Saturday, 30 October 2010

Parentage Unknown: The Ultimate Brickwall?

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post on Foundling Children in Glasgow after coming across some early 19th Century baptisms of foundling children in Glasgow's Town's Hospital. Whilst researching at the ScotlandsPeople Centre this week, I was once again struck by a record of a Glasgow foundling, this time in the Statutory Registers of Births. 

It’s an unusual birth record as it shows not a date and place of birth but rather when and where the baby girl was found. In the column where parents’ names are usually recorded it simply states ‘Parentage unknown’. 

An associated entry in the Register of Corrected Entries (RCE) gives a slightly amended name, apparently following her baptism, and a note in the margin shows that she was later adopted. 

What particularly interested me what that she was not a newborn when found but believed to be over a year old and chances are her birth was registered in the usual way when she was born. 

This means that in just the first few years of her life this baby was probably known by three different names (her original name, the name given to her as a foundling and her later adopted name) and may in effect have three birth records (including her entry in the Adopted Children Register). 

Yet, with nothing to connect her original birth entry to the later records, she is almost certainly impossible to trace. Anyone who comes across the original birth record and wants to find out what happened to her in later life will probably not be able to connect her with the foundling known by a different name. Whilst any descendants, even if aware of the circumstances of her adoption, will have little chance of identifying her birth parents without even a date of birth to go on. 

So this leads me to a question: Is a foundling child the ultimate in genealogical brickwalls? 


  1. I think in many cases, yes, a foundling is a huge brickwall.

    I've had a complete nightmare with my husbands great-grandmother who we were told by family was a foundling. I've done my own light research and it appears this could be true. There is no father listed on her marriage certificate and I've located her only once in the census in her maiden name but at the time she was boarding with her future husbands family. There are a couple of other births registered around the same time with the same name however these are all living with their parents on later censuses. Without anymore information on her I can't really move forward with her. It's a complete brick wall and I find it so very frustrating!

  2. With recent advances in genetic genealogy such a situation is not necessarily a brick wall. If the foundling was a male a Y-DNA test will provide clues as to the surname. The new autosomal DNA tests from Family Tree DNA (Family Finder) and 23andMe (Relative Finder) might provide matches with genetic cousins. Success does of course depend on the right people being in the database to match you. The chances of this happening will improve as more and more people get their DNA tested. Many adoptees are using these tests to trace their birth families and there was even a case of a teenager who was conceived from a sperm donation who was able to trace his biological father. Dick Hill in America found his adoptive family through DNA testing. He has a very good website which explains what is involved:

    The same principles would apply for foundling children, assuming there is still a living descendant to take a DNA test.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Debbie, I had thought about DNA but I suppose success may depend on how long ago the foundling was born and whether there are any descendants on the right lines. The newer DNA tests you mention certainly open up some new possibilities for tracking down the more elusive ancestors.


  4. I'm not a foundling but an adoptee with no father listed on my birth certificate. My real father is willing and able to sign, my real mother is not cooperating. I am unable to apply to a UK court as I am no longer UK resident. My father could do this but cannot afford to, nor can I afford flights to the UK for UK-court-sanctioned DNA. So, it will remain blank. All I can do is make sure my children know their real story and put father's (unusual) surname for their middle names and hope future detectives will figure this out!

  5. Perhaps not. You are only looking at it from the point of view of the child and birth records. Does the child grow up and perhaps do their parents reenter the picture? If so, does the child then enter those names on their marriage record? If the child knows she/he was a foundling there's a chance that they on their own found out their identity. However, if not, it does seem to be a great obstacle.

  6. I too wrote on Fondling a while back in the post Don’t Forget Foundling Hospital Records. I was able to find the original family, thanks to 1)small community 2)DNA match 3)memoir/diary of a non-relative, mentioning the young mother by name. From their I was able to find other clues to collaborate the findings.

    My second search was due to Jewish records. The baby however was left at a non Jewish foundling hospital with a note. My client had difficulty believing she was from Jewish descent. This finding was a treasure, but probably once in a life-time.

    However, this is a search of love, passion and dedication like no other.

    Good luck.
    Kathleen, a3Genealogy

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