Recently, while researching newspapers for information about a client’s ancestor I came across a series of fascinating articles about a “Breach of Promise” story relating to the sister of the man I was looking for. Of course, I started to read it.
Several column inches later, published over a number of days, I knew the whole, sorry story. I had read an almost word-by-word account of the court proceedings, the contents of letters written to the sister by her fiancé and knew the character of the people involved. It was fascinating. Some of the language used in the reporting would be frowned upon today. Both of the parties were described as being on the “shady side of forty”. At one point one of the lawyers asked a servant girl witness if she had “looked through the drawers in the house” leading the other lawyer to say “She would not have been a woman if she hadn’t”. Throughout the reporting of the court case there were notes of “[Laughter]” and even “[Roars of laughter]”. In the end it seems that the sheriff, and later the Lords of Session, felt that in this case there was blame on both sides.
Breaches of Promise of marriage were regularly reported in the newspapers, some just a few lines but others in great detail.
One of the earliest I discovered was in 1782 when a Miss W____ of Cheltenham sued a Mr Wm H____ of Chalford for a breach of promise of marriage. The short report in this case stated that “the defendant to avoid the ridiculous situation he must have appeared in, consented to a verdict for the plaintiff – with £200 damages.” The newspaper then went on to report that “The above defendant is particularly unfortunate, another lady having determined to prosecute him for a similar offence at the next assizes in the same county”. Oops!
Reading through the stories associated with these actions can be heart-breaking. In most cases it is a woman who has been jilted by her male lover, sometimes after many years of courtship. Often the case hinged on the content of letters which, when read out in court, caused much laughter and hilarity. Some newspapers reprinted the text of the letters. Declarations of undying love, poetry and flowery descriptions of the author’s loved one were all included for everyone to read – no doubt much to the embarrassment of the writer.
Why might these articles be of interest to a family historian? Apart from the story about an ancestor there may be details of witnesses that might help confirm or determine family relationships. In some cases, such as in the first case above, the court action may also help to explain why a couple whose banns were read in church never appear in any later records as husband and wife.
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