A Victorian Law Where Crime Could Pay
In her new book, historian and writer Denise Bates explores the unique history of the little-known law of ‘breach of promise’. She has kindly agreed to explain her unusual and fascinating study:
Breach of promise was a legal claim that entitled a jilted woman or man to demand damages from the person who had promised and then refused to become their spouse. Women were rarely sued for inconstancy but at its peak, between 1871 – 1900, a hundred men a year may have found themselves pursued by an angry former fiancée.
The vast majority of women who brought breach of promise cases were honest and had suffered harm from the man’s thoughtless behaviour. Usually they went to court to recover hard-earned money wasted in preparing for a wedding that never took place. It was common knowledge that chivalrous jurors were often foolishly generous towards jilted women, especially attractive ones. This made the claim susceptible to fraud and a few women were tempted by the prospect of rich pickings. In an age when society offered poor women scant opportunity to make a decent living, a false claim might net the equivalent of several years’ wages.
In the 1850s, ‘artful and abandoned hussies’ began to chance their arm with tales of improbable proposals and jurors connived with their audacity, usually awarding the hussy a couple of hundred pounds (approx £25,000 at 2014 values) from a man who could afford to pay. Amelia Harrison from Monmouth promptly used her ill-gotten gains to wed her real sweetheart.
By the 1860s, lawyers usually advised a man to buy off the threat of a claim, even if it was spurious. As women who took a breach of promise claim to court had a success rate of 90% a man had to weigh the cost of two sets of legal fees and damages against coming to a private arrangement with a designing woman. In a censorious society, a gentleman had his reputation to consider and newspapers never spared the blushes of an unsuccessful defendant.
If possible a woman flirted a proposal out of a man by flattery. If he resisted her blandishments, she plied him with drink until he lowered his guard and uttered the necessary words in front of a witness. Liverpool flour merchant, Richard Jones, was unusual in standing up to his assistant Sarah Williams in 1873. He refused to pay her off and convinced a jury that he could not remember anything he had said or done after swallowing a drink handed to him by the plaintiff and her mother. Sarah lost her case.
Threats against a man’s reputation and possibly his liberty could be sinister. In 1898, London widow Robina Jardines swore on oath that Theodore Oppler had tried to make her miscarry their child. The judge immediately stated that the alleged criminality would be referred to the police. Robina then called witnesses to confirm that she had been engaged to Oppler but they refused to do so, showing that some of her evidence was untruthful. When Oppler was called into witness box and grilled by Robina’s barrister, he firmly denied proposing to her, or buying medicine intended to destroy a foetus. Completely reversing his opinion of the defendant, the judge instructed the jury to find in Oppler’s favour.
Lying on oath was perjury and a person who did so could be prosecuted. Until the twentieth century it was very rare for a woman bringing a false breach of promise case to be investigated even when there was proof that she had lied. The first woman to face the criminal consequences of fabricating a proposal appears to be Hannah Evans from Pontadulais in Wales. In 1902, elderly Edward Thomas rebuffed her advances, despite her threats to make trouble if he refused to marry her. In March 1903, Hannah lost a breach of promise claim when a handwriting expert swore that letters allegedly from Thomas were not in his writing. Eight months later, Hannah, her son and her friend Jane Davies, who had penned the incriminating letters, were convicted of perjury. Hannah was jailed for 14 months, and the other pair received 6 months each.
After Hannah Evans it remained rare for a woman to be prosecuted for giving false evidence about a proposal unless she lied about something else in court. For a few dishonest women in Victorian and Edwardian times, claiming that a man had offered marriage was a crime that could pay.
Breach of Promise to Marry – A History of how Jilted Brides Settled Scores by Denise Bates is published by Pen and Sword in January 2014. Information about the book and how to obtain it are available at www.denisebates.co.uk.
Many thanks to Denise for sharing her work. Breach of Promise to Marry is a compelling and entertaining read, I would highly recommend it.