Breach of Promise to Marry Research - New Discoveries

The recent advent of digitised newspapers from the eighteenth century newspapers is now adding much more detail to the manner in which breach of promise developed prior to 1790. Conclusions I had inferred in the book are now supported by direct evidence. There is also a very surprising new discovery.

There appears to have been at least one case of breach of promise a year heard in a court somewhere in England from around 1760. By 1790 at least two cases were being heard and the use of the claim seems to have been accelerating.

The precedents for the high damages awarded in the first decades of the nineteenth century had been firmly established in the mid-eighteenth. By 1760 at least four women had received £1,000 or more.

The most surprising case discovered was heard in 1747 when a Miss Davis of Holborn sued Bernard Wilson a wealthy Lincolnshire clergyman, who denied any promise to marry her. Miss Davis had letters which indicated otherwise and won £7,000. No woman obtained more than this for her broken engagement until 1936. The only other woman to receive £7,000 was Mary Alice Orford in 1818.

Until now, Mary Alice Orford has been regarded as the woman who obtained the most for a broken engagement as the three awards (all in the twentieth century) to exceed this had less purchasing power. As Miss Davis won her claim seven decades earlier her damages had even better purchasing power than Miss Orford's.

As yet I have found no indication of how Miss Davis used her wealth. Wilson married in 1748 and enjoyed a profitable career in the church and was active in charitable enterprises. He died in 1772, aged 83.

Should anyone think of Gladys Knowles who was awarded £10,000 in 1890, this was set aside by the Appeal Court and she only received £6,500.

A Tale of Two Sisters

Most breach of promise plaintiffs and defendants disappear from view after their court battle. Very occasionally, as in these cases, it is possible to trace what happened to them. The claims brought by two Sheffield sisters, Emily and Eliza Laycock are interesting because they were heard a week apart in March 1850. Emily sued Wakefield solicitor Edwin Pickslay at York. Eliza sued Charles Neale, a Mansfield land surveyor at Nottingham. The press was intrigued by this and the claims were well-reported across the country.

Emily became engaged to Pickslay in 1845 when he was working as an attorney in Sheffield. Within a year he had entered into partnership in Wakefield, leaving his fiancee behind. On his side the relationship cooled rapidly. He rarely visited or corresponded and in 1847 he asked to be released from his promise, which Emily did, though reluctantly. Two years later, when Pickslay married Hannah Starkey, Emily initiated a claim for breach of promise.

The course of true love ran no more smoothly for younger sister Eliza who had become engaged around the same time to Charles Neale a trainee land surveyor then working in Sheffield. He too moved away to pursue his career and gradually lost all affection for the girl he left behind. When he told Eliza's brother Henry in 1849 that he did not love his sister and would not marry her, Henry immediately consulted a lawyer on her behalf. It seems likely that the lawyer pointed out that Emily could also bring a claim as she had not wished to end her engagement.

Emily was awarded £400, which was a substantial award at the time. Eliza obtained £250, a more usual sum. It seems likely that both men paid up the full amount. The 1851 census suggests that they probably had available funds. The press certainly thought that the two girls, daughters of a furniture manufacturer, deserved this level of compensation from the two ungallant men who had jilted them after some years.

Damages of this amount gave a woman options for her future. As their father was providing them with a home, the money might have enabled both sisters to attract another proposal, though some men would have been fearful of a family that was prepared to assert its rights to compensation. Alternatively, a woman could invest the capital and live off the interest rather than have to try to earn her own living.

The Laycock sisters followed the latter course, sharing a home together in a genteel area of Sheffield until both died in the 1880s. Emily declared on the census that she was living off interest on money. Less well-off Eliza stated that she was the housekeeper, a role in which she was helped by a couple of servants. They lived with another unmarried sister who worked as a private teacher of English, French and drawing. When Emily died in 1886 she left over £800 (approx £80,000 at current values).

