Lawshall: of private baptisms and misgotten infants

hogarth-tristram-shandy-baptismHogarth’s depiction of Tristram Shandy’s home baptism.

The other week, I started to transcribe the parish registers for Lawshall in Suffolk, starting from the earliest date available – baptisms in 1563. Some rather intriguing things have appeared in them, and I thought I’d share them with you because they shine a light on the ordinary lives of people in the past.

Private baptism

When looking through a baptism register, you’ll sometimes see a note saying that the child was privately baptised. This means the child wasn’t baptised at Sunday service., usually because it was thought too weak to survive until then. I’ll write about this in my section on parish registers as sources, but it can mean the child was baptised by the priest visiting the family home (as in the above image), or by the midwife attending the birth. In fact, according to Anglican practice, in an emergency, a baptism may be performed by anyone who is already themselves baptised, so it could be the case that some private, at home baptisms, were performed by a member of the child’s family.[1]All that needs to be done is for someone to sprinkle water on the child and to say “I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, followed by the Lord’s … Continue reading But in all the thousands of baptisms I’ve transcribed, I have never seen it specified who performed the private baptism, although sometimes it will say something along the lines of “Baptised at home being sicke” (the 1642 baptism of  Edward Laxon in Moze, Essex).

Not so in Lawshall, where the midwife is specifically identified – in 1567, John, son of John Symon “was baptized of the Mydwife”. In 1580, John, son of Thomas Abbott, was “baptized by ye midwife”; in 1582, Joane, daughter of John Death was “bapt by the hand of the midwife and dyed and buryed the xiith July”.

This is the first time I’ve seen written mention of midwives performing baptisms, and it’s interesting to see them appearing in the historical record, rather than just a vague shadow behind the lists of babies that we see in registers. But it also shows the sort of power midwives had at this period. Bear in mind that the European witch hunts began at just this time, and midwives were sometimes persecuted as witches – it was at the time of the witch hunts that midwifery began to have regulations imposed on it. One wonders if midwives baptising babies was another facet of their job that made them seem threatening, transgressing gender barriers.

Their knowledge of healing herbs and their role in the intimate lives of private families was also threatening, and at a time when professional male medical-men wanted to carve a niche for themselves. An interesting example of this is in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759), where Tristram tells us that a medical man was in the neighbourhood at his birth who had written “a five shillings book upon the subject of midwifery, in which he had exposed, not only the blunders of the sisterhood itself, – but had likewise superadded many curious improvements of the extraction of the foetus in cross births, and some other cases of danger which belay [delay] us in getting into this world; notwithstanding all this, my mother, I say, was absolutely determined to trust her life and mine with it, into no soul’s hand but this old woman’s only.”[2]volume 1, chapter 18

Stories behind the records

Most of the time, when an illegitimate child appears in a baptism register, only its mother’s name appears (which is rather like today, where a child born of unmarried parents doesn’t automatically have the father’s name on the birth certificate). However, sometimes the father’s name does appear in baptisms, which is of course a boon for genealogists.

But this also demonstrates how baptism records of this period aren’t just a record of a church sacrament, but a record of the people in the parish. An illegitimate child could cause a drain on the parish, hence Bastardy Orders were issued to make sure fathers provided for their children, and this is perhaps why sometimes both parents’ names, and sometimes even the unusual circumstances around the birth, are recorded in baptism registers – churchwardens were involved in the Bastardy Order process, which might be one way that the parish priest or whoever wrote up the baptisms register, would know the details of the case.

The first illegitimate children recorded in Lawshall’s register, from 1563, have the note “born in base” beside their baptism entries, but by 1566, we get a tantalising view into the life of a woman who has borne an illegitimate child – Jesse Renold, who named her daughter Katherine:

The father a married man whose name is Robert Kinge of the towne of Cockfielde. This child was born in base, and christened but the mother was not purified by the order of the church [?] ranne away the next day that the child was baptized and toke the child with hir this last day of March.

It’s probably the English Literature student in me that starts to weave the sad tale of Jesse Renold and her child. Did she know Robert Kinge was married, or did he lie and deceive her? Where did poor Jesse go? The other thing to note in this entry is that we have a reference to the practice of “churching”, it being a celebration of the woman’s survival from the dangers of childbirth: “we give thee humble thanks for that thou hast vouchsafed to deliver this woman thy servant from the great pain and peril of child-birth” (from the Book of Common Prayer). But it was referred to as purification because it ties in with the parts of Leviticus in the Old Testament to do with blood taboos, so that a woman, after childbirth, was deemed “unclean”.

A similar note appears with the baptism of Robert Laver in 1595:

Borne in bast the sonne of Abell Laver supputed and Susan Turle. His mother went away from hence before she was churched.

So far, notes about women rushing off before being churched has applied to those who bore an illegitimate child, and I wonder if this had something to do with the women trying to evade the censure they would have endured from the locals. But where did they go? A distant parish where a relative lived? Perhaps they lost themselves in a town and tried to pass as a widow?

Another singlewoman fell pregnant by a married man in Lawshall in 1576 – the child, Bryget was of “Bryget Browne singlewoman born in base and the father a marryed man.” His name is given as John Thornton.

In 1588, there is an entry that reads:

Agnes Cricke had a stille borne a Bastard, and she hath confessed yt. Robert Gallant of Brockley is the father, wc. child was baptized the xiith of Decemb & named Grace.

This entry is particularly interesting because Anglican baptism can’t be performed on someone who has died – however, Agnes’ child was baptized and named. There is a possibility that in this sense, “stille borne” is a loose definition and the child died very soon after birth, but it does still strike an unusual note.

Something worth mentioning about these children born of a single mother and a married father is that, with divorce being nigh on impossible for ordinary people until reforms in the 19th and 20th centuries, it may sometimes be the case that the father has left his wife and lives with the mother of the child as her husband. I have sometimes seen baptisms for women whose husbands have abandoned them and vanished, and they settle down into a relationship with a new man – but if the parents aren’t married, the children would still be recorded as illegitimate. That is, unless they managed a bigamous marriage, which, before Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753, was possibly quite easy, even though the punishment was severe. Even today, in the UK bigamy can lead to a prison sentence of up to seven years.

And last but not least, we have the intriguing case of Joane Becket, whose daughter Rebecca was baptised in 1589. She was a “singlewoman but the father is not certainely knowne, but lieth betweene John Nevell of Shimpling and Phillip Thornton of Lawshall.” One wonders about the circumstances surrounding that particular conception…. [3]And it may be worth noting that another Thornton, John, was the putative father of Bryget Browne’s child thirteen years earlier.


1 All that needs to be done is for someone to sprinkle water on the child and to say “I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, followed by the Lord’s Prayer – so you can see how a private baptism at home is easily achieved. A baptism in church uses a longer form of words. At a later date, the privately baptised child is brought to church and “received into the congregation”.
2 volume 1, chapter 18
3 And it may be worth noting that another Thornton, John, was the putative father of Bryget Browne’s child thirteen years earlier.