Thursday 13 August 2015

A Breach of Promise to Marry

It’s my pleasure to welcome Denise Bates, a fellow Pen and Sword Books author, to the blog today. Denise is here to tell of two sensation breach of promise cases!


The Eighteenth Century Origins of
Breach of Promise to Marry
and Two Sensational Cases
Denise Bates

By the end of the long eighteenth century, a ruinous court claim for breach of promise to marry haunted the dreams of bachelors and widowers alike. When a genteel woman had been spurned, woe betide the suitor who had trifled with her affections. Financial compensation offered a lucrative way for a woman to make her fortune if the man who had proposed then refused to make her his wife.

From 1750 an ever-increasing number of jilted women took this course, perhaps spurred on by the success of a Miss Davis of Holborn. In 1747, she won £7,000 from wealthy clergyman Bernard Wilson. At current value this equates to £1.3m. At least twenty other women had received a four figure sum before Mary Orford also obtained £7,000 (by then only worth around £510k) in 1818. This seems to have triggered a reaction against such high damages and the value of a woman's broken heart or tarnished reputation never reached these dizzy heights again.

A Receipt for Courtship

Detail about the eighteenth century breach of promise cases a woman won is sparse. Newspapers often took a decorous stance and preserved the dignity of  'a lady' or 'Miss L' giving scant information beyond the amount of damages. Perhaps Miss Greentee's name only made its way into print in 1772 because her former fiancĂ©’s brother was a member of the jury that heard her claim. After its exceptionally long deliberation she won just £225, a very ungenerous sum for the times.
Plenty of detail survives about the few claims that the Georgian woman lost.  Whatever her age, and even if she had been set up by a devious defendant, she was clearly a minx without a reputation to lose so the press had no reason to spare her maidenly blushes.

In 1810,  Anne Blankley the 18 year old daughter of a poultry merchant from Bloomsbury sued a wealthy engraver named Tomlinson who had twice called off their nuptials, possibly because he wanted a substantial dowry from Anne's father. With ample evidence to prove his proposal Tomlinson's only hope of evading a costly outcome was to convince the court that he was justified in refusing to marry. He produced three witnesses, including Anne's brother-in-law, who tore the young woman's character to shreds. According to their largely hearsay evidence Anne was a drunkard who kept company with an immoral woman, visited a house of ill-repute in Oxford Street, swore and allowed a man to take improper liberties with her person in a public place. The witnesses also disclosed her scandalous taste in books. Anne was alleged to have read Aristotle’s Masterpiece and studied the celebrated book called Fanny Hill, with an obscene print at the front.

This last revelation proved too much for the judge. Lord Ellenborough, who sometimes had biased approach, stopped the case. “There can be no blame attached to the defendant,” was his Lordship's view. It was a salutary lesson to young ladies who wanted marriage that they should desist from “reading wicked and improper books”.

Tomlinson was probably the first man to defend a breach of promise claim with lies about a woman's character. He was also one of the few who succeeded. Jurors usually responded to unwarranted attacks on a woman's reputation with high damages. Anne Blankley may have become a rich woman had the judge permitted the jurors to consider the case.

Denise Bates is the author of Breach of Promise to Marry published by Pen and Sword. Further details of the book and how to order it and her on-going research about breach of promise are available at her website

This post copyright © Denise Bates, 2015.


Jonathan Dore said...

Some problem with orders of magnitude in the money conversions surely? If £7,000 in 1747 was worth £1.3 million today (which sounds about right) then the same amount in 1818 would surely be worth £512,000 today (which also sounds about right), not £512 million. The closer you approach the present, the difference between historical and modern values *decreases*, not increases.

Sarah said...

Very interesting indeed. The link has to be copied and pasted though as for some reason it's broken.
There are plot bunnies galore here, where a young lady has been jilted and the villainous ex sets out to blacken her character, which the hero, who never thought she might look at him must foil his plots and produce counter-witnesses for the plaintiff. Perhaps he is a younger son who has entered law as a profession like John Knightley in 'Emma'.

Regencyresearcher said...

Ladies of the gentry and above would never stoop so low as to sue for breach of promise. What wash dirty linen in public! The humiliation of being jilted would be sufficient. A brother or father would usually call on the man. Hannah More was stood up at the alter a couple of times before friends forced the man to give her an annuity. It was supposed to be that the damages were to pay for actual expenses incurred in preparing for a wedding that didn't take place, though one judge did think that losing out on a higher standard of living ( marrying up) was worthy of a cash consolation. I find money conversions quite worthless.

Anonymous said...

I had hoped to correct this before anyone else spotted it but you have beaten me to it. The m (million) and k (thousand) are close on the keyboard and I must have caught the wrong one and then not noticed when I reviewed as both are units of measurement. As the author of this blog I can confirm that Mary Orford's damages would be worth approx £510,000 (£510k) at current value. Apologies for the typo and to the gracious Madame Gilflurt for any embarrassment caused. It was inadvertent. Denise Bates

Catherine Curzon said...

The link is now fixed!

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you for reading!

Sarah said...

I knew what you meant so ignored it...