It does not appear that paying the damages and court costs affected either defendant significantly, though Edwin Pickslay had appealed unsuccesfully that he should not have to pay anything as Emily had agreed to end the engagement. He lived in Wakefield and worked in the legal profession. In 1860 he became bankrupt when the expenses of his business exceeded its income. The bankruptcy was annulled in 1861. It is not clear what he did after that until his death in 1867. His marriage to Hannah does not appear to have produced any children.

Charles James Neale married Eliza Hodgkinson within a year of the breach of promise case being heard, suggesting that the reason he refused to marry a woman he no longer loved was that he had already met Eliza. The couple appear to have had a small family but the children predeceased them. Neale prospered in his chosen profession. He settled in Mansfield, working as a Civil Engineer and as land agent to the Duke of Portland. When he died from a stroke in 1893 he left an estate worth £17,944 18s 8d.

Death of a Government Official

In September 1891 Sydney Casbourne, a government clerk, agreed in court to pay £1,000 to Mary Ann Benson to settle a breach of promise claim. The Western Times reported that Miss Benson had left court apparently 'well pleased with the result of the action'.

It was a spectacular outcome for Mary Ann who was the daughter of an Essex farmer. Juries were not awarding such high damages at this time and had Casbourne allowed the jury to decide, it seems probable that Mary Ann would have received much less. It is unclear why Casbourne agreed to this figure. He was not legally represented in court and it is possible that not engaging a solicitor may have been a false economy.

In November 1892, some newspapers included a short report about the suicide of a Somerset House Official, Mr Sydney Casbourne who had been found dead in bed at the Prince of Wales Hotel, Chatham, where he had been staying for three weeks, playing billiards and making free with his money. When his body was discovered, the gas mantle in the room had been tampered with and the window had been deliberately stopped up to prevent the gas from escaping. An inquest jury decided that his death was suicide.

The reports about his death are conflicting. One paper reported that he had become engaged to another woman after the breach of promise case but had disappeared from home the night before the wedding. Another indicated that he had been on planned leave. It was also reported that he had become an altered man after the death of his mother in 1890.

Curiously, in Casbourne's possession at the time of his death was a bundle of papers belonging to the Controller of Stamps Department at Somerset House. He had left a note asking for them to be returned. There was no indication why he had taken them and the Chief Clerk in this department attended the Inquest and confirmed that as far as Somerset House was concerned, there were no issues with Casbourne's conduct.

There are many unusual aspects to this case and it is seems very probable that Casbourne was suffering from some form of mental illness in the last years of his life. When he died he left an estate worth just £20 1s 1d. How he had spent his money after the breach claim is unknown, as is the question of whether he had been about to marry.

As for Mary Ann, who was already 29 when she obtained her £1,000, she did something very unusual for the time and found a husband after her thirtieth birthday. In 1894 she married William Tompson, a draper from North London. At the time of the 1911 census the couple were living in retirement in Hampstead. It is difficult to avoid the thought that the breach of promise damages may have been an influential factor.

Two Gentlemen of Manchester

The way in which rich men reacted to a breach of promise claim from a woman to whom they had proposed reveals much about their character. Two members of the Rylands family, wealthy industrialists from the North West of England, found themselves in this position but their response could not have differed more.

john rylands
John Rylands

In 1845, wedding preparations were at an advanced stage when widower John Rylands decided against marrying Elizabeth Harbottle, who was twenty years his junior. Her claim for breach of promise, which had been scheduled for hearing at the Liverpool Assizes in August 1845, attracted great public interest. Both families were wealthy and the barristers they engaged were high ranking legal officers of state who each charged 300 guineas (approx £35,000 at today's value) for their services. Public hopes of embarrassing revelations about a brief courtship that had been rumoured to be 'warm, interesting and romantic' meant that the courtroom was packed with spectators from an early hour. To their dismay all they learnt was that the parties had come to a private arrangement to settle the case.

