty to children from "want of self-restraint in the exercise of irresponsible power," insisting that "every one of them had to do with a step-child or an illegitimate child ..." (21) Often the abuse escalated if the mother died and left an illegitimate child with a step-parent.
Maria M'Neil had three illegitimate children living with her in her lodgings in London.
The applicant must have had only one illegitimate child, have "fallen" under a promise of marriage, and been of previously irreproachable behavior.
As the Victorian age advanced, and more and more child welfare initiatives began, the effects for illegitimate children were contradictory.