With a new book about the subject out in January, writer and historian Denise Bates reveals how legal action following a broken promise of marriage tended to be reported in British newspapers between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.
Breach of promise was a legal claim enabling a man or woman who had been jilted to demand financial compensation from the person who had broken the engagement. Newspaper reports of court hearings are the main source of information about these claims. The approach taken by newspapers when reporting cases reveals much about the way literate society viewed those who publicly claimed money from the lover who had spurned them.
When a well-bred young lady had been spurned, eighteenth century newspapers adopted a very modest approach and preserved the woman’s reputation by not naming her and giving few details. If such a lady lost her claim, the report was more informative. On 31 August 1797, the Derby Mercury provided full details about the broken engagement of Miss Knight and Reverend Tucker.
Widows and older women were not protected from publicity regardless of whether they won or lost. They were regularly cast as figures of fun or designing shrews who hoped to ensnare a naïve young man. Mature women continued to be the butt of jokes in newspaper reports throughout the nineteenth century.
Some of the liveliest accounts of the cut and thrust of courtroom drama are found in reports of trials between 1820 and 1850.
By this time, newspapers routinely reported last names but remained circumspect about disclosing the first name of a middle-class woman, even though her claim was now regarded as public entertainment.
Miss Wood, a solicitor’s daughter, sued wealthy Philip Hurd and won £3,500 damages in 1835. The court proceedings would have been recorded in short-hand and then written up and supplied to a number of papers over the summer months. Although the writer did not name Miss Wood in his narrative, his discreet approach was negated by reproducing a letter from the defendant which was read out in court, giving her name as Rose.
Reporting style changed again as the nineteenth century ended. Unless a case was titillating or involved a titled defendant (peers’ sons were prone to make impulsive proposals to actresses) coverage tended to be brief. The majority of plaintiffs were by now working-class women rather than ladies of breeding and their courtships offered little to entertain newspaper readers of any class. On 2 March 1911, the Newcastle Journal was one of the few papers that reported the claim of widowed Frances Taylor against elderly Richard Evans. A few decades earlier, this would have seen much wider publication.
By the 1920s, breach of promise was a tawdry action. It was declining in popularity as warring couples were expected to resolve the financial consequences of their failed engagement privately. Newspapers tended only to report in detail about scandalous claims. By the time breach of promise was abolished in 1971, newspaper reporting had gone full circle. Detail can be as difficult to find for cases heard in the 1950s and 1960s as for those in the eighteenth century. This was not because of any editorial scruple about privacy. Unless the case was special or scandalous, readers were simply not interested.
Read more newspaper articles about cases of breach of promise
About the writer
Denise Bates is a writer and historian. Her second book, Breach of Promise to Marry will be published by Pen and Sword in January 2014. Her first book, Pit Lasses, about women who used to work underground in coal mines was published in 2012. Find more information about Denise and details of how to order her books at www.denisebates.co.uk