Any apparent detail in newspapers about this claim is speculation. It was rumoured that one reason for Rylands changing his mind was that Elizabeth had an affliction of the spine. It was also rumoured that he had agreed to pay £4,000 and the legal costs. As juries had not made awards of this amount or more for a couple of decades, the settlement was a handsome one, suggesting that Elizabeth would have put forward a case that showed her former suitor in a poor light. Settling privately ensured that embarrassing detail never came back to haunt him. John Rylands reputation remained high and his name has been has been secured for posterity by the magnificent memorial that his third wife had built for him, the Manchester library that bears his name.

john rylands library
The John Rylands Library

In contrast to this gentlemanly approach, a father and son from a distant but also wealthy branch of the family sank to deceit in 1882 in their efforts to avoid paying anything to a young woman who had been jilted by the son. Edward Rylands faced a claim from 23-year-old Margaret Wilkinson of High Legh near Altrincham. Margaret was from a respectable but lower-middle class family and her father was initially reluctant to sanction the courtship, which began when Margaret was seventeen, fearing that Rylands would want his son to make a more prestigious match.

Wilkinson's worst fears were realised. Edward Rylands, who was ten years older than Margaret eventually succeeded in seducing the young woman. When faced with her pregnancy he reneged on his promise, saying that his father would not agree to the marriage but suggested that the matter could be resolved by him taking Margaret in secret to his father's house and maintaining her as his mistress. Wilkinson, unsurprisingly refused to accept this and responded by saying that Margaret would bring a claim for breach of promise.

Wilkinson thought that, faced with the prospect of a court case, Rylands could be prevailed on to avoid scandal and marry. Rylands countered that Wilkinson would not make Margaret's shame public by dragging the case into court and risking her ever finding a husband. Eventually Rylands taunted the family to sue him if they wished, and sailed for Australia.

In Edward Rylands absence, his father, also called John, decided to try and settle the case as cheaply as possible before embarrassing detail became public. He engaged lawyers to negotiate with Margaret, but an insulting offer of £100 was rejected by her lawyer who went into court to present her case. By the time Rylands sanctioned a realistic sum the case had been presented and the damage done. Many in the courtroom seemed disappointed when the plaintiff agreed to withdraw her claim for £750 as the view was that the enraged jury would have awarded her more.

Events then took an unexpected turn. John Rylands was furious that his son's letters had been read out in court before the compromise was agreed and he refused to pay, denying that he had authorised any offer and alleging that Margaret's advisors were trying to extort money from him. Margaret then sued him for breach of contract but the judge refused to hear some of her evidence and rejected the claim saying that her remedy was against the absent Edward Rylands, not his father. Undaunted, the Wilkinson family applied for a review of this perverse decision and asked for another trial. They contended that the judge had been wrong to ignore the fact that the solicitor who had defended Edward Rylands in the breach of promise case had been instructed and paid for by John Rylands and that he had expressly authorised the compromise that had been agreed to try to preserve his son's reputation.

John Rylands fought to the end to avoid another hearing but to no avail. Margaret was granted a new trial to try to recover £750 from him but there is no record of it taking place. Faced with all the negative publicity that the many hearings had already created, it seems that he paid what he had promised without any further involvement of the courts. What Rylands hoped to achieve by not paying the money he had promised is perplexing, given that it was, to him, a trivial amount.

As for Margaret, who Edward Rylands had taunted with the prospect of never finding a husband, it appears from marriage, census and death records that she went on to marry respectably within six years of her disgrace becoming public, evidence that a wronged woman could sometimes salvage her reputation.

An Officer, but no Gentleman

In 1862, Annie Thomas, housekeeper to Major General Arthur Shirley, sued him for breach of promise. Annie had advertised in a newspaper for a post of housekeeper and Shirley had responded. As soon as she took up the post her new employer began to pursue her for sexual favours. She had given birth to Shirley’s child, but her claim that she had been seduced under a promise of marriage was branded a lie by Shirley’s lawyers, who portrayed the young woman as an extortioner. It was very unusual for a jury to believe a man’s word in a breach of promise case, particularly when a child was involved. The summing up of the judge, who virtually instructed the jury to find for Shirley, strongly suggested that the establishment closed ranks to protect one of its own.

