Saturday, 1 September 2012

Filius Nullius: Nobody's Child by Joseph King

I have managed to see this pamphlet, Filius nulls: nobody's child by Joseph King which was published in 1913, and is held in the London School of Economics Special Archives.  The short pamphlet is a fascinating reveal of Joseph King's support for women's rights, on a highly controversial moral issue at that time but which is trivial now, almost 100 years later.  This further supports the references to women's suffrage that I had found King associated with, and posted on previously in Suffragette Connections: Part 2 - The Politician.

Joseph King MP
c. 1910

"Prefatory Note
This pamphlet calls attention to a cruel injustice, wider in extent, more silently borne, and more bitterly resented by the sufferers than many grievances which have societies, sermons, subscription lists, etc., to accomplish their removal and mitigate their miseries.

The writer has been led to publish these pages by his growing conviction, confirmed from many quarters, that legislation is needed on this subject.  He has each Session since he entered the House of Commons introduced an Illegitimacy Bill, an outline of which appears on pages 28 ff post.  The correspondence and communications from all sorts and conditions of men and women, due to Press notices of his Bill, etc., have been convincing, and are referred to in this pamphlet.

Legislation on this question cannot be expected till Government takes it up, and that is hardly likely to come till the Home Secretary is made so aware that he cannot safely disregard the demand for legislation... 

J. King
House of Commons,
June, 1913."

The pamphlet begins with:

"Born without proper father or mother!

"860,327 children were born in England and Wales  1910 of legitimate birth, with married women for mothers; 36,635 were born of illegitimate birth, mostly unwanted children, with mothers indeed, but in the eyes of the law, filii nullius, the children of no one!  Handicapped at the start of life, subject to disabilities, disfavour and scorn, do these children get the equality of opportunity which a just society should mete out to all its members?  Few persons realize the magnitude of this social problem, the injustices of the present law, nor the extent to which old traditions and unfair conditions still oppress not only the unwanted children, but all classes of the community.

"The magnitude of the problem is excuse enough for facing it fairly and frankly.  Roughly, 1 in every 24 children born is illegitimate; about 4 in every 100!  In most cases an illegitimate birth means the loss of character, employment, home, reputation to the mother!  Perhaps driven from her parent’s home, perhaps in to the workhouse, often without any aid from the man who is fellow parent of her child, the mother pays a high price for her shame.  She pays in full in a few weeks for her own and for the man’s folly and sin.  Some say that she ought not to expect anything else.  But why should the little British citizen have to pay heavily…?"

King outlines "The Present Practice in Bastardy Cases…Suppose the mother has had no provision made for her child by the father, and suppose she is able to clearly show with some show of truth who the father is, recourse will be had to the magistrates to make an affiliation order, and she will have to go to the court under strict rules of law.  Under these conditions a woman, who is about to become, or has become, the mother of a bastard, may apply to a justice for a summons against the man who is father of the child; but the application must, as a rule, be made within twelve months of the child’s birth.  When the summons has been issued, and served on the man, he has six days before the hearing.  He is entitled to this to prepare his defence, but sometimes uses this interval to flee the country or abscond.  If he appears at the hearing, the evidence of the woman, which is essential, must be given first and in open court, and must be corroborated in some material particular by other testimony to the satisfaction of the justices.  If her story is uncorroborated, however plain and probable it may be, the case is dismissed.  But suppose there is a corroborated case to answer; it too often happens that the woman or girl has no legal adviser and the man is well represented; in such cases she stands a poor chance of getting an order made the he should contribute anything.  But suppose she wins the case, the maximum amount which the justices can order is five shillings a week till the child is sixteen; the sum is inadequate.”

"...The Woman’s Grievances are, in view of her inevitable physical and mental sufferings, very great;
(1) She cannot obtain by legal process any maintenance for herself for the time before her child is born.  She may lose her employment, be turned out of her home or lodgings – these things often happen – and she may be driven into the workhouse, she may even be driven to deception, fraud, or even vice to keep her head above water, but she can obtain nothing till her child is born.  She ought to have a legal remedy, by which she could get from the man some maintenance and something to support her in her trouble and confinement.    There ought to be a Maternity Order made where a woman is in such conditions as just stated, say for three months before and one month after the birth; a maximum of ten shillings a week would meet the case.  Such a provision would save many women who sink at this crisis into conditions of nameless disgrace.  It would give indirectly to many babes a healthier, happier entry into life and make their whole future prospect brighter."


  1. By a strange quirk of fate I fell into conversation today with a visitor to the property I volunteer at. He had never known his father, he said, and this was obviously still very much an issue with him. He too, mentioned the workhouse, the stigma and shame of illegitimacy. It was obvious that he had never been able (despite a loving wife and family of his own) been able to come to terms with it, deep inside.

    Yet now having a child out of wedlock is acceptable and indeed, is almost a career move in some stratas of society. How things change.

  2. That's really sad. It's strange to contrast illegitimacy 100 years ago with now. I wonder what Joseph King would have made of it all.

  3. Joseph King was indeed a saviour of women,often all alone-cast out by family and society. My own Great Grandfather was born in Brigg workhouse and brought up by people other than the mother. He had a tough life, taken in by another couple, was a field worker at age 10, according to the census. Then went on the railway as a stoker, married,had four children but was dead by age 32, no doubt through breathing the coal fumes in the cab on the train. Would his life have been any easier had he not been born in the workhouse-because his mother had been cast out?


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