Babies born to unmarried women faced great hazards in 19th Century. This was especially so if the father ‘disappeared’ or refused to acknowledge th child as hi. If this happened the baby might simply be abandoned by its mother, hopefully to be found by someone before it died. It could then be looked after by the Parish authorities, or it might be cared for by grandparents or other relatives, or (more commonly in works of fiction) by some wealthy philanthropist. In extreme cases a desperate mother might try to solve her problem by killing the baby.
Most mothers, of course, wanted to keep their babies, and if the father was willing to pay for its keep, it was fairly lucky. A Bastardy Bond was the usual method by which the Parish Overseers ensured that illegitimate children did not have to be provided for out of the Parish Rates. The natural father might sealed a Bond for a certain sums of money to be paid to the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor of the Parish, if he failed to provide for ‘the future Maintenance, Education, Nourishment and bringing up of the said Bastard Child….’ the Parish officials might take certain action. If the father was not very well off, or unreliable, another person might be included as a Guarantor.
Another method was for the Parish authorities to get a Bastardy Order, signed by two Justices of the Peace, ordering the unmarried father to pay a weekly fixed sum to the Overseers (not directly to the mother).
Having babies out of wedlock was not, of course, confined to the lower classes. If the children were well provided for by very wealthy and eccentric but obviously considerate man, they were lucky; but where the father was well off, but irresponsible, an illegitimate child was in a much less desirable situation.