There was widespread sympathy for Annie and readers of The Times subscribed to a fund to help pay her legal costs. Other papers carried scathing comments about Shirley’s aristocratic background and relatives in Parliament, pointedly suggesting that he should make some financial provision for Annie and offer more than maintenance at the parish rate for their daughter. When she accepted the post of housekeeper, Annie was unaware that Shirley had a wife still living, which makes seduction under a promise of marriage particularly callous conduct on his part.

Newspapers now available via the British Newspaper Archive show just how unprincipled Shirley was. He was separated from his wife, possibly as a consequence of his extramarital affairs. In 1859, he was cited as co-respondent in a divorce case and stated to have fathered an illegitimate child.

In 1860, in circumstances strikingly similar to the appointment of Annie Thomas, Shirley recruited another young woman, Louisa Huband, as his housekeeper. After three weeks, Louisa left her job and sued Shirley for £50 damages (current value £5,000). The evidence she gave in court, and the dismissive manner in which she was treated by the judge, adds further credence to the belief that Annie Thomas was telling the truth.

Louisa claimed that Shirley had inflicted a ‘loathsome disease’ on her (and on two other women in his household) and thrown a cup of hot tea at her. Shirley acknowledged throwing the cup but said the tea was tepid. The judge dismissed her claim relating to the disease for lack of evidence. When the jury awarded her £30 for the attack with the tea, the judge immediately quashed the verdict. Appeals for a new trial were usually heard by a few days later by senior judges, and were hard to win, but the trial judge ordered that Shirley should have a new hearing as the verdict was against the evidence and the damages were excessive. I have found no evidence that a second case ever came to court.

The manner in which judges intervened on Shirley’s behalf in both these cases, strongly suggests that a powerful and influential person was taking an interest. In the mid-1850’s there are regular newspaper references to Mrs Arthur Shirley being in the company of Lady Panmure, the wife of the Minister of War. Lady Panmure would certainly have had access to people in society and government circles who would have been able to bring influence to bear. The concern may have been for Mrs Shirley’s reputation, rather than her husband’s.

I have been surprised at the dearth of references in newspapers to Shirley’s misdemeanours in the years before the breach of promise claim. If Annie Thomas had been aware of what happened to Louisa Huband, she may have thought twice about becoming his housekeeper, but as only two papers appear to have reported this case, she was unlikely to have been forewarned. It does raise a question of whether influence might also have been exerted on the press.

horse
Go on then. Say she's a two year old.

After the breach of promise case there is much more coverage of Shirley. In 1864, he was again named as co-respondent in a divorce case and in 1866, a letter in The Times alleged that he had replied to an advertisement by a nineteen-year-old girl for a job as a governess. The girl’s uncle was suspicious, recalling the name and remembering Annie Thomas’s experience. He accompanied her to the interview and waited outside the dingy apartment block. Once inside, the girl sensed danger, even before she met the General, and left. The landlord subsequently confirmed that the flat was let to General Shirley, who had suddenly disappeared.

Rough justice caught up with Shirley in 1867, when he was unmasked as the owner of Soiled Dove, a racehorse which had won several races for two-year-olds. When the owner of a defeated horse complained that Soiled Dove was three years old (and therefore stronger than his rivals), the Jockey Club stewards concluded that Shirley, and his accomplice undoubtedly knew the correct age of the horse and banned them from the turf for fraud. Shortly afterwards, Shirley resigned his commission in the Horse Guards. Serial misconduct towards vulnerable young women seems to have been acceptable conduct for an officer, but cheating would have marked him out to the establishment as an untrustworthy cad.

Shirley slipped from public view after he resigned his commission and he may have lived abroad for some of the time. He died in January 1877. His wife lived quietly in the Surrey area from at least 1881 until her death in 1898.

The National Portrait Gallery have a photogragh of Arthur Shirley from the 1850's.

I have no information about what became of Annie Thomas or her child. It seems improbable that Shirley did the decent thing by them. What now seems proven beyond reasonable doubt is that she was firstly the victim of an unprincipled man and then of a deliberately engineered miscarriage of justice.

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