Friday, 8 February 2013

Illegitimacy and the Sheriff Court

A few months ago we were approached by an individual researching a child born in 1856. Originally the child was registered as Donald Smith, son of Agnes Smith, illegitimate and no father’s name mentioned. The entry has been amended,however, to say that on the 15th day of August 1859 at the Sheriff Court of Aberdeen it was decreed that Donald Ross of Upper Kirkgate, Aberdeen, was the father.

At first glance this seems great, we can identify the father. Unfortunately, though, an inspection of the census and other records did not successfully identify Donald Ross.

The next step was to look at the decree books for the court. Sadly,however, in Aberdeen for this period they are missing. There are court minute books but these simply gave us the date of the decree (which we knew from the birth certificate anyway) and the solicitor of the pursuer, an interesting detail but not terribly helpful. If we had been able to see the decree books it may have told us enough information to identify the father, and it may also have told us when the court case began.

The only other option is to consult the court processes. In a nutshell the processes are the surviving paperwork for each case, and they would therefore likely give an address and occupation for Donald’s father.

The problem: as indexed by the National Archives there are 11 boxes for 1859! Starting at SC1/11/774 I searched these boxes, but I didn’t find it. In consultation with the client we continued to search back through the boxes, and eventually we reached box number SC1/11/749 (25 boxes later).

This was a time consuming search, and many would have given up. Not only did it cost the customer to pay for us to conduct the search but as any individual can only pre-order 12 items into the National Archives from TTH (where these records are out-stored) on any one day, it took a number of trips.

As I said though, eventually we found the record, and what did it tell us? It gave us the address, occupation and mother’s name of Donald Ross. It also contained statements and witness testimonies which gave a very detailed description of the relationship between Agnes Smith and Donald Ross.

Donald Ross appealed the case but lost. The question is, did the court make the right decision? Our customer is now tracing descendants of Donald so a DNA test can prove it once and for all.

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