While cobbling together my fathers’s family tree 1, I discovered that his paternal Nixon line2dies out in 1834, when Robert Nixon is born in Marton, North Yorkshire, taking his surname from his mother, Hannah Nixon of nearby Kirkdale. Their reputation is redeemed five years later in 1840 when Hannah marries Christopher Neesam of Osmotherly shortly after she gives birth to a second child, a girl.
There’s no record of Robert’s birth or who Robert’s real father is – and, thanks to further research, I think I know the reason why.
Judging from my father’s family tree,unwed motherhood was not unusual among these Yorkshire farmers.
Church records from rural Yorkshire in medieval times and beyond back up my observation. They reveal that unwed mothers were, indeed, commonplace even way-back-when and the number of unwed mothers in that place only increased over the next few centuries, most notably in the northern ridings.3
As it happens, Yorkshireman Robert Nixon, Hannah Nixon’s illegitimate child, gets married in 1857 to a kindred spirit, Martha Featherstone. Martha, too, had been born out of wedlock in 1835.
Martha’s mom, Mary Featherstone of Pickering, like her mother-in-law Hannah Nixon Neesam before her, gets married a few years later, in 1840, to one Joseph Shaw. 6
Oddly, the DNA cousin matches/tree matches suggest my father is related to both Joseph Shaw and Mary Featherstone,* so this could be a case of a very delayed marriage, for whatever reason.
Maybe that is Hannah Nixon’s case, too. However, I’ve yet to find any Neesam DNA connection to my father’s tree.
In the small town of Rudby (7 miles from Marton, just north of the moors) as much as ten percent of women had children out of wedlock in the early 1800’s. These unwed mothers were stigmatized not only for religious reasons but because they were costly to the town. Sadly, the ‘bastardy wages’ paid to these mothers didn’t do much to end their woe or improve their children’s prospects. An illegitimate child was twice as likely to die in infancy as a child with legal parentage.
Local authorities in Rudby believed that most unwed mothers were the result of ‘courting couples’ where the young man involved was simply marriage-averse, sometimes preferring jail time to tying the knot. It didn’t help the situation, they said, that many unmarried tenant farmers were content with their ‘live-in’ servants (sic).
Modern scholars examining these same records acknowledge that adultery and incest (and, let’s face it, rape) inflated the number of unwed mothers in England but, they think, not to any great degree.4
Grim history, indeed, but my research findings do get brighter.
According to another source5, unwed mothers in the country did have it better than their counterparts in more urbanized areas. A more stable population likely made for a better support system for these women.
In fact, unwed mothers in 18th and 19th century rural Yorkshire weren’t even expected to name a father. A gal in the family way just told her own mom who gathered up her hat and shawl and headed out to find an eligible young man to take the bio-father’s place. (Practical people, those Yorkshire farmers.)
Unwed mothers were also protected by the old Norse superstitions still adhered to by many. One of these superstitions maintained that pregnant women had magical powers, so they were not to be crossed.
The workhouse in Helmsley, hometown of the Nixon clan from the 1800’s onward. Unmarried mothers might end up here to pay off their ‘bastardy’ support, where they were allowed to nurse their child but twice a day. 3
The street in Helmsley where the Nixons lived in 1911. My grandfather, Robert Nixon, was born here in 1890. In 1911, he was a footman at Duncombe Park. Supposedly he got a girl pregnant right about then so he was sent out to Malaya in 1912 to be a planter. Family myth says this woman was either a fellow servant or the Earl’s daughter. Considering the high cost of going to Malaya in the day and that posts in Malaya were given out to sons of richer men, I suspect the woman was from an important family. This would have made a great sub-plot on Downton Abbey, a fictional story that unfolds in the same area.
1. I admit that I mostly used other people’s research to compile my tree. My father, a child of the Raj, told me little about his British roots. The only information I had to go on was that his mother’s father was a Methodist minister and that some of his ancestors were hanged for sheep stealing. See Border Reiving Ruffians. Also see Dissenters and Poets.
But after I compiled his tree with ancestors from places like Helmsley, Farndale and Appleton-le-Moors, I discovered, through DNA, that the ‘cousin trail’ matches on Ancestry supports the tree, 100 percent, at least for the first few generations. My father has matches both in centimorgans (dna) and tree with people on all branches of the tree.
Let me give you one example: When I discovered, using a stranger’s tree, that my father had a great grandmother, Anne Nesfield from Sleights, this explained his rather silly middle name to me. My father signed his name P N F Nixon, as in Peter Nesfield Forster Nixon.
The Nesfield clan of Ugglebarnby etc. Yorkshire is a well established. My father is a close genetic match with someone else with this Anne Nesfield in his tree. These genes make great rugby players as both sides have world-class players.
2. In genetics, the male Y chromosome haplogroup (or set of common alleles passed from father to son) is a much valued tool used by historians and ethno-anthropologists to track historical population movements back to the bronze age and even farther. All haplogroups are assigned letter and number signatures. My Yorkshire father Peter Nixon’s Y dna haplogroup is I1 Z63. I1 is the most common haplogroup in Northern Europe.
Apparently, my father’s Z63 subgroup dominated Northern Germany before the arrival of Charlemagne (who infamously lopped off the heads of thousands of male Saxons) and has has deep origins in Jutland (Denmark). Yorkshire is the most Anglo Saxon region in all England.
3. Hastings, R. P. Poverty and the Poor Law in the North Riding of Yorkshire: 1780-1837. Unwed mothers often had to repay their bastardy wages by employment in the Workhouse. In Victorian Times in Helmsley, as recommended by the authorities, mothers in workhouses were permitted to nurse their children only twice daily. The infants’ diet was supplemented with ONE meal of cow’s milk sweetened with sugar.
4. ibid ( That seems odd to me as I know that Emmeline Pankhurst turned to woman suffrage advocacy when she saw so many young teen patients in her husband’s Manchester clinic who were pregnant by incest.)
5. Gillis, J.R. For Better For Worse: British Marriages from 1600 to Present.
6. There is no birth record for either Robert Nixon or Martha Featherstone. Census records are what the genealogies go by.
I found this on Youtube, an interview with Tamara Hoggarth, born 1860 in Marton. (The poster says “She’s speaking English, I promise.” According to his blurb, she also had an illegitimate child before marrying